You have to go where your customers are, Ontario

The citizen is always right, Ontario services chief says

Ontario’s public service workforce must use more inclusive and collaborative technologies that make it easier for citizens to interact with its government, according to Ron McKerlie, Ontario’s deputy minister of government services.

Speaking at Wednesday’s Showcase Ontario event in Toronto, McKerlie told conference attendees to “constantly look at everything from a customer point-of-view,” referring to the delivery of IT services.

“It’s not enough just to finish a huge project, implement a great new innovation and just stand there as it hums along,” he said. “The world of custome-centred delivery doesn’t work that way. It’s a constantly evolving world that requires new and fresh thinking every week and every month.”

McKerlie pointed to the BizPal service, a tool aimed at helping small businesses get all the licences and permits they need from various levels of government in one place, as a strong customer-focused initiative.

He added that the Ontario government has worked hard to revamp the birth registration system, to allow people who give birth in a hospital the ability to go online and receive their baby’s birth certificate and social insurance numbers within 15 days.

McKerlie plans to lead the province on more of these customer-focused IT innovations over the coming years.

Also speaking at Showcase Ontario was former deputy Prime Minister of Canada John Manley, who is currently a counsel with Toronto-based law firm McCarthy Tetrault LLP.

For Manley, the role of Web 2.0 and social networking during the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign clearly highlights where all levels of government should be heading in Canada.

“As our population becomes more familiar with, and enamored of, the tools of Web 2.0, government will no longer be able to make policy in a vacuum, or by consulting elites and interest groups,” he said. “More and more, ordinary citizens will demand to be included in the process of policy development.”

Manley also stressed that studies have continually shown IT investment to be ineffective if it is not associated with significant organizational change.

The need to engage the public through Web 2.0 and completely change the culture of how government IT services interact with its citizens is something that McKerlie recognizes and hopes will occur not only in Ontario, but also throughout Canada.

“But if citizens think you are truly listening, you’d better actually be listening,” he said. “And if citizens believe anything they say is being captured and thought about, you better have the staff to acknowledge that.”

Barbara Swartzentruber, manager of I&IT strategy in the policy and planning branch of the Ontario government, referred to this capability as a “back-and-forth network,” which allows real-time response by government to citizens.

One example would be the release of more raw government data and research to the public. Swartzentruber highlighted the work of Data.gov and the Sunlight Foundation in the U.S. as practical examples.

Achieving this will require the modernization of legacy applications, continued work on project management, and collaboration from all levels of government where appropriate, McKerlie said.

Internally, Ontario’s public services staff will also need better feedback mechanisms as well as more collaboration and training tools.

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