How Public Digital helped set up the Ontario Digital Service

A few weeks ago, the Ontario Digital Service published its Digital Action Plan, opening with this statement:

“We are redesigning government for a digital world. The goal is simpler, faster and better end-to-end services across a people-centered government.”

In her statement at the beginning, Chief Digital Officer Hillary Hartley added:

“How might we create simpler, faster, better services for Ontarians, together? By delivering. By being willing to try new approaches. By working out loud, and in the open, to share lessons learned and demonstrate change.”


That’s the strategy of delivery, right there.

If you’re part of a government that’s thinking about scaling digital transformation from the first signs of change into something more substantial and something more formal, I urge you to carve out some time in your calendar to read through Ontario’s Plan. It’s not too long, and it’s a document with real power. It establishes the Ontario Digital Service as a new institution for radical change, right in the heart of Ontario’s public service community.

And if you have a little more time to spare, read on to find out how our consultancy Public Digital helped get ODS started, and hire Hillary Hartley to lead it.

A single domain for Ontario

A screenshot of

A team in Ontario built, a user-centered, single domain government website for services and information, not long after we did something very similar with GOV.UK. This small, multi-disciplinary was led by Zeena Abdulla.

They looked at the existing website(s) for Ontarians and found that they were mostly designed to meet the needs of the organisations that created them, rather than the needs of users. They used complicated language that was hard to understand.

So the team, with a mandate to explore new ways of doing things but with a limited budget, set about building a new website that did the opposite: focused on user needs, and filled with content written for ordinary people. (Zeena tells this story in more detail in this video, which is worth a watch. I love how she closes it: “Believe that you’re capable of great things.” There’s also more in this blog post.)

The new site was a big success, and that meant Zeena’s team was suddenly inundated with requests to do more. They needed to scale.

That’s where we came in.

Scaling up the team


Hillary, in the striped top 4th from left, with the rest of the ODS team (Picture: ODS)

At the request of the Ontario government premier’s office, Public Digital was asked to help work out what should come next. We saw pretty quickly that what Ontario needed was an institution to lead digital change. There were structural holes to fill, and a new organisation was the best way to fill them. That organisation needed a respected leader of its own (because, as Mike wrote when we were still working for the British government, if you hire the head the body will follow.)

So we did these things:

  • suggest the creation of the new Ontario Digital Service
  • help create the mandate for it to work within, and service standards for it to follow
  • help with organisation design and hiring people
  • helped hire Hillary as CDO
  • provided an interim CDO function for the newly established team until Hillary was able to start the job
  • created a plan for Hillary’s first 100 days, to give her as much help as possible while she found her feet

The ODS has established itself well, is growing fast (here’s the jobs page), and recently moved to a new building. Hillary already had a formidable reputation, but is now even more respected for the fantastic work she’s been doing to lead the team as it changes. Have a read through their blog and you’ll see what I mean.

What began as a small team of disruptors is now a formally established institution for change. We devised the structure and organisational design to make that change happen. We helped them scale up, as painlessly as possible.

Some of you reading this will see parallels with the early years at GDS, and yes, there’s a lot they have in common. That doesn’t mean that every government digital team is the same, and that the circumstances will always be the same. In fact there were different problems to tackle in Ontario, and different barriers to overcome. We were learning lessons as we went along, lessons that we’ve subsequently been able to put to use for other clients in other countries.

In a recent blog post marking her first year in the job, Hillary wrote:

“The role of Chief Digital Officer was new to the public service, and I was new to Canada. It’s been an incredible journey.”

And you and the team are doing an incredible job, Hillary. Bravo 👏

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