Driving innovation and transformation in the Ontario public sector

30 March 2023 Nimit Doshi Author avatar

Making services accessible to all users

The majority of citizens don’t care to differentiate between the various tiers of government; they simply want their government agencies to provide them with the services they require when they need them. It is therefore the responsibility of all government organizations – municipal, provincial and federal – to constantly provide appropriate and efficient services, and to always be engaged in continuous improvement. For instance, Sandra Austin, the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Regional Municipality of Durham in Southern Ontario, says that just in their municipal government they have 80 different front public front counters, 28 call centres and 18 social media platforms, which is often overwhelming and frustrating for the user. Realizing that, they began a course of public engagement with qualitative digital tools to really analyse where the public is at. The goal now is make a lot of those services much more seamless and available to residents. Ultimately like most things, it should be about the resident experience and the people first and foremost, and never about the technology or how it is used.

In a similar vein, Olga Bakonyi, the Head of Digital Enterprise Engagement Practice at the Government of Ontario, says that the provincial projects that they are engaged in are always about improving customer experience. All governments always struggle with finite resources and figuring out what to do next, so almost no matter what the project is, it is therefore necessary to listen, to see and understand the data, and to implement any changes in stages. This means not imposing anything on the residents, and it means properly planning any projects not just with the customer in mind, but with their deep engagement and involvement through an iterative process.

This is true across departments as well. Harriett Grant, the Director of Retirement Home Modernization at the Ontario Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility, says that to modernize any workplace, one needs to listen to the voice of the customer or the user and then make changes not only through technology, but also with a policy approach. So that means launching a product, but then continuing to iterate after you’ve launched and don’t be afraid to change the policy or the rules. Sometimes that needs to be done fairly quickly. Decades ago, a policy change would take 6 to 12 months and it would be very expensive. Now it has to be much quicker. For instance, it is critical these days to ensure that everyone has appropriate accessibility. For some, that means making sure that an online platform works on multiple devices, but for others – like seniors, as an example – it means making sure that they can still register in person or have other channels accessible to them. Simply making everything digital doesn’t work for everyone.

From a vendor perspective, the goal is also similar. Rob Streeter, the Director of Sales Engineering at Ivanti, says that these days, much like customers don’t really care about which agency of government provides their services, they equally don’t care about the different providers as long as they can get what they require. So we as vendors need to understand the landscape, and from a competitive perspective, need to understand what the competition and our partners are doing so that we can evaluate whether there is value in having a particular feature in our technology. The goal for everyone of course is to leverage the data from our end users so that they have the technology that they need at their fingertips to do their jobs better. What no vendor wants to be is like Blockbuster, the video lending company that is now out of business, because they didn’t pay attention to the way their end users were feeling, didn’t read the market or their competitors and are now irrelevant, especially with the advent of Netflix and the like.

Improving the lives of citizens

The pandemic showed that to really make a difference in improving the lives of citizens, partnerships are important. Sandra Austin says that no matter how good a team or agency is, no one organization is going to do things on their own. So at the Regional Municipality of Durham they have partnered with local entrepreneurs on a smart home device project, which is connected to existing devices, so a citizen in their region can ask Alexa, Google or any of the other devices about municipal matters, and it will be able to provide an accurate response. The municipality is also working with an ecology centre and federal government partners to incorporate technology, based on AI, into an emissions profile. When it comes to climate action, we want to open up opportunities and provide financial incentives as well, so that residents can take advantage of everything that is out there.

In some cases it is unclear what is out there and how citizens and agencies should interact. Olga Bakonyi says that if rules or best practices do not exist, we need to develop them. For instance, if the private sector creates a piece of technology or has particular practices, we should apply them in the public sector. This is how chat-bots and online channels were developed in government, and currently in the Ontario government, we have a data and digital design framework, but this is a starting point for our products. Ideally, each agency needs two sets of best practices: one set for anything that is technology facing, and one for anything that is service facing, because what we offer our citizens and our business internally should not be the same thing. Citizens, for instance, need all kinds of accessibility – as mentioned above – whilst internally all services are now online and in the cloud. These are two different sets of practices for two different audiences, and though practices will evolve, these distinctions are important.

When it comes to product delivery, Harriett Grant says that the iterative approach is the best one to employ for the sake of the user or citizen. Getting a range of feedback from different users ensures that you are developing the best product for the end users. It is accepted reality that you’re never going to launch something that has no defects. So mitigation is the best strategy and thus constant feedback and the incorporation of changes along the way, both before launch and certainly after launch, is one of the most effective things you can do. That is the only way to create or launch something that has an impactful user experience.

In terms of user experience, Rob Streeter says planning is really important, as is testing, but ultimately it’s about data and customer or employee feedback. However, Olga Bakonyi argues that though data is one measure of success, we need to collectively improve how we measure the success of the customer experience. This could be through policy re-design or through other means. For instance, at the Ontario government there are many ways of contacting the government, but sometimes it’s a matter of fixing the content not the contact centre. It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not the policy itself that matters to the citizens, but how it’s applied that creates either the right results or the wrong results for the people we serve. 

Harriett Grant adds that during the pandemic, people worked together for the benefit of others. They didn’t care about the metrics or the success of those programs. They just wanted to help people in need. Now the metrics are back and if the data doesn’t support something then it is not implemented. But what about the touch points that can’t be counted or that don’t seem to matter as much? Sometimes that comprehensive, 360 view is missing and we need to reinstate it for the full benefit of our citizens and our communities. 

Featured speakers: 

  • Sandra Austin, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, The Regional Municipality of Durham
  • Olga Bakonyi, Head, Digital Enterprise Engagement Practice, Government of Ontario
  • Harriett Grant, Director, Retirement Home Modernization, Ontario Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility
  • Rob Streeter, Director, Sales Engineering, Ivanti
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