Galvanized by the urgent need to fight the spread of COVID-19, the Ontario government is ramping up efforts to digitize and modernize provincial services and programs.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, one thing is for certain: The world has changed and government must change with it,” said Peter Bethlenfalvy, President of the Treasury Board and Minister Responsible for Digital and Data Transformation. “We have a responsibility to apply the lessons learned from COVID-19 to transform government and better serve the people and businesses of this province.”
Bethlenfalvy paid a visit to the Communitech Hub in Kitchener today to provide more detail about last week’s provincial budget and the government’s Ontario Onwards plan to address the challenges raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. He was accompanied by Mike Harris, MPP for Kitchener-Conestoga, and Amy Fee, MPP for Kitchener South-Hespeler.
The budget and the Ontario Onwards plan are designed to address immediate health, safety and economic needs, as well as to “lay the groundwork for a robust long-term economic recovery for the province,” according to the government.
The budget includes $500 million over four years in the new Ontario Onwards Acceleration Fund. The money will be used to leverage technology to make public-sector services easier and more efficient for individuals and businesses. Approximately $60 million from the fund is earmarked for the 2020-21 fiscal year.
Peter Bethlenfalvy, President of the Ontario Treasury Board and Minister Responsible
for Digital and Data Transformation, made time for a video chat with Waterloo Region
tech leaders during his visit Thursday. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)
Peter Bethlenfalvy, President of the Ontario Treasury Board and Minister Responsible for Digital and Data Transformation, made time for a video chat with Waterloo Region tech leaders during his visit Thursday. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)[/caption]
A key initiative in the Ontario Onwards plan is to digitize government-issued identification, such as drivers’ licences and health cards. Dubbed the “digital wallet,” the project will enable people to carry this kind of official identification on a mobile phone or other digital device, allowing them to access government services remotely.
“Let me give you some examples,” Bethlenfalvy said. “A senior can check in to a doctor’s appointment remotely from a parking lot or lobby, maintaining physical distancing and avoiding lineups. A small business owner can cut through red tape by registering for licences and permits, and open accounts online.”
The $500-million fund will support the implementation of projects that emphasize digital-first and ‘lean’ methods to ensure efficient and effective delivery, he said. The fund will also provide seed funding for pilot projects that test-drive promising new initiatives.
Projects in the plan fall into four categories:
- Making government services more digitally accessible
- Reducing red tape and amplifying implementing policies
- Improving government purchasing
- Creating more responsive and flexible public services
There are currently more than 30 projects identified in the Ontario Onwards plan. In addition to the digital identification initiative, other key projects include:
- Digital-first health care: aims to provide new and enhanced digital health solutions to frontline care workers.
- ServiceOntario: improve customers’ online experience for the highest-volume transactions, such as licence-plate stickers, health cards and drivers’ licences.
- Compliance modernization: helping businesses understand and comply with regulations; and streamline regulatory enforcement.
- Reduce red tape: Untangle Ontario’s permitting requirements by eliminating duplication between ministries and other levels of government; and increasing predictability for approvals for business while ensuring the protection of the environment and public health and safety.
- Broadband and cellular services: expand internet and cellular access to people in underserviced areas.
- Virtual learning strategy: improve access to postsecondary and retraining education by enhancing the sector’s capacity to deliver high-quality, accessible online learning.
- Judicial system: creating innovative ways to deliver services remotely and in-person, such as an online jury pre-screening and a check-in tool.
Bethlenfalvy said the province intends to work with businesses and organizations such as Communitech to help develop and implement the projects.
“While health advice from our leading authorities is critical,” he said, “we need to leverage advancements made in technology to develop new ways to combat this virus. Harnessing the ingenuity and innovation in our society, be it leading private-sector companies or our tech-savvy entrepreneurs, we know that everyone can contribute to our fight against COVID-19.”
The Ontario government has been working to digitize public services for a number of years. In 2017, for example, the province opened the Ontario Digital Service Lab at the Communitech Hub to pursue digitization of services.
Bethlenfalvy described Waterloo Region as “an essential part of this province’s effort to modernize and move forward,” and he praised Communitech for its role in partnering with the province and for developing an internationally renowned tech ecosystem.
Communitech CEO Iain Klugman applauded the province for recognizing the importance of technology and investing in a digital strategy that supports business, individuals and communities.
“We believe that digital is the future in every aspect of our community,” Klugman said. “We are delighted to work with Minister Bethlenfalvy in ensuring that people and businesses in Ontario have the programs and services they need to succeed in the digital economy.”