TORONTO – Nearly four years after the City of Toronto Act went into effect, there is considerable debate about the merits of amalgamating Canada’s largest city.

Residents of the former North York region complain about a drop in services while those living the “old” Toronto talk about an absence of local control.

But from an IT perspective, the city has made the best of amalgamation and may even be realizing benefits from the City of Toronto Act.

On Tuesday, Michael Franey, acting director of computer operations and telecommunications services for the city, said by standardizing on Novell Canada Ltd.’s eDirectory Toronto has been able to realize savings in IT and better extend its services to the city’s 2.5 million residents. However, there have been pitfalls along the way, and much work remains in setting up a real digital democracy.

With amalgamation, Toronto has become the fifth largest city in North America. The city’s 27,000 employees work in 2,000 offices, 460 of them networked.

In his address to an audience at the ninth annual CIO Summit, Franey outlined the challenges in joining six municipalities and one regional government, their employees and their infrastructure. For starters, there was no lead company as in typical mergers.

“In this case it was management by consensus,” Franey said.

Internal issues relating to amalgamation included integrating different systems and lines of business, of which Franey said there are 40, managing information hosted on network directories and databases, and securing scalable enterprise solutions.

“The biggest thing that we found with the City of Toronto was the data scrubbing,” said Novell Canada account manager Roger Yates. ‘The city has 80 to 100 directories. We were trying to get one master list.”

One problem was employee names and e-mail addresses common to workers in previously different municipalities.

Franey said the city opted for Novell eDirectory, amid proposals from several suitors, because it is the only cross-platform directory, it allows the city to leverage its existing IT investments through open standards, and because of its scalability. The implementation, first announced in February, was a joint project involving both Novell Consulting and IBM Global Services.

Despite a two-month implementation delay and issues surrounding employee relocation, Franey said the city has already realized internal cost savings – though he said he could not provide an accurate dollar figure – in part because the Novell solution allowed the city to cut its IT staff from 360 to 280 employees. As well, he said the eDirectory solution has allowed the city to cut down on network downtime and to create a cost-saving single authentication system for the city’s 15,000 technology users.

The city is now in the process of extending the Novell solution into the community in an effort to set up two-way communication between citizens and government and to deliver services in a customer centric manner. While the city’s re-designed Web site includes information about services, accessing those services and integrating them is the goal. The city wants to have digital democracy in place by 2004, in line with Ottawa’s Government On-Line (GOL) initiative.

Franey said he would like the city’s Web portal to manage, for example, by-law requirements and licensing requirements, so citizens can simultaneously “get a dog license and find out where your dog can run freely.”

Franey said the biggest obstacle to the city’s digital democracy are government departments that are unconvinced of the merits of replacing human interaction with online services.

“We can ‘e’ everything if the desire is there,” Franey said. “They (departments) don’t see the return on investment – the business case.”

This in spite of a 2000 Environics poll showing 61 per cent of Torontonians use the Internet at home and 33 per cent want to do business with the city online. Franey also presented the results of a 2000 Ekos poll showing 31 per cent of Canadians think government should make the Internet its highest-priority delivery vehicle over the next decade. That compares with 19 per cent who chose in-person-delivery, 16 per cent who favoured telephone and 14 per cent that opted for mail.

“The infrastructure is ready to go, the will is there,” Franey said. “It’s just getting people in line to do it.”

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