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Ontario’s CIO takes new approach to IT strategy

David Nicholl sits down with expertIP to explain how the provincial government is moving toward the same customer-centric user experience already happening in the private sector — and how constraints of the public purse shouldn’t be used as a crutch.


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When I sit down to interview David Nicholl, we discover a shared acquaintance with Welsh-Canadian tech billionaire Sir Terry Matthews.

I covered Matthews and his telecom empire (including Newbridge Networks and Mitel) during the mid-1990s. Nicholl, now corporate CIO for the Ontario government, remembers leading a delegation of Queen’s Park types on a visit to some of Matthews’s Ottawa-area startups a few years ago.

After Nicholl greeted Matthews, the billionaire asked him when his flight had arrived from Toronto.

“We didn’t fly,” Nicholl told him. “We came here on a minibus.”

Although Nicholls says Matthews “was impressed” by all the effort he’d made to get there, it’s still a running joke between them.

“Terry never lets me forget it every time I see him,” Nicholl says with a grin.

Nicholl’s personal pilgrimage to Ottawa illustrates his approach to public-sector IT: focus on the people, not the technology.

“We maybe used to [develop a government IT service] and ticked off a box. But we never really followed up to say, ‘Did people like it? Did they use it?’ We’ve completely shifted our view to be much more outward-in as opposed to the other way around,” he tells me.

The same shift to a customer-centric user experience mindset is already happening in the private sector, which is where Nicholl came from. Born in Northern Ireland, he spent much of his IT career at HSBC, TD Bank and e-payments firm Oasis Technology.

Nicholl became the Ontario government’s corporate CIO in 2008. One of his biggest accomplishments so far, he says, is weaving disparate provincial government websites into a cohesive Ontario.ca portal. (His office calls me later to insist that my story give shared credit for this to Lynn Betzner, deputy minister of communications and intergovernmental affairs.)

What difference has any of this made in Ontario?

Nicholl points out that young Ontarians no longer stand in lines for hours to apply for student loans. He says a mobile trip planner helped thousands of visitors take public transit to Toronto’s PanAm/Parapan Am Games venues last summer. This year, Ontarians used the Budget Talks website to submit 53,402 votes, 1,732 ideas and 4,340 comments about what they wanted to see in the provincial budget.

“I don’t want to make it easy for people to [access government services] online. I want to make them want to do it online rather than any other way,” he says.

Nicholl is getting some extra help with that. During a recent cabinet shuffle, the new Ministry of Digital Government was created. So was the position of chief digital officer for the province, which remains unfilled. Nicholl and his current position remain intact.

I ask Nicholl how the private sector can work with government on digital transformation. He’d like to see them jointly develop a digital identity program, “some sort of cornerstone going forward for government services, ecommerce, online banking.”

Let’s circle back to that minibus story. Have constraints of the public purse forced government to rent a minibus toward digital transformation when the private sector is zooming there on a Lear jet? And isn’t government IT hogtied by regulatory issues the private sector doesn’t face?

“We’re a heavily regulated business but I wouldn’t fall back on the crutch that we’re public sector [so] therefore it’s different,” he says. “Do our mistakes make it into an article somewhere? Potentially.”

Public service draws intense public scrutiny, for sure. Nicholl made headlines when he was grilled about the destruction of government computer files involving two cancelled gas plants. Since the 2009 eHealth debacle, the province has had to rebuild its track record (and, to some degree, public trust) on the digital front.

Daunting stuff. But Nicholl says developing Ontario.ca taught his team “how you get a government to be comfortable doing things in perhaps not a safe, comfortable way, and take a bit of risk for agility and speed.”

If there’s one thing the public sector could borrow from billionaire entrepreneurs like Matthews, that might be it.

Photo: Flickr/Benson Kua

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