When audience members at this week’s Technicity event were asked if they were engaged with the City of Toronto on a procurement basis, out of the roughly 300 people in attendance, very few hands went up.
Seeing more hands raised is one of the city’s priorities as it continues to try and connect its divisions with Toronto’s growing innovation and technology communities, according to the various municipal and technology leaders who gathered at Toronto’s annual Technicity event Dec. 4.
And while the city has been talking a good game in recent years with the launch of a Civic Innovation Office in 2017 that aims to solve pressing urban challenges through rapid prototyping., Lawrence Eta, Toronto’s chief technology officer acknowledged Toronto’s traditionally sluggish procurement policies that still discourage forward-thinking small businesses from engaging with the municipality.
“One of the questions I get asked the most is how do small to medium-sized businesses respond to these RFPs … because it’s usually the big organizations that usually get them,” said Eta during a panel about how vendors can engage with the city on new ideas.
Michael Pacholok, the city’s chief purchasing officer, agreed.
“There’s a growing realization that we need to leverage those partnerships more and bring [the private sector] into the fold,” he said during the same panel.
The answer, according to the pair of municipal leaders, alongside Majit Jheeta, director of the office and partnerships, partially lies with experimental procurement policies that sidestep traditional RFPs and their hyper-specific requirements for a pre-scoped solution.
The city has slowly been warming up to challenge-based or Invitation-to-Partner RFPs, first introduced by the Civic Innovation Office – with the help of some inspiration from the City of Guelph – which asks applicants how they would want to improve city services and encourages them to present ideas about how they think their solution would look like.
The absence of reliable Wi-Fi across the city, for example, is one problem that could use this type of approach, indicated Eta.
And based on Eta’s impassioned statement about putting taxpayers’ money to maximum use, the city is adamant about chasing real results, not pats on the back for policy changes.
“I certainly don’t want to continue conversations about processes,” he said. “We need to translate processes into outcomes.”
Those outcomes will also benefit from the city’s internal efforts to streamline service delivery mechanisms, indicated Jill Bada, director of strategic policy and planning.
Most governments, she explained during a panel about connected communities, have isolated departments that modernize services in isolation without consulting its neighbouring divisions, or worse, citizens themselves.
“Essentially what we’re doing is undoing decades-worth of inside-out design to making it customer-centric instead,” said Bada, while quickly giving a shout out to the partner helping the city on that journey, Deloitte. “In the end, we want to have a person who can sit in their PJs at three in the morning, pay a parking ticket, get a marriage license, and register their kids for camp.”
And this is where the strategy comes full circle: The city improves how it engages with citizens through digital services, citizens use those services more, providing the city with critical insights through that engagement, which in turn helps the municipality solve big problems like its housing crisis and transportation issues with the help of the private sector.
“It sounds like a big dream, but that’s where we want to go,” said Bada.
Working in tandem with Toronto’s revised approach to partnerships and customer experience is the city’s Open Data Master Plan. Published in 2017, the document is a strategic framework and roadmap for the city to advance Toronto’s vision for open data until 2022.
According to the master plan itself, the city has published an average of 25 to 30 datasets per year since 2009 and currently has a total of 258 datasets and over 1,100 datafiles available.
Some of the objectives from the master plan include ensuring the city’s divisions can easily explore their own data sets and contribute to the Open Data Program, and encouraging them to further collaborate with each other and the community.
In January 2017, the Toronto Police Services published its own modernization plan that leaned heavily into the use of open data to become more transparent with citizens and help them participate in conversations about public safety.
“The foundation of this whole process was the freedom of information requests we received,” said Ian Williams, head of analytics and innovation at TPS, in an interview with IT World Canada earlier this year.
Williams discussed the TPS’ modernization plan and its use of open data at Technicity.
“It helped us identify what people were asking from us in the format of data. And because we’re an analytics team, we looked at this and thought about how we could visualize that data and turn it into a tool that can actually help make a decision.”
Working closely with the province’s privacy commissioner, Williams said the TPS aggregated data from the FOIs that were already processed. These documents often included granular data about when, where, and what type of crime took place in a particular part of the city.
Careful to ensure that data from the TPS open data web portal didn’t link back to a specific address or reveal personal information, the portal was launched in 2017.
Among several examples, the open data portal played a significant role in the revival of Toronto’s St. James Park, an initiative spearheaded by community members and TPS.
“We get a lot of feedback from students and academic institutions that use the data,” said Debbie Verduga, senior data visualization and open data specialist at the TPS, pointing to some of the under-the-radar challenges that come with maintaining an open data portal, such as the timely release of new data. “We’re constantly reviewing that.”
On the right track
It’s these types of smaller projects that lead to successful modernization within governments, according to Bob Osborn, chief technology officer of federal and public services for ServiceNow, a software solutions provider and one of the city’s many technology partners.
“Globally we see more than 50 per cent of modernization projects fail,” he told the publication, adding the symptoms of those failures largely stem from “big bang” ideas that try to accomplish too much.
The creation of open data portals, internal culture shifts that encourage rapid prototyping, and building on small wins is the formula for success for any large organization, he said.
“The success of small projects can actually fund larger projects,” he explained. “We have a number of government agencies that use our platform and fund phases two and three of their projects through the successes of phase one.
“And that’s because they gain visibility into where they’re spending money, they identify duplication, and better understand their software licenses.”
Having leadership in place that allows for this type of modernization to flourish is key. Luckily, Toronto doesn’t have a problem there, indicated Osborn.
“The City of Toronto is way ahead when it comes to leadership support,” he added, citing the city’s multiple modernization efforts across city divisions, which you can learn more about here.