City hall online: A progress report on municipal e-government in Ontario

By the time this column appears in print, Ontario Municipalities should have received a copy of City Hall Online: a Progress Report on Municipal e-Government in Ontario.

This report, undertaken by the Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA), follows two previous Ontario government reports: The Future is Here: a Progress Report on e-Government in Ontario.

Preparation of the report was overseen by a Steering Committee co-chaired by Jim de Hoop (City of Kingston and MISA Ontario President) and by David Kennedy, Director, Information and Communications Technologies Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Energy, Science and Technology.

Additional Steering Committee members included:

    Municipal representatives from the City of London, City of Toronto, York Region and Lanark Community Network;Provincial representatives from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and Management Board SecretariatPrivate sector representatives from Microsoft Canada and from the RAM Group.

Summary of findings

The Report, which will be distributed in both hard copy and CD format, provides an excellent introduction to the current state of e-Government in Ontario municipalities. Submissions were requested and received from municipalities across Ontario.

Submissions were not limited to the large cities.

The Steering Committee was gratified to receive submissions from smaller municipalities, such as the Town of Tecumseh, Township of Middlesex Centre, and the Counties of Haliburton, Lanark and Northumberland. The report also describes the Town of Caledon’s web-based “Town Hall Forum”, the Town of Tillsonburg’s award-winning Citizen Relationship Management initiative, the Kuh-ke-Nah Network of Smart First Nations and a number of other community network initiatives throughout Ontario, including many outside the major urban centres.

The value of the report is in describing the range of initiatives in place or planned in municipalities across Ontario. No municipality has a monopoly on ideas on how to improve delivery of municipal services through technology. Instead, the report should serve as a launching point. Each of us should copy shamelessly the ideas pioneered by our fellow municipalities.

Just a few of these ideas that caught my attention include:

    A comprehensive online directory of services and businesses including GIS-enabled capability to show location (Chatham-Kent);Wireless Internet Access from the Council Chambers (Cobourg and Northumberland County);Using technology to promote economic development (City of Greater Sudbury);Telephone linkage between Region and all area municipalities, allowing full inter-agency call transfer (Halton Region);Investigation of Smart Card technology (City of Hamilton);Customized CityMap capability, with 8,000 maps generated each day (City of London);Automated telephone notification for overdue library books (Mississauga);Governiagara web site to solicit citizen participation and provide background material on significant local issues (Niagara Region);Smart Growth Summit and Web Cast (City of Ottawa);Map showing up-to-date road construction activity (Peel Region);Town map with full zoom and pan capability (Town of Tecumseh);Beaches water quality reporting (Toronto);GPS installed in snow-clearing vehicles to track progress online during snowstorms (City of Vaughan);

These are but a small sampling of the many ideas contained in the report. In addition, many municipalities have developed, or are developing, e-government strategy reports. Each of these reports can be expected to contain literally hundreds of ideas on how to enhance the information or services available to our residents through technology. Since municipalities have generally been willing to share such strategies, even when developed at significant expense to themselves, it may be worth following up with the contacts listed in the report.

A series of small steps

Another conclusion that emerges from this report is that e-Government at the municipal level, and probably at all government levels, will not be achieved through single large initiatives. None of us have a single application that will mark our transformation to e-Government and will bring citizens flocking to our web sites and electronic service counters. Instead, each municipality will mark its progress towards e-government in hundreds of small steps that, taken together, will provide constituents with the range of information and services that they will come to expect from their local government.

This perception will affect the way that municipalities approach development of their e-government capability. For example, we may all need the ability to collect payments for various municipal services through our web site (or by telephone). This provides real convenience to our residents and business partners as well as reducing internal processing costs. However, the total value of payments collected in the near future is likely to be relatively small, so we don’t need (and can’t afford) a complex infrastructure of our own to support this capability. Nor should vendors expect significant revenue streams, based on skimming a few cents per transaction. In other words, we need to tailor our solutions to realistic expectations.

Fortunately, most of the opportunities do not require major expenditures. Admittedly, there will be some costs (e.g. to enhance existing recreation systems to allow online registration), but much of what needs to be done involves what I call “rich information”. Instead of just providing “brochure-ware”, our web sites need to provide specific answers to very real questions:

    When will my garbage be picked up?Where is the nearest day care centre and what services do they provide?When will the next bus come by?Which library branch has the specific book that I am seeking?What are the plans for that vacant lot down the street?

Our ability to answers such questions is limited primarily by our imagination. When our Web sites are able to anticipate and answer such questions, our residents will be encouraged to go there frequently. This will both create the expectation for yet more information, as well as providing the “traffic” that will allow us to evolve from providing e-information to providing e-services.

In such small steps will Ontario municipalities evolve towards e-government.

Questions or comments about this series of articles, or general questions about the use of technology in Ontario municipalities can be directed to the author at the Regional Municipality of Peel: phone: 905-791-7800 x4512, FAX: 905-791-4195, email: