When it comes to interacting with government, we’ve all been there: In a long line waiting to renew a driver’s licence; at a laptop trying to order a document; on a mobile phone looking for a specific piece of information.

Today, the Ontario government took a big step towards reducing the friction of those interactions. It opened the Ontario Digital Service Lab at the Communitech Hub, the nexus of Waterloo Region’s teeming technology community, where an eight-member team will focus on transforming the way the province designs and delivers its services.

“This government is committed to making Ontarians’ lives easier,” said Deb Matthews, Minister Responsible for Digital Government and Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, who visited the Hub today. “One way we’re doing that is by making citizen interaction with government easy, quick and convenient.

“To do that we need to transform the way we think about government services, design and delivery. The Ontario Digital Service Lab is an important step towards achieving this goal.”

Another important step Ontario has already taken is the hiring earlier this year of Hillary Hartley as the province’s first-ever Chief Digital Officer. Hartley co-founded 18F, the innovation team that is helping to modernize the United States government, and was a Presidential Innovation Fellow during Barack Obama’s administration.

Noting that all eight of the new lab’s first cohort of team members are women, Hartley lauded Ontario’s choice of Waterloo Region for its location, and was struck by the atmosphere she encountered at the Communitech Hub, where she met several startup entrepreneurs.

“I’ve talked to [Communitech CEO] Iain [Klugman] a few times, and I understood what you all are doing here,” Hartley, who recently moved from San Francisco to Toronto, said in an interview. “But you can’t truly grasp it until you’re here, and until you walk around and see the innovation floor and you see the scale-up floor and you see all the startups, and you sort of realize the breadth and the depth and the magnitude of what’s happening here. It’s very cool.”

Equipped with a clear mandate to lead the streamlining of the government’s digital services, Hartley described the Communitech space as “a centre of gravity for user research [and for] digital ways of working and doing and thinking and learning” for the entire Ontario public service.

The facility’s experts in design thinking, citizen interaction design and user research, along with a rotating roster of post-secondary co-op students, will use a comfortable, home-like room called the “Empathy Lab” to observe and test the ways people interact with digital services.

Workers from across the various government ministries, many of whom Hartley said are already focused on transforming their digital offerings, will also come through the lab to learn and contribute, she said.

“What I hope we can be is just this force for good, and for letting other teams both work with us . . . but also to shine a spotlight on the teams that are already working this way and to be their biggest cheerleader and their biggest champion.”

Rather than act as a standalone service within the government, working to impose change across ministries, Hartley said she wants her digital team to be “a virus; something where we can come in, in small teams, and work hand-in-hand” to help existing ministry teams deliver on improvements.

“I’ve said on many an occasion that, ideally, I would work myself out of a job,” Hartley said, “because this isn’t something that necessarily has to be centred in a single team. It should be that every ministry is working this way,” designing services with and for their constituents, not just working to improve customer service on existing activities.

Hartley said her decision to leave the U.S., where she was raised in Kansas and went on to work in New York, California and D.C., was not difficult once Ontario offered her the role early this year.

“It was, in the end, a pretty easy decision,” she said, despite having brought her wife from California to check out Toronto in January. After meeting with Matthews and other key leaders behind Ontario’s digital push, “it was just really clear that there was a solid foundation, that people knew where they wanted to go, and needed someone to essentially wrap their arms around it and just say ‘we’re going forward.’

“The fact that Ontario asked me to be that person was a huge honour,” Hartley said. “It was the people of Ontario who brought me north.”

Our full interview with Hillary Hartley will be featured in an upcoming instalment of Communitech’s Nimble Hippo Radio podcast.