Written by Elena Yunusov
In its inaugural year, Toronto’s Civic Innovation Office is focused on making city government more responsive. As its new director, Paula Kwan knows this mission is not for the faint of heart. We asked Paula to share her thoughts on her new role, government innovation, and civic engagement.
Why did you want to work for the Civic Innovation Office? What kind of changes do you want to see in municipal government as a result of your team’s efforts?
Last year, I was asked to be an external tech advisor to the Parks, Forestry and Recreation division to help address challenges with its outdated registration system, which affected over 600,000 residents. I walked away with first-hand experience of how it felt to make an impact on my community and city. When the opportunity surfaced to lead this office, I could already see how my skills — developed and refined in the tech sector — could make a real impact here in the civic sector. It felt like a perfect fit of my skills, passion, network, and experience. I feel very grateful to have this opportunity.
What does building a more responsive government mean to you?
I’m proud of how the Mayor’s office and our innovation team took a transparent, open, and collaborative approach to identify and select this year’s theme, ‘Responsive Government.’ It gave us visibility into the issues, patterns, and priorities that might not be apparent from the Mayor’s office or City Manager’s office. As the Mayor said, “it’s the Toronto way.”
We’ll be benchmarking stats and implementing baseline checks on the metrics to guide us through the projects, and at the end of the year we want those metrics tracking to our intent. In other words, we’re big on rigorous qualitative and quantitative measurement processes around here.
The success of our work will be closely tied to our focus on identifying real problems among Toronto residents. It sounds obvious, but people often make assumptions about what they think others need, and then go ahead and implement their solutions. They focus on the shiny new product or app, instead of the person who will be using that service or software. This approach can lead to the wrong solutions moving forward, things that just don’t work, and high opportunity costs. We are very aware of these pitfalls. That’s why we’ll be using methodologies to identify challenges and carefully check assumptions. Your original assumptions won’t always be right, so it’s important to solicit and incorporate feedback, and adapt to reality quickly.
Toronto is often praised for a massive and diverse talent pool for the tech sector. How do you go about encouraging this sector to get involved in civic projects?
The Bloomberg Philanthropies innovation team program provides funding for up to three years; I anticipate multiple opportunities for our office to engage with the world-class talent here in Toronto who are interested in addressing big civic challenges with us.
With the thought leaders, disruptors, and diversity here in this city, I believe we’re well positioned to succeed. Additionally, there are many other civic organizations here that are highly impactful and innovative — such as Civic Tech Toronto and Code for Canada, to name a few. I would encourage people to also look into those organizations to see how they can participate.
How can Torontonians get involved?
Torontonians are at the heart of our work. We invite people to visit our website — www.civicinnovation.to — and join our network. We want to make sure the tech community, businesses, and residents have a way to connect with our team; we’ll have a page called ‘Get Involved,’ and a place for residents to complete surveys and provide information we can use to gain a better understanding of issues. As we develop and prototype solutions, we’ll be working closely with residents. Our work is successful only when we build solutions focused on the interests of the public.