The Ontario Public Sector may be searching for a new vendor to provide an electronic information system, but most ministries aren’t nearly ready to deal with the challenges around processes, file structures and data formats to implement one, experts told the 10th annual Showcase Ontario conference this week.
Speaking at a panel discussion called “Finding Information: Today and into the Future,” independent consultant Paula Lederman said the province was in the midst of selecting a single vendor of record that would create a standard set of technologies to manage content, foster collaboration and ensure business continuity. This has already happened at the federal level, she said, but finding a supplier may be the least of the Ontario Public Sector’s (OPS) concerns.
“Many departments still have a lot of work to do,” she said. “They haven’t defined the metadata. They haven’t set the retention guidelines or the access rights.”
Some of this preparation work is being further complicated by other changes that are going on within OPS ministries. A case in point is the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (TCU), to which a number of federal staff and programs were transferred in January of last year. Diane Wise, TCU’s senior manager for centralized service delivery, said the 500-person staff ballooned to 1,000, with more than $1 billion in program spending to manage. This was around the same time her group was mandated to purchase and deploy a content management system, but she soon realized there were more critical issues.
“Just merging the cultures alone was a huge job,” she said. “Then there was the problem of being able to offer information to the public about all the programs we had to offer.”
As with many enterprise organizations, staff at TCU said they often couldn’t find the files they were looking for on the shared drive, Wise said. This was the “O” drive where most common files were stored. That’s when Lederman was brought in to go through each department in the ministry and conduct an inventory of electric files. It didn’t take long before the mystery was solved, Lederman said.
“The problem was there wasn’t one ‘O’ drive. There were 14 of them,” she said. “We had to create a new folder structure and go through quite a process to work that all out.”
Wise said there is no point in TCU going out and buying a content management system until the ministry has a better idea of the content it has. That includes defining the ownership of various pieces of information, how long various documents and files will be kept and creating something that complies with OPS standards.
“We’re really at the baby steps stage,” she said. “It’s not something you can just go through once and have everyone comply with it. And believe me, no one, and I mean no one, is going to get excited about this.”
TCU has appointed power users within each department to monitor how files are collected and stored based on the new file structure and each department will also be subject to a regular audit, she said.
The problems facing the OPS are made worse by not only the increased volume of information but the many ways in which it can be delivered, said Roland Gossage, director of Canadian operations at Endeca Technologies, which provides an information access platform.
“It used to be that there were people who preferred green ledger paper and people who preferred Excel,” he said.
The nature of information requests are also changing, he noted, becoming something more appropriate for Google than the OPS. Instead of merely asking for information on adult education programs, for instance, a citizen might ask for courses in a specific area geared towards newcomers to Ontario and which are available at night.
“The back-end systems don’t support the sort of serendipitous access users are looking for,” he said. “They’re looking more for the concierge approach to information requests, and it’s hard for disparate systems to provide those results. It also can cause a lot of thrashing in the system.”
Lederman said every department in every OPS ministry has to take some responsibility for getting its information under control before widespread electronic information management will be successful. “It’s like your branch department kitchen – who’s going to clean out the fridge?” she said.
Showcase Ontario wrapped up on Wednesday.