Governments in Canada have responded, by necessity, with unprecedented speed to mitigate the impact from COVID-19. In Ontario and elsewhere, policies have been enacted, task forces stood up, partnerships established and decisions reached at speeds that were, pre-pandemic, difficult to achieve.

That nimble response, says Hillary Hartley, the Chief Digital Officer for the Province of Ontario, is a breakthrough, a victory. It’s one that can’t, of course, undo the damage the virus has caused to people’s health and national economies (and will continue to do for the foreseeable future), but it’s one that needs to be bottled and preserved – proof that government can break barriers and red tape in the name of better serving its citizens.

“We have shifted the pace inside government,” Hartley told Communitech President and CEO Iain Klugman Tuesday in the latest episode of True North TV. “We've shifted the pace of policy-making, of product delivery, of decision making – [and we’ve done so] really with data, with people in mind at its core.

“[This is] the kind of stuff that makes me really excited because, you know,  I've been sort of shouting it from the mountaintops for a few years.”

True North TV is a series of virtual discussions with leaders in tech and wider society with an overall “tech for good” theme. The series, which launched last month, began as a response to the cancellation of June’s True North Festival due to the spring onset of COVID-19.

Hartley, in addition to her role as Chief Digital Officer, serves as Ontario’s Deputy Minister for Digital Government, a title she has held for more than three years. Hartley and her team are tasked not only with improving digital services for Ontarians but also with helping the government and the public service innovate and grow more nimble, more tech savvy. To that end, the Ontario Digital Service has established an innovation lab at Communitech. 

The pandemic, Hartley told Klugman, has changed culture within government. Agile is now a mindset in a way that wasn’t necessarily the case beforehand.

“All of these things that we thought were necessary [government procedure], we've pushed to the side [in order] to make quick decisions and we found out, maybe they aren't necessary.”

The key now, Hartley told Klugman, is to find a way to maintain the momentum and workflow into the future, including into that hoped-for era when the pandemic has ebbed and policy-making isn’t driven by its urgency.

I think that it's going to be up to all of us as leaders to essentially figure it out,” Hartley said. “How can we move forward in a way that allows us to keep being as nimble as we have, and as agile as we have been?

“I hope we can figure out a bottle [for it] that is just really across the board.”

Among other themes Hartley touched on during her discussion:

    • The collaboration of the Ontario Digital Service with other agencies and businesses in helping produce a national contact-tracing app, due to be rolled out soon;

    • Tech’s role in improving – and perhaps even saving – democracy;

    • Premier Doug Ford’s leadership role since the pandemic’s onset;

    • What a post-pandemic world looks like;

    • Thoughts on the emergence, and importance, of the Black Lives Matter movement.

True North TV continues next Tuesday. On tap is an interview with patent and intellectual property specialist Noel Courage. Courage is a lawyer with Toronto firm Bereskin and Parr LLP."