Ontario deputy minister begins IT service overhaul

Michelle DiEmanuele, Ontario’s deputy minister of government services and associate secretary of cabinet, was appointed in June to her position with an overall mandate to make the provincial government’s service delivery more efficient and effective.

The Special Task Force on the Management of Large Scale Information and Information Technology Projects, chaired by former federal Auditor-General Denis Desautels, made a number of recommendations, including appointment of a deputy minister responsible for overseeing large IT projects, a portfolio management approach to major IT projects, more project-management training and a strong emphasis on benefits.

ITBusiness.ca spoke with DiEmanuele to discuss her strategy for executing the task force’s recommendations and the challenges ahead.

ITB: Tell me a bit about your background — how did you end up in this position?

MD: I was a career public servant for 12-13 years. I worked in five or six different ministries until 2001, so I’ve worked in health, justice, labour, and then I went to the private sector. I worked at the CIBC, and now I’m back here.

ITB: What are your initial plans in your position — what do you plan to tackle first?

MD: I actually think it’s fairly straightforward. First and foremost it’s important to understand the government created this organization to expedite its agenda and to deliver public services smarter, better and faster by bringing all the inputs to effective business delivery together such as human resources, information and information technology and the enterprise service channel. That creates a certain synergy. For the lack of a better term, the plumbing of the organization is now all together and that allows us to change that plumbing and modify where the turns are and those sorts of things in a faster and more efficient way to deliver what businesses need, whether you’re in the Ministry of Natural Resources or the Ministry of Health. Our job is to make sure we integrate those levers effectively to improve services to the public and to improve the efficiency of internal services to my ministry.

Secondly, because we now are taking a much more strategic approach, it provides us with an opportunity to align our people, our resources in the right place so that we’re more efficiently managing our labour pool. As our priorities shift we’re shifting our resources, we’re not shutting down and starting up again, and that creates a more efficient way to deliver services. I believe if the public sees us efficiently managing their resources they will want to continue to invest in public services. I think key to this role is making sure we always understand what the public needs and wants and that we put those solutions in place as effectively as we can.

We’re enhancing consumer protections, we’re focusing on market regulations, we are trying to make this an employer of choice as an organization and we’re obviously trying to be fiscally responsible. So that’s the overarching mandate of the ministry. My initial plans are (understanding) how we put those levers in place to make those key things happen.

ITB: What things did you learn in the private sector that you’ll be able to apply to what you’re doing now?

MD: You’re really asking me what did I teach them about government.

I don’t think there’s anything new I learned in the private sector that the public sector had not already taught me. The public sector is a large multi-faceted business and service entity that has a social responsibility and it has the public trust it has to be mindful of. With service responsibility you have to have effective leadership, planning, accountability and controllership systems to make sure you’re on plan. You have to have effective review and audit and risk management to make sure you don’t get off track, and you have to constantly look at how you can improve yourself. What I learned in the private sector is maybe how to be more disciplined and focused in using those methods to achieve results. The difference is in the private sector you’re afforded a little more opportunity to be more disciplined because often you’re talking about delivering one business. I worked in a real estate company and it’s a pretty simple business – you buy low, you sell high, and if you buy a building in a good location you’re likely to fill it. I worked in banking, and it’s a little more complex than real estate, but it’s still pretty simple. You don’t have some of the added complexities of having to build consensus, having to protect the public interest and be mindful of public scrutiny in the same way. The public service is much more accountable and transparent than others.

ITB: One of the recommendations the task force made to the Ontario government on managing large IT projects was that someone spearhead business transformation and public service modernization. Much of that seems to be well underway in Ontario. How do you see your role in furthering those two goals?

MD: Ontario is certainly far advanced as a public service in doing some innovative and contemporary things, but as a good transforming organization you should also be asking yourself, ‘what can I do that will continuously help me expedite that journey?’ I think the creation of this deputy minister role is our next iteration of how we expedite that. If you think about the last five or six years we had Service Ontario incubating and doing quite well. We had the advent of our IT area being built over the last five or six years. Over the last 15 or 16 months we’ve significantly expedited our human resource, planning and transformation capabilities from a management perspective. We’ve brought them all together so we get synergies around that and we’ve created an ability to do that on a much larger platform, with an enterprise-wide perspective. So in just the first eight weeks we have been able to leverage synergies more quickly because we weren’t working through the natural organizational walls that exist between separate entities. We all sit around the same table, so (when a good idea would come up) in Service Ontario, somebody would say, ‘let’s go talk to the HR and the IT people to see if it’s possible.’ We’re there when the idea comes out and we’re then producing a solution right from the start that’s integrated.

ITB: Ontario has said it plans to take a portfolio management approach to IT projects. What does that mean exactly?

MD: I think in general portfolio management can take on all kinds of subtleties but I think in a nutshell it’s a systematic and strategic approach to how you’re going to manage your larger IT projects. Every organization has to decide what the threshold is and in an organization this size you have to be careful to make sure you’re managing what is important and of material value.

ITB: Everyone always hears lots about what went wrong in IT projects that are over budget or past their deadline. Do you see it as part of your role to communicate what went right, not just as a public relations exercise but as a learning tool for others involved in large projects?

MD: Absolutely. I tend to be a glass half full kind of person anyway, but as a leader, you have to be accountable and ready to acknowledge where you may have made a mistake. You have to be accountable for where you can do better. That doesn’t mean you made a mistake – it means you acknowledge there’s an element of every project that you should be reviewing and assessing what you learned and how you can do it better. Then I’d say as a leader you have a responsibility to celebrate successes, and to celebrate those things that didn’t maybe go so well and (the things) you learned. And if you don’t talk about those things, that’s probably a good guarantee you risk making the same mistake again. So it is incumbent upon us to celebrate our successes. I think the I&IT task force tells us we’re doing a very good job. Even though there may have been some overspending, this is a very dynamic field, and we’re in the ballpark of where successful people are who are doing these things. It also says we have lots of room to improve, and that’s exciting, because I think everybody likes to continuously look back and say I’ve learned something here, I’ve done something better and I’ve made a difference.

ITB: The task force also recommended having a clear off-ramp when vendors aren’t delivering what they’ve promised. Is that workable, in your opinion, without risking running into more situations like the EDS fiasco?

MD: Absolutely. I think portfolio management coupled with good risk assessment/gateways – all those things give you an opportunity all the way through your project to assess your return on investment and the value for money you’re getting. I think the task force added one additional element of scoping your project, so having more realistic time lines and size will also assist in mitigating some of those risks. 

ITB: But in practice will it be difficult implementing this with vendors because it is a new way of doing business with them?

MD: I don’t think the task force recommended something that isn’t out there already. I come from banking and in my experience there this is certainly an acceptable practice. 

ITB:  Will you be instituting or recommending project management training for provincial IT professionals?

MD: We are. We’ve been testing for the past year and a half, and we’ve developed and designed a whole project methodology based on the Project Management Institute’s general principles on how you do this well. It’s quite well defined. It is becoming a core curriculum in our senior management offering. We have about 32 core programs we offer all senior managers of this organization and it will become one of those core offerings. We are establishing in the modernization secretariat a project management office, which will have the responsibility of continuously updating our tools and techniques for project management against that methodology and training we’ve developed. No. 2, it will be responsible for going in as a swat team into new IT projects and helping them get started up, or where there are ministries that have actually been doing this well we will be validating that those principles meet with the principles we’ve established as a corporate entity. Lastly, we will start driving it down below the senior management as the training is available. So for instance, the Premier’s two priorities are health and education, so we have been looking at a whole series of work in those areas and have set up projects for transformation. Our project management office trained all of their teams about a year ago, so we’re making it much more institutional and I would say not just for IT projects. The project methodology suggested in the task force is good for the IT world but it’s good for all project management.

ITB: The federal government doesn’t seem to think it necessary to offer the kind of recruitment/retention incentives the task force is recommending. Is that more necessary at a provincial level? If so, why or why not?

MD: I think the task force didn’t spend enough time on this. My view is what we have to do to attract very good professionals in a number of areas is that we have to have compensation that values the work at an appropriate level. It’s not going to be the highest paid but we should be able to say we are in a market zone, and in the public sector that typically is below average, but in the zone. Second, we’ve got to be able to show we have learning and career opportunities for these individuals. My experience with folks in the IT world is they like multiple project work, they tend to like to move into different business areas and we offer all of that; this is a multi-complex organization. So we can give them interesting work and career work. Third, I think people come to work with organizations because their leadership is solid and capable and great, and I think the public service has a lot to offer with respect to its leadership capabilities. Lastly — and this is all documented in polls and surveys – people want to know that what they’re doing matters, that their work has value to the vision of the organization. I don’t know who can compete with public services on the fact the work we do matters. So I’m more interested in taking a holistic approach in attracting and retaining capable I&IT talent. It has to have all of those elements and we will continue on the compensation element to benchmark our executives against the private and public sectors and look at making the necessary cases we have to be competitive.

Comment: [email protected]

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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