A conversation with Ontario’s Chief Digital Officer, Hillary Hartley

A conversation with Ontario’s Chief Digital Officer, Hillary Hartley

Talking to Hillary Hartley about the Ontario Digital Service’s priorities, from improving our online experience to easy to use—anytime, anywhere and on any device
Photo of Hillary Hartley at Code for America Summit.
Private: Andrew Do
Policy Analyst
June 21, 2017
Print Page

In April, the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship’s Policy Innovation Platform team published an open letter to @Hillary Hartley, Ontario’s first Chief Digital Officer.

This week, she reached out for a conversation as part of her outreach to organizations across Ontario that share the Ontario Digital Service’s priorities, including improving “the online experience by making services more convenient, intuitive and easy to use—anytime, anywhere and on any device.” We were particularly excited about this because enhancing communication efforts and informing people both within and outside of government about what the Digital Service’s team is working on was one of the recommendations that emerged from an event we hosted several months ago called Let’s Get Digital. This brought together 100 participants from Ontario’s Digital Government team and Toronto’s digital community.

Here is the conversation we had with Hillary on June 6, 2017. Note: We’ve shortened and paraphrased a little to make it easy to share!

Q: Thank you, Hillary, and good afternoon. We wanted to start off by asking—what led you to be interested in becoming Ontario’s first Chief Digital Officer?

A: It’s funny because I actually was searching through a Slack team that I was a part of that included some of my Obama-era colleagues. I was searching for something when I came across this posting in June of last year because there is a jobs channel.


Slack Logo

Slack is a business-collaboration software service that has features like real-time messaging, file-sharing and search for team-based communication.

The post said “Hey! The folks in Ontario are hiring a Chief Digital Officer.” At that point, I did not know that was going to be on my radar.

When I first looked at the call, it became clear very quickly that this was a place full of my people, with a good foundation and the right amount of vision and champions in place to help me enact the vision. I met with members of the team, Minister Deb Matthews and the Secretary of Cabinet, Steve Orsini. Quickly, I could see that this place had a rock-solid foundation—they were walking the walk in addition to talking the talk about what it means to have this role to create the Ontario Digital Service. They were really thinking about putting people first when thinking about government.

Q: As policymakers here in Canada, we cannot help but compare ourselves to the US, and you bring that experience with you from the US. What lessons learned from your time at the White House are you bringing with you to Ontario?

A: One of the biggest things I learned is actually the power of people, especially the power of getting the right people at the table.

A big part of how we talked about the Presidential Innovation Fellowship focused on attracting smart people from industry to give their time to government and sit at the table with senior leaders, with folks on the ground, and with people that are grappling with big decisions.

The Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program was established by the White House in 2012 to attract top innovators into government, capable of tackling issues at the convergence of technology, policy, and process. Presidential Innovation Fellows serve for 12 months, during which they work on one or several initiatives, working to transform ideas into tangible results in at startup speed.

Presidential Innovation Fellows

Bringing technologists to the table raises the IQ around technology, your approach and your policy. It affects everything. So you need a huge focus on people.

There is also a huge focus on communication in the agile development process. You need to communicate to stakeholders, whether it is program communication or internal communication. When things go sideways, it’s not always because the technology is flawed, but often because teams are not talking to one another. I think this reinforces the importance of people and the importance of communication, and this is what I am taking with me.

Q: Since starting a few months ago, we understand you’ve engaged in a number of early initiatives. Which ones are you most excited about, or what initiatives do you think have the greatest potential to positively impact the lives of Ontarians?

A: There are a few things on the immediate radar. Some of them are, perhaps, small but mighty. This includes something as simple as Budget Talks, which the team has run for two consecutive budgets, and which has proved to be a big boon for Ontario. We are going to do it again next year.

Service Ontario will be a key partner for us. They process millions of transactions, both online and in-person every day. So we have to take a look at what is working and what is not working, and how we can work together to design and redesign some things. Hopefully, in doing this work, we can also think of new services as well.

Finally, we will be continuing our work with the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD) around the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). The launch of the OSAP calculator has been life-changing for some folks, who can now see that the government really means it when they say that help for tuition is available. Building on that, we’ll be flushing out some of the content so that people understand what OSAP is about and how it works. We’ll also be moving toward putting the student aid application online, which will be absolutely transformative for students in Ontario.

OSAP Calculator

Q: As we are a policy-focused institute aiming to support and grow our entrepreneurial and innovation communities, what role do you see for Ontario’s startup and innovation communities to support or complement the work of the Digital Government team?

A: There is a lot of opportunity. A large part of it is due to the focus on talent and people. We’ll be encouraging people to take a tour of duty through government. So we will have to get to know the community, the players, and the talent landscape. This is a huge priority for me personally.

On the other hand, we also recognize that we cannot do this alone. Even if we double in size and we grow to 100-150 people, this is not a job for just us. We have to make strategic partnerships with ministries, with industry and groups that can help us both communicate our vision and execute on it.

We’ll be working with folks in ministries, Cabinet Office, and the Treasury Board to help think about new approaches to procurement. We need more teams like us in the system. We need to figure out how to work with agile teams, small businesses, and some of the larger players that are already doing a lot of work for Ontario. We need to identify champions inside ministries and help supercharge the good work they are doing.

Q: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “tour of duty”?

A: I think, historically, joining the government has been a calling. People really respond to the mission and the idea of being able to have a profound impact on their families, friends, and neighbours. However, we want to let folks know that working for the government doesn’t have to be a lifelong thing.

I will tell you that more often than not, people who think that they’re coming in for a short stint—be it six months or two years—are often sucked in because it is a powerful mission. You’re working with folks who believe so wholeheartedly in what they’re doing that it rubs off on you. We have talked a lot about this with 18F and the US Digital Service as a “tour of duty”. It’s a way to let folks know that this can be something that is short-term in nature and that we would love to have them give their talents to the Government of Ontario, with the fair warning that sometimes you might want to stick around for a lot longer.

Q: The last question we have for you is something we know that you think a lot about. How can we engage citizens, the innovation community, and governments in a collaborative and productive way? Do you have examples of the way digital tools have been used globally that enable facilitating these collaborations? What are some of your favorites and why?

A: Yes. Well, I mentioned Budget Talks earlier and I know that is probably not what you had in mind. However, it really was a tool for participatory budgeting and we built this tool where Ontarians can submit proposals, you can vote on them and the best ones can get funded in the budget. Citizens pitched over 400 projects and I think there were close to 20,000 votes for the list of finalists. On budget day, three winners were announced, receiving a total of $2.6 million. So, you know, that is engagement that shows the power of openness and of government being available online—where people are at—to engage with our democracy. I love this Budget Talks project, and I am so glad that we are going to do it again for the 2018 budget.

I think, in general, if you’ve read anything I have written or listened to a talk I’ve given, you will know that I am a profound missionary for openness—from openness to open source obviously, but also to just being transparent, to talking more profusely about what we are doing, from the mundane to the quick launches. It is the mundane stuff that is sometimes more important, especially just as we are recruiting and as we are trying to get people to understand how we work. You need to blog about it, to tweet about it, and to put those things out there.

One story that I love illustrates this well. It has nothing to do with government, but I used to share it regularly with my team at 18F: When GitHub.com was being built, it had a blog. Even before GitHub existed, the team blogged about it something like 200 times. I have never been a believer in blogging only when there is something to announce. We should blog about those little moments on the way where you are learning something. That will continue to be a huge focus for the Ontario team.

For media enquiries, please contact Nina Rafeek Dow, Marketing + Communications Specialist at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Private: Andrew Do
Policy Analyst
June 21, 2017
Print Page