Peter Bethlenfalvy’s next mission: Make Ontario more like Estonia

ANALYSIS: The President of the Treasury Board wants to make provincial agencies more digitally accessible. But can the government avoid privacy and security risks?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 24, 2020
President of the Treasury Board Peter Bethlenfalvy is launching a review of Ontario's public agencies. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

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Earlier this summer, 20,000 people watched an Ontario court decide the fate of two men accused of having assaulted Dafonte Miller, a Black 19-year-old. Michael Theriault, a Toronto police officer, was found guilty of assault; Christian Theriault, his brother, was acquitted of both charges against him. The case had garnered substantial attention because of the facts surrounding it, but the pandemic added something else: an Ontario court that had been pushed to embrace technology it has traditionally shunned, opening its deliberations up to the public in a way this province hadn’t previously seen.

It's one of the numerous examples of how the organs of government have used technology to adapt to the pandemic, and now the province wants to see more of it.

President of the Treasury Board Peter Bethlenfalvy wants Ontario’s agencies get hip to the digital age, as he tries to build on the push various parts of the government have made to get extremely online during the pandemic. The province has 173 agencies, including bodies as diverse as Metrolinx and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.

“We would have done this anyway, but COVID has really amplified how important it is,” Bethlenfalvy told TVO.org in an interview last week. “The agencies ... they’re a big chunk of our delivery system, and we want them to be a part of this.”

Bethlenfalvy is launching a review of the province’s agencies to see how they can be made more efficient and more publicly focused. (TVO, being a provincial agency, is in theory subject to this review.) For now, its health agencies — Ontario Health, the Trillium Gift of Life Network (which handles organ donations), and Public Health Ontario — are exempt from the review, so they aren’t distracted from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In principle, he says, the objective is to make Ontario’s system more like Estonia’s, which allows citizens to access nearly every government service through a single platform.

“Absolutely, we’ve studied Estonia and other smaller jurisdictions,” Bethnlenfalvy says. “Our aspiration is to be the most digitally advanced government in the world.” To make that possible, the Ontario Digital Service, the division of the public service that helped deliver the COVID Alert App earlier this year, has been moved to Bethlenfalvy’s ministry from the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services. (Bureaucratic shuffling isn’t the sexiest part of government, but these kinds of moves can be important when it comes to making all the parts of the policy machine move in the right direction.)

Ontario will not get to Estonian levels of digital integration overnight, and likely not even before the end of this government’s current mandate in 2022. But Bethlenfalvy acknowledged that the current drive may not end with the province’s agencies: Ontario municipalities are an obvious place where there’s the possibility of more and new uses for digital technology, and despite the demise of the Google-backed Sidewalk Labs experiment in Toronto, the push for some kind of “smart city” technology is unlikely to disappear.

At this year’s Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference, Bethlenfalvy took part in a panel on digital government and cyber security where the topic of municipal IT was raised, specifically the lack of resources many municipalities can bring to bear. Of Ontario’s 444 municipalities, roughly half have a population of 5,000 or fewer — which makes it challenging for them to implement any kind of large-scale digital strategy on their own.

But even if the government’s current plans are limited to agencies, the Tories could be wading into a minefield. When they were in opposition — before Bethlenfalvy was elected in 2018 — they railed against some of the technology decisions their Liberal predecessors made. Their complaints weren’t groundless: in 2012, the auditor general raised numerous criticisms of the process Metrolinx had used to develop and implement the Presto card, which is now used on GO Transit and by local transit operators across Ontario.

“Is that a guarantee we won’t screw up in the future? No,” said Bethlenfalvy. “But it is certainly aspirational, and we’ve had some success.”

There are also obvious privacy and security issues raised by a more aggressive digital strategy, especially after the pandemic passes and the government’s health agencies (and with them, sensitive health data) are potentially brought into the same system. The Information and Privacy Commissioner’s office, in an emailed statement to TVO.org, says it’s willing to work with the government on future digital-government initiatives.

“Our experience with COVID Alert’s development provides lessons for any effort to design privacy into ambitious technology-based systems intended for use by the general public. Our iterative work with the government ensured effective privacy protections were in place prior to launch, which was essential for fostering public trust and confidence in the app,” the statement reads. “We look forward to working with the government and lending our advice on how to facilitate access to government data and enhance the delivery of digital services to Ontarians, while also protecting the privacy and security of their personal information.

Bethlenfalvy says the government will consult with the IPC “as appropriate” as it moves forward with new digital initiatives, but that the pandemic has given it new energy to move more services to an “online-first” delivery system: “I think COVID as shown us this is what people want, and it’s up to government to prioritize, execute, and implement these things that deliver these services better.”

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