Ontario’s corporate CIO strives for better IT service

To say that David Nicholl has a lot on his plate as Corporate CIO for the Government of Ontario is a considerable understatement.

Not only must the Province’s I&IT organization support a large and complex group of internal customers, it must also provide the operational underpinnings for a vast array of public services – everything from social assistance programs, to ServiceOntario, to online births, deaths and marriage registrations, to helping police catch the bad guys. All of this is done through a wide variety of technologies and business processes.

“We’ve spent the last two and a half years developing the frameworks and the foundation that will enable us to build a world-class service organization within government,” said Nicholl. “Even though we currently have about 70 per cent of government service online, we need to do more. Now we need to capitalize on all that groundwork by modernizing applications and driving service levels so that we can provide truly outstanding service to the citizens of Ontario and to the Ontario Public Service.”

A key area of focus for Nicholl is meeting internal client expectations – delivering what ministries need, when they need it, in the most effective and efficient way possible. “It’s really important to us that we drive the agenda for excellence in delivery of new and improved services to our ministries through application development and support,” said Nicholl. “So we’ve embraced enterprise architecture as the core foundation of all of our application development techniques and services.”

Wringing out the costs

Cost reduction has been a major focus for I&IT in the Ontario government, and this is an area which has met considerable success. In fact a major project called e-Ontario, launched in 2005, is now returning annual savings of $100 million, due largely to changes in the way infrastructure is being managed.

In Ontario, I&IT is organized around eight clusters of like ministries, each of which has three responsibilities. The first of these is application development and support around business solutions; the second is providing service management to the cluster’s business users; and the third is information management.

As a result of the e-Ontario initiative, a common shared services organization now provides such things as hardware, networking, data centres and telephone systems for all ministries. It operates on a charge-back basis, with no funding of its own, emulating an efficient, effective, private-sector model of recovery.

“Each of the clusters had their own infrastructures, and we centralized them into a single shared-services organization, moving about 800 people,” said Nicholl. “We consolidated our help desks and our desk-side support, as well as a vast number of different contracts we had for similar products across different clusters. We also consolidated all of our server support and that allowed us to move into virtualization in a big way, because all of a sudden those servers were owned and managed in one place.

I&IT moved very aggressively on its virtualization agenda. Over the last two and a half years, over 1,000 servers have been removed from a total population of about 5,500 to 6,000, and there is a strong commitment towards continuing the trend.

The biggest challenge around virtualization has been moving from an “I own it” to an “I’m moving to shared services and I’m buying a service” model, according to Nicholl. “But we’re making great progress because people believe that the model works, and I think we’ve proven that it works.”

New directions in modernization

I&IT is building on its successes with a new strategic plan looking forward to 2013. This plan advances the agenda of modernizing I&IT and aligning it with business directions. One of the key goals is to deliver more reliable, cost-effective solutions.

An important activity for I&IT is the development of enterprise applications as opposed to point solutions. This is another means of significantly reducing costs.

“In areas like finance, for example, we have basically cleared the decks of the siloed systems that had been in government for years. We’ve now got a single ERP for government finances. The same thing is true for human resources – a single system,” said Nicholl. It doesn’t stop there. I&IT is now moving on to other areas of standardisation, such as case management and registration systems.

“For example, we have the need to register a lot of things in government, whether people or businesses, and typically we develop a solution for each business need,” said Nicholl. “What we’re looking to do now is come up with a standardised solution to registration. No matter what the registration is for, we’re going to have a single way of doing it. By moving along that standardised continuum, we feel that we’re going to have a strong impact on time-to-delivery and meeting our clients’ expectations.”

I&IT is rolling out an enterprise standard for public-facing online authentication for services to businesses and citizens. An enterprise approach to online authentication will help reduce costs, the risk of duplication and security gaps, and accelerate application development.

Nicholl and the I&IT organization are also looking for a standardised solution to information management across the Ontario government. At press time, an RFP for a product to standardise on had recently closed, and evaluations were under way.

“E-mail boxes are the de facto document management system for most people, and the first step in getting some control over the business’s information is starting the cultural shift away from that,” said Nicholl. “We have to get people to think about the information they have and classify it in a way that will enable them to put it somewhere that makes sense. Today it all goes into a bucket in their e-mail and they spend a long time looking for old e-mails. We want to get beyond that – information management is the key to reducing our storage costs and improving our ability to access key business data.

Driving much of the change agenda is an aging application portfolio. Older applications are becoming harder and more expensive to support, and it’s getting more difficult to find people to do the work.

Secretary of the Cabinet Shelly Jamieson and the Government’s previous CIO and current Deputy Minister of Government Services, Ron McKerlie, understand the strategic importance of upgrading the Province’s applications. They are terrific champions for this application modernization process, according to Nicholl.

“We view this as being an incredible opportunity,” he said. “As we modernize chunks of applications we can make use of existing common applications, like a registration piece or a finance piece, and that will help us further our modernization agenda.”

Striving for project excellence

In such a large and complex IT environment, it is essential to execute projects as effectively and efficiently as possible. Towards that end, the I&IT organization has introduced project gating and regular quarterly report backs to ensure that projects are running properly, timelines are being met, budgets are in line, and that the right level of oversight and governance is in place. The organization has also successfully implemented a project management Centre of Excellence. Its responsibility is to drive the development and implementation of project management and help project teams take on new techniques, methodologies and tools.

With enterprise-wide tools and process, all projects will be approached in a common way across all clusters and the infrastructure organization. That’s especially important because so many projects are now done for a cross-section of ministries, rather than a single

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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