Clustering: How Ontario took on customer service

Since 1998, the Ontario Public Service (OPS) has been driven by a new vision of government, meant to be customer-centred, focused on its core business, streamlined and integrated, and accountable for delivering results. Technology was seen as a primary enabler of the transformation to take place within the OPS. This article, the last in a series of three on the Information and Information Technology (I&IT) unit which has been instrumental in the process, explores the group’s focus on a customer-centred organization.

When the OPS undertook its I &IT strategic initiative in 1997-98, it quickly became clear that it would have to rethink how it was approaching information and information technology. A review identified a series of critical internal and external challenges that could significantly impede its ability to develop e-government:

– There was no corporate authority and capability to provide enterprise-wide direction and leadership supporting the government’s future direction.

– The information technology structure was not adequate to support many of the key business initiatives across the OPS and within ministries. There were too many different — and sometimes incompatible — IT systems, with little integration between ministries and weak links to the broader public sector.

– Accountability related to over-all financial control over information technology was diffused; the one-year budgeting process meant that IT was treated as a cost rather than an investment, which created barriers to replacing older and fragile systems.

– The employment market for skilled IT professionals was extremely tight; it was clear that individual ministries would not, on their own, be able to attract and retain the highly skilled people required to meet their IT objectives.

In response to these challenges, the government appointed the first corporate chief information officer (CCIO) in Management Board Secretariat, with a prime responsibility to provide corporate leadership for I&IT across the government. Ministries that delivered programs and services with common themes and served clients with similar needs were grouped into seven business “clusters” for I&IT purposes — a major departure from the government’s traditional approach of organizing I&IT activities by individual ministries.

CIOs were also appointed for each business cluster, with dual reporting relationships to both the deputy ministers of their clusters and to the corporate chief information officer.

Implementing a cluster-based structure was not easy. In many cases the ministries that were brought together into clusters were very different in terms of resource requirements and governance models and had differing expectations of I&IT.

Dennis Ferenc, a transition director with the Human Services Cluster at the time, recalls that: “I was given the mandate to take two disparate IT organizations and two ministries in my cluster and create one integrated I&IT organization.

“The process felt similar to building a house. First we had to build the foundation. In our case, the foundation consisted of recruiting all the IT leaders and putting the organizational structure in place. It was a tremendous amount of work.”

The experience of implementing the cluster-based organizational structure had several implications for senior leaders of the I&IT organizations. The first was that the move to a more integrated organization required them to understand the business of the OPS from the customers’ point of view.

“We needed to begin to see the business from the customer’s perspective,” said Dorothy Cameron, manager of Human Resources Planning and Organizaitonal Design. “This is something we are still working on today.”

Another implication was that IT leaders needed to develop a more horizontal perspective on the entire enterprise. Cameron emphasized this point: “Our IT leaders need to look beyond their own areas to build new relationships and work cross-functionally with key stakeholders and business partners.” In fact, this still represents a challenge for the I&IT organization.

A final implication of a cluster-based organization relates primarily to managing the complexity, scope and scale of the organization. Lisa Sherin, director of the Human Resources and Stakeholder Education Unit, says that “identifying, prioritizing and managing the timing and content of a tremendous number of communications opportunities is complex work. We are continually working to develop tools and strategies for cluster organizations that are in varying stages of their evolution in the cluster model. We’ve had many successes – but still have a lot of work to do.”

Vince Molinaro ( is a specialist in leadership programs with GSW Consultants of Toronto.

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