Recently, George Ross, Editor-in-Chief of Candian Government Executive sat down with Hillary Hartley, Ontario’s Deputy Minister responsible for digital government.
Here is the full interview.
First, Hillary, I think CGE readers will be quite interested in your background and how you came to the mission of digitizing government: a daunting and perhaps unglamorous job. So how did you get involved in this area?
It’s been a 20-year journey. My first job out of college was working with the State of Arkansas on their e-government efforts. Here I was a webmaster and a web designer working on things like the Secretary of State’s homepage and eventually, working for the federal government in the U.S. I don’t think I intended for it to become a career, but it certainly did.
Most of my time was with a company called MIC. It is a company that works with about 30 different states. They essentially create public-private partnerships and do very similar work to what we are doing, but from the outside. Bring a team together, hire locally, and start partnering with agencies and departments all across state governments.
I worked with them for about 15 years on everything from county projects to being an internal consultant, working with different states. One month I would work with Utah, and the next month I’d work with Idaho. At that time people were starting to dip their toes in the water around social media. And I always joked that social media was a gateway drug to digital government, you know? It really was, once we could convince folks within government to start to understand what social media had to offer, and the promise of truly engaging with people, going straight to users about ideas and how to make things better. That’s really, I think, what started this whole mission.
I was trying to get states to take a gander at this little site called Twitter. It became a passion, and then I became a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2013, which certainly changed my life and changed my career.
Mostly because, for the first time, I was not on the outside trying to make a change, but I was on the inside. And on the inside with the promise of delivering things for millions and millions of people. And that is, well just to be honest; it’s a bit intoxicating. I just got hooked.
I had a six-month fellowship during the Obama administration, and at the end of my six months, there were a bunch of us who just didn’t feel done. The Government Services Administration wanted to create something a bit more permanent. I was in the second class of Fellows, so the Fellows would come in and then they’d disperse to the wind. Sometimes, their projects would as well. We really wanted to lay down roots and create a team that could carry some of those ideas forward.
We got the opportunity to start a team called 18F, inside GSA. And (we) grew that team from the ten of us that started in 2013 to about 200 folks over the next couple of years doing the same kind of work: building small teams that could partner with agencies and departments across the federal government to deliver on exciting digital government projects.
When it comes to the evolution of digital government and the use of social media by government, how would you characterize the change over time that you’ve witnessed?
Well, it’s interesting, because I do like putting that moment in time about seven to ten years ago when Twitter started.
You started to see how it was being adopted from the outside, but for the public good. Even things like hashtags. A friend of mine in San Diego started the idea of just starting every tweet about one of the big fires in San Diego with #SanDiegoFire. Suddenly, you had this stream of information.
You had a channel where you could go for information. It was little moments like that. On the inside, governments started to see there were places where they could engage and go straight to users. At the time, it was communication, and not so much collaboration and co-creation, but I think that’s where we’ve ended up.
It’s allowed the work that we do to really come to the forefront. We may be building some sort of service, probably technology involved, but that’s almost the unimportant part. That is the outcome, but it’s about how we get to that outcome, about what we value. The culture that enables it. The practices and the processes that we use to start that journey and to approach a problem from the lens of design thinking – or how might we change things?
I think it’s fair to say that there still is a lot of reticence amongst the ranks of senior public sector executives to get deeply involved in social media; it sort of puts you out there in an exposed fashion with the public. I’m interested in your observations on that, and how public servants should be thinking about social media as a part of their executive role?
I’ve seen lots of great examples of folks using it to amplify their voice. Amplify what they are passionate about, rally folks behind a moment, push an idea forward. I think the only way to break through the noise of social media right now, especially as a public servant, is to be authentic and be your true self.
Sometimes, that’s hard. Folks may be reticent to do that, but I believe that’s the only way to be a voice that people are excited to listen to. Social media was the crux of how the government was able to wrap its head around the focus on users.
So let’s talk about your mandate here in Ontario and what you’re focusing on in the short, medium, longer term?
We were able to publish our mandate online, in early May, around our ten areas of action. Our very simple mission statement for the Ontario Digital Service is: making government simpler, better and faster.
The way I’ve best summarized it is by boiling it down to four things.
The first thing is services. We will be focusing on redesigning services, helping ministries think about how to put new services online. And continuing to build on Ontario.ca and get ministries, their top content and tasks, transitioned over to a clear, usable, accessible platform.
The second thing is thinking about platforms. Ontario.ca is our premier platform, and the province’s flagship website, which gets a million hits a week. I would also love for us to think about something like cloud.gov, which 18F has created in the U.S. or login.gov. I think we will iterate towards some of those ideas by being involved in digital identity pilot projects. Right now, we’re at the table with pilot ministries to figure out a path forward on identity.
We just published our Digital Service Standard. Essentially, it sets out 14 points for delivering a good online service. When we do digital assessments, we assess, based on those 14 points, everything from making sure you bring the right team together to focusing on the user, making it accessible, and testing with the minister.
Third is around acquisition and procurement. We want to continue to have modern digital tools to do this work and help others do it well, too. The other piece is access to talent. We are about 60 people. So, regarding the capacity, we have on the consulting side, it’s still fairly small.
We’re thinking about how to widen the aperture of small- and medium-sized businesses that work like we do. Creating opportunities for partnerships will only help us be able to scale our efforts.
Fourth and final, people and talent and capacity and training. Raising the digital literacy of government teams, so that people understand how to take on digital projects. Helping other ministries build teams like ours. Figuring out how to get good digital talent inside government. We will be documenting all the things that we do here so that we can help build capacity throughout the OPS.
I noticed that you’ve set up an office in Waterloo alongside Communitech. Can I assume that’s part of your vision around how to engage the broader digital community and build capacity overall?
Absolutely. It’s three-fold. It’s absolutely engaging the broader community, engaging students, co-ops and startups in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. We also hope to get folks out of government hallways here in Toronto and get them to Kitchener-Waterloo to participate in user research or kick off a design sprint around a problem.
We’re calling our space the empathy lounge, and it’s a user research facility. We’ve got our space set up almost like a comfortable living room, with couches and nice lighting. You come in and sit down with a phone, tablet or laptop, and walk through something as if you were at home. You’re not in a sterile environment worried that you’d got people looking over your shoulders. We can do user testing. We have the tools and training to lead user research sessions, so we hope that ministries will want to use that.
Okay, let me shift focus here a little bit and talk about a broader concept that all of this is nested in, and that’s open government. There is a strong global push toward open government, and here in Canada, a lot talk across the country on the concept and what it means for our approach to engaging citizens and how it will shape public service tenets for the future. I’m interested in your perspective in this, and what governments, like the Ontario government, should be thinking about moving forward?
The philosophy I’m holding myself and our leadership team to is to focus on the user, be agile and iterate, use the data and work in the open.
We hope to build a team that is beyond Toronto. And so working openly, even just across our team, is very important. When we do that, when we make decisions and document them, when we blog about things that we’re working on and struggling with, we show to ourselves, and the broader OPS, how we think and how we work.
When we do that, people can picture themselves sitting next to us.
Open, and digital really go hand in hand. Ontario has been a leader in open government in Canada. Putting together the open data catalogue, and the work of the open government team here in Ontario. We want to help push that along.
A great example is: in the U.S., 18F, USDS, and the Department of Education all work together to deliver something called a college scorecard. This was something that the President asked for. He wanted there to be one place for prospective students and their families to go and find out the return on investment for colleges and universities, so lots and lots of data was available.
We worked together to build a website for the Department of Education that launched at edu.gov. At the same time, a half dozen to a dozen different businesses had already built tools and services on top of the old data. These tools were getting used, serving communities and constituents that government wouldn’t necessarily reach.
So we reached out to them and said, we’re about to open up a whole new sort of data. We’re about to build a new API; we’d love for you to test and build this along with us. When we release the official government college scorecard, we’d love for you to release your tool that day as well. That was a really eye-opening moment for so many of our stakeholders – government working in the open, like that.
Okay, I want to switch focus a little bit here and talk about your leadership style. You’re an apostle for some interesting and challenging concepts within the Ontario Public Service. And as much as we respect our public-sector institutions and values, we all recognize that the structures are hierarchical to support departmental accountabilities, built for an analog world. So what personal leadership values and tools do you use to overcome the organizational inertia and how do you be successful?
Why I’m here is not any different from why we have 60,000+ people who have chosen to work in the Ontario Public Service. We are, to use a phrase we had at 18F, impact junkies.
We want to make a difference. We want to build things, whether that’s a product or policy, to produce a good outcome. We want to do things that have an impact on our friends, our families, our neighbours, our kids. That’s culture, that’s why we are here.
It’s about embracing that culture and those values. We’re going to talk about APIs, service design and agility; but at the end of the day, we’re here to service a mission that, for me, has always been about people.
Show, don’t tell. Walk side by side with folks. Be willing to try.
We will never be the team that swoops and poops, if you will. I mean we are not the team that swoops in, fixes something and leaves. We absolutely want to build partnerships. We want to walk hand in hand. We want to think about what’s possible, not just what’s in front of us.
For me, it’s a lot about that “just start” mindset.
I really believe in the minimum viable x, whatever x is (en-dash) whether it’s a document, a prototype, a product, or a team. Starting with the smallest thing you can do, having a hypothesis about where you’re going and then testing and learning from it.
So that leads me to another question about the consequences of delivery risk in this area. Politicians are frequently the ones that bear the brunt of project failures, big and small, but they also get the benefits of the upside of all of this as well. I’m interested in your observations on why all of this should be important for political leaders?
To put it in a very small nutshell, I don’t believe that you can govern in the 21st century without thinking about digital, without thinking about what it means to be able to deliver information and services to a broad spectrum of users in a broad spectrum of places.
A government has to understand technology. It has to understand where we need to meet people. We have to meet people where they are. Right now, that’s on their laptops and phones. We have to meet their raised expectations for service on these platforms.
That is the definition of digital thinking: how can we make government responsive in the internet era?
You can’t pick up any paper these days without reading about AI. The implications of AI on all facets of our lives is fascinating and frankly a bit scary. For government, this is a great opportunity, but the job implications and pace of change can be worrying for staff. Do you have any thoughts on this?
With AI, like with digital, just start and start small.
We want to find some of those things that really allow AI or blockchain to have a real effect on making something in your life easier, an interaction with the government easier.
So, we’re looking for opportunities to get beyond the hype and really understand how we can apply some of this technology to products and services being built.
For instance, if you applied AI to lab results, you could start to understand and predict patterns that could help patients? I’m wearing an Apple watch. It’s been called “the number one watch and the number one health monitor.” We’re in a world where, by wearing this watch, I can be instantly notified that my heart rate is spiking and I should get checked out – just by sitting here. We’re starting to think about big data and the potential that it has for governments. It’s all pretty interesting.