Ontario’s first Chief Digital Officer on tackling provincial problems through a digital lens

It’s a commonly-held belief that governments move at a glacial pace when it comes to making decisions and adopting new technology, but the province of Ontario is hoping to change that with its new hire.

Hillary Hartley, Ontario’s CDO.

Hillary Hartley was named Ontario’s first Chief Digital Officer at the end of March, a deputy minister position mandated with streamlining online government services and making them more efficient for people and business. Fully aware of the bureaucracy that she’s up against, Hartley has spent the first few months of her three-year appointment building a solid tech-savvy team around her that can bring Ontario’s digital agenda to life.

“I’ve been on the job for a few [months] and my main focus so far has been creating a new organization, hiring new people, and getting our mandate letter solidified so we can start building bridges and partnerships to figure out what our first order of business will be,” she tells ITBusiness.ca. “It’s very exciting, but we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s a lot of understanding our true capacity and what we need to be hiring for, so we’re putting a big focus on talent and recruiting for the next few months.”

Hartley says her office will be looking to hire a team of product managers, web and content designers, user experience professionals, application architects, and engineers “of all stripes” to maintain the province’s online platform. Funding from the 2017 budget means the department has room to grow and scale to around 20 full-time employees.

“New talent brings new experiences and backgrounds, as well as all the practices and processes they’ve used in their previous jobs, so we need that to make us all better,” she says.

The keys to success

This is Ontario’s first ever CDO, and Hartley is ready to prove that not only is she up for the job, but that the job is worthwhile.

“At the end of the day, Ontario’s digital services are here to make the services that the government delivers simpler, faster and better. We’re going to do that by focusing on the needs of Ontarians and how they use and interact with these services,” Hartley states.

She notes that success comes down to three things: people, practices, and products.

“If we can attract new talent and retain the amazing talent we already have, if we can continue to build strong digital services, and if we can help other ministries build digital teams, then we’ll be a huge success. We want to move into the modern Internet era and so we’re looking for best practices, culture, processes, and methodologies to achieve that,” she highlights.

Hartley will report to the head of the Ontario Public Service (OPS) and Ontario’s Minister Responsible for Digital Government. She says that with Ontario creating a whole new position and cabinet office for the CDO, it represents “a commitment on the highest level.”

“The fact that this is a deputy minister position and I’m able to operate at that level with those peers is incredibly important for this moment and for this movement. It’s also crucial in order to really be able to partner with folks in ministries and help them understand how we approach problems from a digital lens,” Hartley continues.

She hopes that by the end of her term, her and her team will have delivered several redesigned and new services that have a “big impact on Ontarians.”

And while she notes that there are challenges working within the bureaucracy of the government, she points to people like Steve Orsini, Ontario’s Secretary of the Cabinet, head of the OPS, and Clerk of the Executive Council , and Deb Matthews, Minister Responsible for Digital Government and Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, as “amazing champions” of the digital journey she’s embarking on.

“It’s all about inertia and disrupting the way things have always been done. I consider myself extremely lucky to have my bosses, Steve Orsini and Deb Matthews, in my corner and in cabinet willing to take risks and leaps for me. I think that’s helped immensely, and we’re only going to continue to grow and change, which I hope will rub off on other parts of the Ontario public service,” she says.

Minister Matthews commended Hartley’s “tremendous expertise” in a press release from when she was first named to the position in March, while Secretary Orsini expressed his excitement that she would be joining the digital team in the same communique.

From private to public

Hartley has a range of experience to draw on while serving as Ontario’s CDO. She spent 13 years at NIC Inc., an information service provider for the federal and state governments in the U.S., as an art and creative director, graphic designer, and design consultant – positions she says have helped her see both sides of the equation.

“I’ve been working with the government for about 20 years now, but until now, it was always ‘with the government from the outside’-type of position. NIC essentially partners with governments and delivers online services and websites,” she explains. “Being on the outside and providing consultation, advice, and every once in a while, getting into the weeds, that provided a certain lens. I also got to work with more than a dozen states, so it was a great experience seeing the breadth of political operations and attitudes and how that would affect online service delivery.”

Hartley was also chosen to take part in the Presidential Innovation Fellow program, a six to 12-month initiative that pairs innovators and technologists with civil servants in the White House, in 2013. She worked on MyUSA, a project aimed at creating a new service to help Americans find the information and services they need across the federal government’s websites by organizing them based on people and their jobs or tasks, rather than around the agencies that deliver them.

“I had the opportunity to be a presidential innovation fellow and my time as a federal employee was incredible. We were able to build an incredibly strong ecosystem and benchmark of talent working on digital problems across the government, and it’s always interesting to be on the inside to see how different that experience is,” Hartley continues.

She calls her current CDO position “the best of both worlds” because it involves making a difference, both on her peers inside the provincial government and also on Ontarians using the service.

“Being the CDO means I’m back in the provincial/state level where there’s a lot more day to day interactions and engagements than what you have at the federal level, and that’s why this is so exciting for me,” Hartley adds.

A little help from her friends

Ontario is not the first province to hire a CDO. It joins British Columbia, who hired a CDO in 2013 and has since transformed the position into a chief technology officer (CTO), as well as Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Most other provinces and territories have some form of a digital office – headed by either a CTO, chief transformation officer, or chief information officer – and so do cities like Montreal and Vancouver.

“I’m the first CDO in Ontario and I’ve made contact with other provinces that have digital teams who are doing incredible stuff, like the folks in New Brunswick and British Columbia. There’s absolutely good work already being done and I would not be at all surprised to see other provinces following suit and making the same decision,” Hartley says.

She explains that she has been in touch with her counterparts at the provincial level, as well as made connections with people in the mayor’s office in Toronto, which is in the process of building a new innovation team.

“I hope to make connections with everyone from municipal to provincial, territorial, and federal. I want to build a digital environment and culture, empower Ontarians, and make sure we’re prepared for the future, and the best way to do that is by working together on all levels,” Hartley concludes.

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Mandy Kovacs
Mandy Kovacshttp://www.itwc.ca
Mandy is a lineup editor at CTV News. A former staffer at IT World Canada, she's now contributing as a part-time podcast host on Hashtag Trending. She is a Carleton University journalism graduate with extensive experience in the B2B market. When not writing about tech, you can find her active on Twitter following political news and sports, and preparing for her future as a cat lady.

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