Back in 1998, Y2K loomed, Microsoft Office was rolling out, and the Internet was a work in progress. Who foresaw the meteoric rise of Google, Facebook and YouTube?
A technology strategy has to steer through the murky waters of an unpredictable future. Ontario’s 1998 I&IT strategic plan laid the foundation to enable the provincial government to cope with technology wildcards. Ten years later, Ontario’s new I&IT strategic plan has to divine the shape of things to come, again.
“A strategic plan is a way to engage the organization and get everyone to say, ‘Yeah, that’s a future we like the look of,'” says Rose Langhout, head of I&IT policy and planning at Ontario’s Ministry of Government Services (MGS).
Slated for implementation in April 2008, the new plan being developed in consultation with ministries will set the direction of technology initiatives for the next five years and will serve as the foundation that Ontario’s I&IT clusters can use to set their own program plans in motion.
There’s a fundamental shift in the philosophy of this new strategy, says Langhout. “Although the previous plan was not designed to be about saving millions of dollars, that’s what it came to be about. Part of the reason we need a fresh plan is that we’ve done that $100 million saving and want to turn to other things.”
The Ontario government’s IT infrastructure has changed dramatically in 10 years, notes Rob Dowler, chief corporate strategist at MGS. Consolidation and standardization have been prominent features in reshaping it, and both will intensify, he adds.
“In 1998, we had 22 separate and isolated computer environments, but today we have eight I&IT clusters that work together.
“There were no common standards or shared I&IT governance: IT departments made their own decisions via the ministries. And few government services were online,” says Dowler.
“Today, 70 per cent of key services are online and we want to move to 85 per cent. We now also have a common components program and other corporate standards, and an IT leadership committee that meets regularly.”
New directions are being set to build on this foundation to improve alignment of IT with the Ontario government’s public service goals. “We’re moving beyond the e-Ontario strategy, for better or worse – there is more to IT than financial efficiency. This plan will harvest some of the benefits of the infrastructure.”
Performance management and metrics will play a larger role in the future. “We’re interested in taking the terabytes of data accumulating and turning them into performance measures,” says Dowler, adding that the government is concerned to ensure services are benchmarked against external tiers and there are clear targets to improve program management.
Ramps and risks
Mindful of the U.K.’s unhappy experience with big-bang public sector projects that failed, the strategic plan will stress project management methodologies and evaluation criteria. “When developing new applications, we want to ensure they fit within overall standards and are put through a gateway process with proper exit ramps and consideration of risks and mitigation factors.”
Developing efficient and transparent procurement standards in general is an emerging issue for government, says Dowler. In particular, the plan will focus on developing standards around procurement of open source software.
“Open source is something governments can’t ignore. But we want to ensure we have policies and guidelines that allow apples-to-apples comparisons of open source to regular products and have vendor support so we’re not exposed to liability. We want to put in a series of approvals and checkpoints before people go to an open source environment.”
Dowler highlights two significant areas, one old and one new. Dealing with legacy systems will require significant IT work across OPS (the Ontario Public Service), he says. And embedding green IT mechanisms to improve energy efficiency is a new issue coming to the fore that has surprising benefits.
OPS has to strike the right balance between instilling a sense of urgency around legacy systems and tackling the issue within a manageable timeframe.
“We want to ensure we have a plan that allows us to renew the systems before we hit the point where we can’t obtain spare parts,” says Dowler. “Refreshing legacy systems can be costly and time-consuming, so we’re looking to pursue a 10-year cycle for this, and the funds to extend, replace or convert systems will depend on the business case.”
The idea is to develop a measured long-term plan that can be broken down and executed in annual chunks to ensure progress is made towards the end-goal, says Langhout.
“What I hear is that we can’t treat legacy systems like Y2K. We can’t go forward saying the sky is falling. It won’t work twice. There are risk factors, but no drop-dead date.”
OPS is currently taking inventory of legacy systems with different versions of major applications, and compiling a prioritized list that will feed into the fall’s annual planning process.
The criteria to prioritize the systems most in need of attention are strictly technical, explains Langhout. “We aren’t making judgements about the business value or looking at it from an application perspective,” she says.
Instead, the guiding principles will target the standardization of tool sets needed around applications and interoperability.
“We want to have one standard .Net and Java environment. Whatever application is at the end should be built in one of those two, so it can be managed in a standard environment.”
This is a practical way to move forward with a clear business justification, without getting bogged down in political wrangling, she says. “It’s a neutral set of criteria about technology that’s no longer supported. It’s a way to get to some objective statement about what needs to be done.
“There may be lots of other cuts around why it’s important to modernize legacy systems, but this one is totally within the purview of I&IT organizations.”
Context for customization
However, the majority of government applications aren’t currently standard. “Most of our applications are custom-built, so the idea is to shift to standard environments over time and on an opportunistic basis. The approach is to hew away at your risk profile to reduce risk over time,” she says.
There are various approaches to execute this: Ripping and replacing systems, reworking the code or using service-oriented architecture (SOA). Decisions and budgets for these initiatives will need to be agreed, and decision-makers will need context around the decisions they’ll have to make, adds Langhout.
“What we have to do is make compelling arguments for why these legacy system investments are required. We can’t guarantee those at the other end will buy these arguments, but we guarantee we’ll do the best we can to make the arguments. Part of the reason for having the I&IT piece integrated into the larger planning process is to position yourself for success in budgeting. It must be endorsed and supported by business areas as it’s important to them and not just us.”
Energy issues will also figure prominently in the plan, says Dowler. “We want to ensure we’re proceeding in an environmentally responsible manner in energy management, selection of equipment, and asset disposal.”
While OPS already has policies guiding the procurement of Energy Star equipment and ensuring power-saving practices are in place on the end-user side, an ambitious plan is afoot to achieve economies of scale by greening its data centres, says Langhout.
The Ontario government is planning to build three state-of-the-art green data centres with energy management and other “intelligent building” capabilities, she explains. Land has been purchased in Guelph for the first site, which is slated for completion around 2012.
To achieve green certification, the construction of the data centre will adhere to painstaking LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.
“There are thousands of sustainable design considerations, including how to control erosion of sedimentation, and use of non-volatile adhesives and low-emitting carpets and paints,” she says.
The point is to centralize data centre gear scattered across the OPS into a few sustainable, energy-efficient environments. “We have multiple data centres today, with everything from real ones to servers under desks,” she says.
“This is part of what we’re doing in the infrastructure consolidation process. We had quite a process in the last while just trying to find all that stuff and ensuring it gets into more appropriate environments.”
Another benefit beyond energy savings is the simplification of OPS business continuity and disaster recovery planning. “We’ll have triple redundancy when the sites are built, so we’ll have a way to trade off processing no matter what goes wrong,” says Langhout.
“And we can get away from having many small places that must all have an independent recovery plan to having substantial plans that support the bulk of our computing capabilities,” she adds.
There are no specific energy targets for the I&IT sector, but broad targets exist for the province overall. “We’re thinking large thoughts around emissions reduction, not just in government but for Ontario. We’re actively inviting organizations to participate in programs aimed at peak energy requirements.”
Green sensibilities are rapidly growing in both the private and public sectors, she observes. “The whole green agenda can only get larger, and it has no political shade to it – all parties are concerned.”
A strategy is supposed to set direction, but it isn’t written in stone. “We recognize the five-year I&IT plan will be detailed in the early years, but less so in the outlying years, so it will be refreshed on a regular basis,” says Dowler.
In the ecology of strategies, some initiatives may live on, but others may die. Scott Campbell was Ontario’s CIO during the watershed period of 1998 to 2001, and he learned many lessons during his tenure.
“We had many initiatives under way. Some such as Smart Systems for Health (SSHA) are still being implemented today, but the integrated justice project we started was discontinued,” he says.
But he points out the larger goals of the strategic plan of the day were fulfilled. “We laid the groundwork for the eventual consolidation of the infrastructure and treating it like a utility,” says Campbell, adding that other jurisdictions, undergoing similar public sector IT consolidation today, continue to draw on his experience.
Although Ontario has made progress in some areas such as e-health and social service delivery over the past decade, Campbell believes insufficient attention has been paid to others. “Program areas such as education were not a success in my term, and that’s still the case today.
“There are no major I&IT initiatives in e-learning for K-12, and that’s unfortunate,” he says. “Also, the court side of justice needs more work. Police and corrections have gotten attention, but not court administration.”
A new economy
Campbell notes that Ontario is turning its attention to linking technology development with economic competitiveness. “Developing the digital economy and bridging the digital divide have been a real priority for Premier [Gordon] Campbell in British Columbia, but Premier [Dalton] McGuinty has had other priorities,” he says.
“But I give the Ontario government full marks for this whole piece of work that it’s beginning to work on. We need to look at technology as a tool in the economic arsenal and push it further.”
While many dominoes need to line up to ensure a project’s success – clarity around the government’s goals, value for money, feasibility – the issue of timeliness can derail a good project.
“If it takes five years to get there, that’s too long in the political life-cycle. You need bite-sized chunks: six-month periods [for example] with some clear things delivered, not the whole system,” says Campbell.
Good project governance and stakeholder engagement are key ingredients in any IT project, but Campbell stresses engaging politicians is crucial in public sector projects.
“As we moved forward on our management agenda during my term, we didn’t engage the politicians to the extent I would have liked, on the actual ends the technology would be put to.
“Better health care and education became second-order effects, and I would have liked twisting that around 180 degrees. But we knew at the time we didn’t have the management capacity – we needed to do that first before we could get to the second. If I could do it over again, I would try to do both.”
Rosie Lombardi is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org