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Toronto’s digital transformation is possible — if we make it a priority – Toronto Star

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In 2022, residents expect high-quality digital services from their governments. Is the City of Toronto falling short of those expectations? And if so, what can be done about it?
A recent column by the Star’s Matt Elliott called out some worrisome trends in Toronto’s approach to digital transformation. His list of concerns wasn’t short, ranging from a bloated 200+ registered tech lobby groups, to an outdated status-quo, to several ongoing unsuccessful digital projects.
As a lifelong Torontonian and the executive director of Code for Canada, a national non-profit that works with government on improving life through digital transformation projects, I spend my days working with civil servants on digital solutions that put the public first. I know firsthand how tough the path forward is, but I also know it’s possible.
First, let’s take a look at the challenges. Dedicated public servants face an uphill battle when it comes to modernizing city services. To start, they need to attract digital talent. While Toronto is known as North America’s fastest-growing tech hub, most software developers, UX designers and data analysts are looking for high-paying private-sector gigs. Without these professionals in-house, the city is under pressure to keep outsourcing its digital work.
These days, most successful tech companies have multiple teams working together to gather user research, design a thoughtful user experience and optimize every step of the customer journey. Government often doesn’t work this way — personal information is collected piecemeal and there are serious department and data silos. Without a shared value of excellent user experience, there isn’t the drive to work across departments to create digital products that truly serve residents.
Finally, despite it being one of Silicon Valley’s favourite mottos, governments can’t and shouldn’t “move fast and break things.” Government services are essential to the people that use them, placing pressure on civil servants to move with caution when making changes to the status quo.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges the city faces in its digital transformation journey. Add in the unmatched diversity of their average “user,” the number of stakeholders and decision-makers involved and the endless backlog of projects, and it’s easy to see what makes delivering quality digital services so hard.
But hard doesn’t mean impossible. We’ve seen firsthand that the city is capable of building amazing digital tools. Code for Canada partnered with the City of Toronto’s Transportation Services data team on a multi-year effort to develop MOVE, a new digital tool where staff can access traffic volume and collision data in one easy-to-navigate place.
MOVE lets staff spend less time retrieving data, and more time meaningfully investigating safety interventions. Most importantly, it was co-developed with staff, who feel confident using it to make decisions instead of constantly relying on the help of outside vendors. We believe projects like MOVE can be a template for how the city can take an active role in its digital transformation.
Torontonians deserve effective digital products and services. To make this happen, the city can’t rely on legacy systems or the private tech vendors that lobby it every day.
More transparency and safeguards are almost always the right answer when it comes to government decision-making, but that’s not all we need for rapid and sustainable digital transformation.
To succeed, it must double down on efforts to hire and retain digital talent while investing in its existing staff’s digital skills. When external help is the right answer, it should give preference to local partners who believe in working for the public, not just profit.
Digital transformation doesn’t have to be a slog — and for the sake of Toronto residents, it has to be a priority.
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