Breaking online projects down into “chewable chunks” has been the secret to Canada’s successful e-government strategy so far – but the best is still to come, according to one of the country’s Government Online (GOL) top dogs.

A recent Accenture study put Canada at the top of the list of countries that have e-government strategies in place. The report, e-Government Leadership: Engaging the Customer, explored the status of 22 e-governments across the globe. This is the third year in a row Canada has assumed the number one position, followed this year by Singapore and the United States.

The analysis considered factors such as how well each government’s services incorporate customer relationship management (CRM) practices, and the level of maturity, or breadth and sophistication of the online services.

Accenture then placed each government in one of five plateaus, or levels, of online maturity. The first plateau is the lowest overall maturity, which entails little more than having an online presence. Canada’s GOL strategy is currently at the fifth and highest plateau, where “overall service transformation” occurs.

The Ground level

Michael Turner, deputy minister for telecommunications and informatics programs at Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) in Gatineau, Que., said the Secure Channel initiative has played a part in helping Canada reach that level. An ongoing project, the Secure Channel is aimed at providing the underlying support services necessary to deliver government program information and services electronically.

The goal of the Secure Channel project is “not just to put services online, but to encourage process re-engineering and service transformation” – to re-examine how services are provided, and offer integrated delivery across different channels. “We want to build it once and be able to use it many times – that’s the idea behind this common infrastructure,” Turner said.

This “electronic plumbing” project, he said, now has its “major components up and running,” and 95 points of information access are connected so far. Some of the information previously linked via the Government Enterprise Network (GENet), a federal government intranet, is now on the Secure Channel, Turner explained.

“This [Secure Channel] goes way beyond GENet, and connects government departments across the country” – a significant extension of capabilities through a “new, modern system,” he said, adding that the initiative has been a “significant catalyst” to get departments to work horizontially to provide better services to citizens.

The Secure Channel’s first pilot application, which has been running since last fall, is the change of address function available on the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA) site. Canadians can also visit the CCRA site to file their taxes through the electronic filing service, NetFile.

The next task to tackle, Turner said, is a trial run on the Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) site, which will offer form filing capabilities for businesses as well as extended online employment insurance application features.

A new “broker function” will also be available for government departments that take small payments online for the purchase of books, souvenirs, or the rental of parking spaces. “We’ve had some of that already,” said Turner, “but it’s been available department by department,” whereas the new system will be more widely available now that it is operated by the Secure Channel.

The Secure Channel will also make possible something Turner called “subject matter clusters”: areas of particular interest that might not be found under specific government departments. For example, information of interest to seniors could be clustered together for easy access, even though there is no department of senior citizens, he explained.

One of the biggest challenges of the Secure Channel project so far has been “to make this so easy to use that citizens are not aware that they are using something so complex,” Turner said.

The whole initiative was broken down into smaller steps to accommodate the immensity of the project, with the first couple of steps involving the building and testing of the infrastructure. The third stage, Build 3, was the first operational environment, which included the CCRA address change capabilities, and the field trial stage is finishing now. “We took an incremental approach, and intentionally so,” said Turner, “because that way we could have tighter control over expenses” and keep pace with changing technology.

While the Secure Channel may have had some “incremental impact” on Canada’s success as outlined in the Accenture report, these are still the early days of common infrastructure, and the real impact will be seen later on down the road, Turner explained. “We’re just beginning – the common infrastructure will be a major part of our [e-government] success over the next few years.”