Greg Georgeff has been busy putting out a fire. “”I’ve got a mucho-million-dollar project at a ministry that is not going well,”” he says when he finally puts the phone down in his corner office on the

edge of the University of Toronto’s campus. “”And that’s all I’m going to say.””

For Georgeff,

technology czar of the Ontario Public Service (OPS), putting out fires comes with the territory. After all, with a $900-million IT budget, things are bound to go wrong every now and then. But is this latest IT fire an isolated incident, or is the OPS’s ambitious technology makeover in serious trouble?

Rewind to 1997. That was the year the Ontario government realized it had to stop sleep-walking into the future. It recognized the need to give Ontario citizens access to government information and services when, where and how they wanted them. And it recognized the need to become smaller, more flexible and accountable.

The OPS saw technology as key to this transformation, and accordingly reinvented its strategy for information and information technology — I&IT as it is known in the grey building surrounding Queen’s Park. The result was a new plan of attack for becoming a progressive e-government ready to handle the demands of the 21st century.

Everyone involved knew this technology revolution was going to be difficult and expensive. To get things started, the OPS invested $110 million in building a common technology infrastructure and overhauling its I&IT organization. By the end of 2000 the province’s 24 ministries had been grouped into seven clusters. For example, the ministries of education, training, colleges and universities; tourism, culture and recreation; citizenship; municipal affairs and housing; and intergovernmental affairs became known as the community-services cluster.

Each cluster was supported by a central IT department and one CIO. This super CIO had it tougher than any in the history of the OPS. Not only did he have to report to the deputy ministers inside his cluster, he also had to report to the OPS’s technology czar, or corporate CIO.

“”With dual reporting you need to serve two masters,”” says Bob Morine, vice-president and general manager for the public sector at IBM Canada Ltd., a strategic supplier to the OPS. “”A matrix organization is more complex because it involves a bunch of trade-offs, but it’s the optimal model.””

He adds Ontario is the first province in this country to take this approach to technology, but other provinces are watching closely to see how it goes. So how is Ontario’s march to e-government progressing?

The answer appears to be slowly, at least in the high-priority areas. And the problem is not so much the dual-reporting structure that has been imposed on CIOs, but something even more slippery. When then Corporate CIO Scott Campbell was interviewed in 2000 he had this to say: “”We can’t move forward aggressively until we resolve security and privacy issues related to e-government.””

That’s a bit like saying: Yes, we have an Indy car ready to race around the track, but we can’t go faster than 40 km/hr. Fast forward to the present. Has anything changed? “”Nothing has changed dramatically,”” says Georgeff. “”Privacy and security are still speed bumps. Most of the online transactions that we offer are at a low level of privacy and security.””

That’s not to say the Ontario government hasn’t made any progress. Back in 2000, four e-government services were available to the public. Today there are more than 400, but the vast majority are for the kinds of things most Ontarians don’t give a hoot about, like obtaining a statement of their driving record and buying government publications. One of the most popular e-services available is renewal of validation stickers for vehicles. But it is still not possible to renew your driver’s licence online.

The situation becomes even more complex when it comes to the sharing of information inside government. There seems to be no clear understanding of how the most sensitive data — including health, criminal and welfare records — should be treated in an era of e-government. Should ministries be allowed to pass this kind of information back and forth as needed? What sort of rules should be put in place to safeguard the privacy of individuals? These are questions without answers. About the only thing the OPS can agree on is it does not want to create a single super file about each citizen of the province residing on a central data base.

“”Many small data bases are better than one massive repository of data,”” says Greg Keeling, executive assistant to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. “”One reason is that more people would be interested in breaking into that kind of data base, and another is it would create a system with a single point of failure.””

He adds, “”You can’t point to one government that has privacy and security figured out. We are willing to be cautious to make sure we get it right.”” No one wants to see personal information abused, but e-government has the potential to cut through the swathes of red tape that have a strangle-hold on government services.

No one knows this better than small and medium-sized enterprises. Still, five years after the OPS’s transformation began, little has changed for this engine of economic growth. For example, a small-business owner in the electrical sector who goes online to figure out what he needs in order to be in compliance with regulatory issues governing everything from construction permits to environmental inspections still has to collect information piecemeal. He cannot obtain all the regulatory information he needs in one place, and can’t access e-services he requires by registering with the OPS once.

The stark reality is this kind of access to e-government may be a pipe-dream forever. And bureaucrats, not technology, are to blame. So far a universal directory of e-services for industry sectors has “”not been approved because it crosses ministerial lines,”” says Chris Renaud, CIO for the economics and business cluster, which encompasses the ministries of consumer and business services; energy, science and technology, economic development and trade; and labour.

So while the technology infrastructure of the OPS has been collapsed into clusters, it seems the government is unable to do the same thing on the program side.

Whenever information needs to move from ministry to another, a red flag goes up and the information is blocked in the name of protecting privacy and security. But whose privacy and security is benefiting from this approach?

Georgeff says his goal is to consolidate e-services, and group them together in a logical fashion. But at the same time, Georgeff says he has no plans to organize e-government around a single portal, or one-stop shop. Instead he has opted for a “”federated”” portal approach. What does that mean? Georgeff’s answer is unclear.

He talks about “”customized hyper links”” and “”peer connectivity.””

Morine of IBM Canada describes a federated portal as a collection of loosely coupled Web sites with a common look and feel. “”Given the complexity of what the OPS is doing, a federated portal is the right approach,”” says Morine.

Time will tell. In the meantime, Georgeff will have no shortage of fires to put out.

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