e-Government on the inside

The ongoing modernization of service delivery systems by governments has two main objectives: To improve service to citizens and, in an environment where cost savings continues to be a priority for most jurisdictions, to ensure that government remains efficient and competitive in the delivery of those services.

If these modernized systems are to last beyond the project development and pilot stage, governments need to ensure that they meet citizen needs and are built around the principles of good governance.

Regarding the former, many studies tell us what citizens, as users of government services, expect in the area of service delivery. Citizens First and Citizens First 2000, both sponsored by a number of federal departments and provincial governments, provide solid data on the desire of citizens for timely service, staff competence, service that goes the extra mile, fairness and an appropriate outcome. Citizens First reports that 42 per cent of respondents expect governments to provide a higher standard of service than the private sector. Regarding e-delivery, Citizens First 2000 indicates that the e-channel’s capacity to link different programs and jurisdictions, and to complete a service transaction quickly, means that, as a channel, it has the potential to help governments meet specific citizen expectations regarding fast, efficient and seamless service delivery. In a similar vein, a soon- to-be-released study of users of single windows, sponsored by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC), shows that citizens and businesses expect governments to make more use of the Internet in delivering services.

As for governance, governments have been experimenting with new forms of service delivery, including collaborative arrangements with departments, other jurisdictions and the private and not-for-profit sectors to improve the efficiency of service delivery. In some cases, these arrangements are designed to eliminate duplication and overlap. The creation of gateways and service clusters on the Government of Canada Web site, for example, is more than just an improved series of access opportunities for users; it is expected to lead to efficiencies behind the scenes as departments and eventually jurisdictions use interoperable systems. In other cases, it is believed that a partner can deliver a program better than the government: the use of private sector agents, especially in remote areas, can both improve service and cut costs. Sometimes a partnership can be used to integrate systems and thus improve service. The Nova Scotia Business Registry, a partnership between Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, the Workmen’s Compensation Board of Nova Scotia and Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, is an example.

No matter what the reason for the new arrangement, or the form it takes, governments have to ensure that appropriate accountability and reporting procedures are in place and that there is a shared understanding between all stakeholders regarding the outcomes.

As noted, the principles of improved citizen service and good governance are guiding governments as they improve the delivery of services, including e-services, to citizens. The question is, should they guide governments as they improve delivery of administrative services internally to public servants? Financial systems, personnel systems and more recently purchasing services are highly automated, with many jurisdictions on their second or third generation of back-office systems. As the focus turns toward providing services and tools via e-systems internally to public servants, is it important to use the same user-centric emphasis and good governance principles that are applied to the improved delivery of services to the public?

The answer has to be ‘Yes’.

At the end of the day, public servants are users too. Thus, in designing e-systems for administration in the public sector, one goal should be to improve service to the user. Presumably, the data which provide information regarding the needs of citizens as users could apply to public servant users as well. For example, it can be assumed that public sector users will expect their e-service delivery systems to provide timely and efficient information and tools.

Many of these internal changes involve collaboration between sectors and departments as they integrate existing business systems. This process involves considerable organizational change, and for the change to be sustained, issues related to good governance must be considered. If they are not, the long-term success of the initiative may be at risk.

Put differently, governments are fairly good at setting up shared arrangements in order to undertake specific projects. One example is the Ontario-Government of Canada project called the lost wallet Web site (http://canadians-canadiens.gc.ca/wallet/wallet_e.html). A case study on this project was shared with delegates at Lac Carling V in the spring of 2001. One of the lessons arising from the lost wallet project was that more emphasis should have been placed on the long-term governance of the project.

One way to protect the long-term sustainability of e-projects – whether for internal or external users – is to pay attention to the expected outcomes and impacts. Is there clarity and agreement on what these outcomes are? In collaborative arrangements or partnerships, it is important that each partner and stakeholder agree not only on what the long-range outcomes are, but what their contribution to the arrangement will be. This will have implications for accountability and reporting.

Outcomes are not the same as outputs. An output might refer to a specific application of an integrated financial system. Determining outcomes moves the reference point into the realm of behavioural and organizational change: for example, one outcome of a two-department, integrated financial system might be to promote a culture of collaboration and to nurture horizontal management skills among the public servants in those departments. Another might be to encourage public servants to make greater use of e-systems when accessing these products and services.

The creation of a shared outcome is one thing; the evaluation of it is quite another. Evaluation of outcomes can be difficult for a number of reasons. First of all, since outcomes are usually long-term in nature, they are often difficult to maintain in government and may change. Second, there is often uncertainty about causality when measuring an outcome: for example, in the case noted above, if in fact a culture of collaboration and horizontal management does not develop among the public servants of the two departments, would it prove that the integrated financial system was a failure? Might there not have been other factors, such as outdated departmental rules and regulations?

In spite of these challenges, the setting of shared outcomes, and their measurement, are important steps in ensuring the long-term sustainability of arrangements such as those that arise from public sector e-systems for administration. The stakes can be high since shared e-systems typically involve large investments as well as multiple partners and stakeholders, including politicians, managers, builders (often from the private sector) and, of course, users. By agreeing on the outcomes and the role that each player has in ensuring them, the chances of misunderstanding and project failure are minimized. At the same time, because each player has a clear understanding of his or her role, evaluation of each player’s contribution becomes easier. Accountability and reporting parameters are clarified. Finally, setting outcomes means that the evaluation of specific outputs can be done in a broader context.

Given the challenges of setting and evaluating outcomes, what should organizations do? First, a process should be developed so that all partners and stakeholders participate in determining the outcomes and their roles in helping the project reach them. Second, monitoring arrangements must be set in place for ongoing assessment of the project, so that adjustments can be made as the project evolves; this is particularly important if a project spans a number of years, such as some of the more complex e-systems. Third, evaluation of the project or specific elements of it should be undertaken on a regular basis, so adjustments can be made as appropriate.

Such a process will ensure ongoing relevance of the project, success in meeting objectives and cost effectiveness.

Toby Fyfe is Director of Canadian Projects at The Governance Network. Before joining the company, he led the development of a new policy on Alternative Service Delivery for the federal government. He can be reached at toby@governancenet.com.