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The End of the Ontario Digital Service and What it Means
Episode 2126th April 2024 • Let's Think Digital • Think Digital
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A few weeks ago, I got a late night message on our team’s Slack that made me do a double-take and was - to be frank - a real shock. It was a link to a Reddit thread that was titled “Ontario Digital Service is Officially Dead.”

ODS had a simple but ambitious mission: transform Ontario’s government services and practices for the digital age. It was led by Hillary Hartley, a veteran of digital transformation efforts like 18F in the United States Federal Government, who took on the role of not just leading ODS but serving as the first Chief Digital and Data Officer for the Ontario Government.

ODS did groundbreaking work for government: New digital service standards and legislation, building user research labs, and creating really great apps and digital tools. But ODS was about more than just digital products. It was just as much about people. Passionate public servants driven by the belief that interacting with government should be easy and, in Hillary’s words, delightful.

So it came as a shock when I found out that the Ontario Digital Service was being shut down. Not with a bang, but quietly and without fanfare via an internal memo informing staff that ODS was being disbanded. There has been little public discussion on what ODS’ contribution to the Ontario government has been, nor what this decision might mean for other government digital teams or the digital government movement more broadly.

On this episode of the podcast, we tell the story of the ODS over the past 7 years, and what it means now that it has ended, from those who were there at the beginning. We hear from Hillary Hartley about leading the ODS as Ontario's first Chief Digital Officer. We also hear from Karim Bardeesy who was Director of Policy and Deputy Principal Secretary for Premiere Kathleen Wynne when ODS was first being conceptualized. Tanya Coyle, was a long time public servant in Ontario who became one of the co-founders of this new digital startup team in the heart of the Ontario government. And Honey Dacanay was part of the founding team of ODS when it was still what we sometimes call in the tech world a “two-pizza team”.

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00:04 Introduction

03:11 Hillary Hartley joins the ODS

04:33 The role of political leadership

11:50 Accomplishments of the ODS

21:11 What does the disbanding mean?

28:14 Hillary reflects on the end of ODS

34:22 Conclusion


Ryan 0:05

S, was officially launched in:

Hillary H 3:12

Well, it was an easy decision once I started meeting people in Toronto. I had been interviewed actually a few times and asked that question, and I remember I think I said a version of the same answer every time, which it really was the people. Once I got a chance to chat with everyone from the minister and her team, to early folks that I would get to work with. It was a no brainer. They were eager, they were ready. They were looking for change. You know, they really, the whole point was I think they had seen what had happened in, in the UK with the GDS. In fact, I met the minister at the time and a few of the few of the, you know, not yet ODS folks, when they visited DC and visited USDS and 18F. Because they really were on a mission to understand how the central teams were set up, and how they were both set up for success and what they were, what their mandates were. And so, by the time they, they found me and hired me we were ready to go.

Ryan 4:34

een Wynne becoming premier in:

Karim B 5:55

n returned with a majority in:

Tanya C 8:06

The political level, and my experience in the public service, both were interested in making it easier for people to interact with government online. And that sort of started along a journey together in terms of seeing a lot of what I personally saw, a lot of optimism and energy in the government at the time of ODS starting up. Hillary was a game changer for us, I'll always remember when she first came her first day, and we meant as a leadership team and she introduced an exercise around Rosebud Thorn, which is commonly done in Silicon Valley and other startup environments, where you're kind of reflecting on what's working, what's not, and where you need to go next. And the room was really quiet, and there were tears, and there were jeers, and there were cheers. So it's just one of those very symbolic moments of the change that literally arrived in the person. I think internally public servants were hopeful and they wanted to help support the implementation of a changed agenda. Yet, as we know, public service is not a monolith. There are parts of the organization that wanted to run towards digital transformation. There were other parts of the organization that wanted to resist change. And then there was a big mushy middle of folks who either misunderstood it or weren't sure what its promise really entailed. For me, personally, a lot of the folks that we worked with at the time, they were either sort of new to government, new grads coming into to their first jobs within the public service and/or folks who'd worked a few years and we're moving into their first or second leadership position. They had sort of, were considered the internet experts, had familiarity with the internet, they were being listened to. And I think with that there was a wave of momentum that was really building at the time

Honey Dacanay 9:56

I started in government as part of the new media team at Cabinet and Office Communications. That team eventually became the team that ran And the while I had moved around since then, I've always kept pace with what was going on. And by the time the Ontario Digital Service was born, it was time to sort of join up again, the original vision for the Ontario Digital Service was to essentially build on the credibility that was created by having a team that delivered sort of unleashed into government with that hypothesis that we could get everybody to care about the public again, and we could actually change government and how it works in a digital era. And the service itself was about bringing in people with, and normalizing practices that were new to government at the time. So service design, DevOps, agile product management, data analytics, so they were all public servants in Ontario, as some were developers, some were content designers. And then, in the, I guess, the group that was expanding that reach from, they some were external. And so a couple of not for profit, civic tech folks. There were people from different parts of government as well, who were involved in the mission and getting it off the ground.


So ODS gets off the ground in 2017. And they immediately get to work, and they start to deliver. At the time, I was helping to get the federal government's Canadian Digital Service off the ground, which launched just a few months after ODS. I remember in those early days being inspired by the great work that ODS was already doing. And that sense of camaraderie between the growing network of digital teams across Canada. I also think ODS really proved their worth just three years after they launched when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. You'll remember, of course, that in what seemed like the span of just a few days, everything in our lives seem to change around us. And governments were pushed to their limits, trying to figure out how to keep vital services going and keep people safe. Suddenly, everyone needed an online presence, new online tools, and the infrastructure to make that happen, while also dealing with a workforce that was adapting to working in a distributed way at scale for the very first time. And ODS was at the center of this work in Ontario, building on the team and culture that they already had created that was well positioned to step up during this time of crisis. ODS had a lot to be proud of, which is why I asked Honey, Tanya and Hillary, what they thought the main accomplishments of ODS were over the last seven years.

Honey Dacanay:

I think changing the conversation around, like what actually gets centered is, that, bringing that notion of user needs in a real way, like the public perspective, like the outside-in perspective, to call everybody back to why are, why are we in the public service in the first place? The introduction of diverse empowered, multidisciplinary, multidisciplinary teams, and what they are capable of when you put them together, showing what is possible with technology, data, and people when we think of the outcomes first. And so introducing uncomfortable practices sometimes, and ways of working and so a bias for learning and action and always in the open. And, of course, this strategy being delivery with a lot of intention. And here I can rhyme off, like, products that I didn't work on and just won't even dare to take credit for but want to acknowledge how great they are. I mean, of course, the design system, the service design labs, like, and user research labs that were essentially a first in North America, like figuring out user consent and compensation forms. Figuring out a vendor of record for user research. The Verify app built on a foundation that like getting a long story essentially, of being able to launch in, in 30 days was, is one story, but the four and five years building the foundational elements for that also, and the ways of working, made that easier. And then the policy side of it, of course, the simpler, faster, better services act, and in training those in legislation to, again give permission for teams who don't, would otherwise not feel like this was actually the permission to do things differently. Communities of practice and open office hours that they had for various disciplines, again, drop ins and wraparound supports. First ever partnership with Apolitical bringing the rest of Canada together. So the community for digital that they built for Canada, I think, is also something not to be underestimated. And like the, the impact that they have, and then of course, their ability to not only ship product, but that culture in equal measure, which I think that they've brought and raised expectations of how to relate to each other in teams, and what it means to be a different lead, type of leader in like in an, in a complex bureaucratic organization, especially in uncertain times. And also, we were doing remote and hybrid work before it was the norm.

Tanya C:

You know, writ large, I think people and culture was a big focus for us building capacity and digital capacity within the government was something that we could, we can successfully look back on doing. The size of ODS from a seed team, you know, the early days as a digital government startup, even when the government startup team of seven was combined with the initial team operating, which would have been about 20 at the time, that doubled in size in a very short period of time. The establishment of new jobs specifications for roles such as product managers, and user experience designers was a big win, enabled us to further build capacity and bring talent into government, which I think was a core part of the strategy all along. Of course, the simpler, faster, better services act, still stands as a unique piece of legislation and policy in this country and I think in the world, that was led by Honey Dacanay on the team and really set a strong foundation within law to be able to do some of the change that is still needed and has been done over the years. There are a few other practical examples that the strategy led to the creation of the role of a Chief Digital and Data Officer for the province of Ontario that embedded in law as well. Things like the creation of Code for Canada as a civic tech organization in this country that can continue to do work outside of government was pivotal as part of the strategy. And we had some other important work that was done too, around standards in general in government, a digital assessment process, the creation of digital-first curriculum and training within the government for other public servants so that the ways of working and operating could spread across government because Force One Digital Service team would never be enough to lead the change over time.

Hillary H:

You know, we delivered incredible tools over the seven years, everything from a brand new environmental registry, to all of the work that the team did during the pandemic, from, to all of the data visualization work, to the health screeners and checkers that made originally, that story is pretty incredible, because honestly, it was Alberta that had the first one out, we reached out and said is your code open source? Can we use it? And then we launched our own in three days because of that collaboration, because of the open source code. And our team because of the way it was situated was really the only team that could just stop everything, pivot and get to work and start delivering anything. And I think, that's to me, that was always the thing that I was trying, that I was preaching, that I was trying to get folks to understand. But it really wasn't until the pandemic where people saw that in action, they saw, okay, this is a team that because of the way it's structured, we can pull, you know those small product-oriented teams together, set them right next to the policy people and just start delivering and do it fast. You know, the team just delivered incredible work, a design system, a front end dev system, you know, that is repeatable and in place, so all of these kinds of you know, we delivered services but we also delivered some really foundational tech that is able to keep going, was able to let us create really rapidly, it's amazing to look back and think that pretty much, if a service got delivered over the last seven years, and it is a delight to use, it's because they went through the digital first assessment process, and they followed the digital service standard, and they worked with the team at the ODS to pass that assessment. And if they weren't passing part of it to get the support that they needed, you know, to, to use our user research facility and to, you know, to be able to do some of that discovery and research work that teams you know, seven years ago definitely weren't doing, you know, we hear folks that were at the ODS for years and have gone on to other either IT teams or other program teams, and still reach back out, you know, in the in the ODS slack to say, the culture that we build at the ODS is the culture that I'm trying to bring here, you know, and it's that one of how do you, how do you enable small multidisciplinary teams to just work across silos and get things done?


ODS delivered. We heard about no shortage of impactful and innovative work it was able to undertake as a catalyst within the broader service and IT landscape in the Ontario government. So the question remains that sparked our desire to do this episode of the podcast in the first place. Namely, why shut it down? And what is this mean for digital modernization efforts going forward? You're both now at the Dais which is a think tank, housed at Toronto Metropolitan University. And I know, you know, looking at digital government and Public Sector Innovation in Canada is one of the areas of focus for both the organizations, I'm wondering, from your perspective, you know how this disbanding of ODS fits into the broader narrative you're seeing around government modernization efforts, both in Canada and around the world. You know, what would you kind of think you take away from that for the future? And also, with both of you having been, you know, personally involved in ODS' story, I'm just kind of curious, you know, how do you personally feel about this news, having come down that ODS as an organization, you know, no longer exists as it was?

Karim B:

Yeah, sure. And interesting moments for digital government from a kind of citizen public perspective. The pandemic illustrated, and people experienced the benefits of a strong, well functioning government that was informed by digital. How many people booked their vaccines online, how many people were able to inform themselves differently or better about how they needed to protect themselves and their families? What kind of campaigns were informed by some of these principles that reached more people that wouldn't have been reached otherwise? So some of that is directly the result, would have been, some of those things were directly as a result of the service. And some of them were a result of the culture and the capacity, that digital service built. So the real like legacies and benefits coming out of this sort of pandemic moment, and, you know, the ever-rising tide, it seems if of toxic authoritarian populism, you also need a way to respond to that is to show people that government works. And some of that is policy. And some of that is the practice of government, in your community, in your interactions with it. And, and I just, I strongly believe, and our research shows that there's a need for continuous improvement in the space. That you need, you need some, an institution, a set of people within that are building tension, building products, yes, but also building tension to help everyone else step up their game. And so I see this as a loss. I sometimes thought of proponents of digital government that this is, that they intend to displace other forms of service delivery. And for me, it's both and I think we can have, you know, Service Ontario kiosks in physical locations that are serving people at odd hours. And we can have digital. I think there's a perception and maybe some digital proponents go a bit too far with this to say, look, we can displace a whole bunch of things and don't worry, it'll all be digital. The need remains for a variety of of services delivery in different kinds of ways. Also just point out that in an era where concerns about how people are behaving online, people's own concern for their cybersecurity institutions, concern for cybersecurity, also means we need a strong digital service thing. Is building the trust and confidence while we're also defending ourselves online. Again, those are two things that go hand in hand. So those are a couple of reasons I'm going to mourn, mourn the loss.

Tanya C:

Yeah, I think the key word in your question, Ryan is really modernization. And it's, it's quite interesting because as we know, transformation is not a clean or linear process, I think it's safe to say that changing the status quo is uncomfortable for everyone. We've seen incentive changes, changes happen, accountability shift. For me, I don't think the ODS example is unique. I think it, because it is a transformation effort, it sort of falls into a category of work that we've seen in other domains, too, which is change efforts have an ebb and flow to them. They're, you know, as a movement. And we do we do a lot of work at the Dias around building resilient leaders who can manage through change and lead change. There's, there's ups and downs along the process. And because it's not linear, that we do more than just enable the conditions, but that we continue to build the right types of leadership within organizations and outside and around organizations, so that folks, you know, are comfortable through these periods of change, that they know that they do not need to be digital or technology experts, but they have the fundamental skills to be under- to be able to understand why their decisions matter in the context of a digital economy in a digital age around them and they can they can lead through what can feel rocky at times for people, because it certainly won't always be like it was at the beginning for ODS. So for me, you know, nationally, our research at the Dias is shown, we just released a report last year called bite-sized progress, which looks at digital transformation at the Government of Canada, we see that our national ranking is falling, over two decades we've gone from sixth in the world to 32nd, I think, provincially we see indicators that they're also signs of conditions changing and therefore, you know, our capacity shifts, as those conditions change. What maybe makes me mourn the loss of the entity on the whole is that it was very much a team effort and a lot of people with a singular commitment towards a goal, different skill sets different, you know, types of skills that they're bringing into the roles, but generally committed to one mission. So very strong mission oriented team, which if you take away, you know, the, the team, you're left with individuals, and that may not produce the same type of result. I think what gives me hope is that those individuals have chosen to remain in government are working in and around governments in ways that can continue to fuel the movement and bring new momentum in the days ahead.


Before we wrap up, I'm going to give the final word on this to Hillary, who was a transformational leader for ODS in its early days and throughout most of its history. I wanted to know if she thought this was the right time to be disbanding ODS and what her reaction was to this news.

Hillary H:

Well, I always, I guess, joked that we were working to put ourselves out of a job. But the reason that was a joke is because it is, it's, it's a generation's work, you know. And that kind of transformation that needs to happen top to bottom to truly enable seamless online service were not done. I mean, we're not close to done in any jurisdiction really. But one of the again, I think one of the biggest pieces of, of why these teams are successful is because you're able to have a focal point for, a focal point, a rallying cry, whatever it is, that gets people into your system that wouldn't have been there before. Or that enables folks that are, you know, the scrappy people that have been trying to do agile or trying to use open source software at the staff level and government for years and you give them a team that kind of has the right champion and has the right air cover. And that they can go to and say can you help me get this done? And those, you know, it's both, it's sort of that the bringing in of the talent and then the sort of diaspora that it creates and it's the, it's the enabling of the talent across the public sector that I think is there is the real magic of those teams, they can, you know, they all continue to deliver. And they all continue to do great things. But I really fundamentally believe that the capacity building that happens, because of those central teams and their ability to, to be central and what that means in at least in most Westminster governments, to, to drive and to say there is a different, better way to get things done.


And so, you know, I think that leads to them, the natural question is, you know, specifically in the context of Ontario, you know, the Ontario government has made this decision to, you know, sunset, the ODS as an organization, my understanding is, you know, the pieces of it are kind of being moved to different parts of the organization, but it as kind of a distinct organization or unit at the center of government, you know, kind of no longer is, and, you know, so I'm curious, you know, your take on this, obviously, as somebody who's very vested in it was around, you know, for the revolution, you're now outside of the Ontario government. So you're looking at this with a somewhat detached standpoint, even though obviously very invested in it. I'm curious, you know, do you think this was the right timing for this kind of change? Was it the time to do this? Or do you think there was still a case to be made to have ODS as its own entity within the Ontario government? And I think maybe more broadly, Hillary, where do you think we go from here?

Hillary H:

Yeah, what I was working to do, as I was planning to leave, was to get the ODS set up for success. And we put it in the ministry that is a fairly central ministry, responsible for delivery and customer service and IT. We were trying to essentially build the three legs of the stool that would carry that forward, and essentially broaden what the ODS could be to the rest of the public service. You know, so we had, we had been the central team that was designing standards and, and helping people create great products. And what the goal was, was to say, Okay, we've got this great product capacity, right next to IT, and right next to Service Ontario, right next to our service delivery unit. And, at some point, clearly, that just didn't play out exactly the way that I had envisioned it, I think there is possibly a misunderstanding of a product inside government. And it's not, again, it's not just Ontario, but I think there's a misunderstanding of product and product teams and, and what what, you know, the ODS was designed to do in that respect. Versus just kind of digital and digital policy and data and things like that, but, but why having small product teams that are then able to sit right next to IT or sit right next to policy, or work with service, was so important. My hope is that those teams that are now kind of, they've been, as I understand it, and kind of as you described, it broken up and put into different pieces of that ministry. My hope is that the leaders understand what they, what they've inherited, and, and also how to enable them to continue to work together in the ways that were uber productive. You know, like I said, there's more than one way to organize all of this, the tough work is saying, Okay, we understand the power of product and digital thinking and systems thinking and service design. And we understand that we have to let these folks work across silos and get things done in a in a truly not capital A agile software way, but in an agile, iterative, continuously improving way. And so it's, it's my challenge to those leaders is essentially, to continue to think about that and to let those teams continue to work together. And, and, and get together in those two pizza teams and, and continue to ship great things.


I think we're definitely in a new era of digital modernization and government. The disbanding of ODS is perhaps just the latest tangible manifestation of that feeling that we've been talking about all season on the podcast that we are stuck in the mud when it comes to digital transformation here in Canada. There seems to be resistance, if not outright pushback on some of the efforts to bring government into the digital age. In future episodes, we're going to start talking about what we can do to get unstuck. But for now, I'm going to remember ODS and all the people that contributed to this amazing team over the years. They were an inspiration for many and I'm hopeful that those dedicated public servants and civic technologists who gave so much in their work at the Ontario Digital Service will be able to bring those values and practices to wherever in government or elsewhere, they end up next. And that's the show for this week. Tell us what you think, how will you remember the Ontario Digital Service? And do you think it was ended too soon? If you're watching on YouTube, tell us in the comments below. Email us at or use the #letsthinkdigital on social media. While you're at it, make sure to like and subscribe. And if you're listening to us on your favorite podcast app and you liked this episode, be sure to give us a five star review afterwards. And remember to go to and sign up for a newsletter and to catch up on past episodes of the podcast. Today's episode of Let's Think Digital was produced by myself, Wayne Chu and Aislinn Bornais. Thanks so much for listening. And let's keep thinking digital.




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