From integration to navigation

Plumbing the foundations of a new public service culture

It’s been roughly 15 years since Canadian governments started experimenting with new technologies to change how they deliver services. For at least a decade, they have used institutions like the Public Sector CIO and Service Delivery Councils and Lac Carling conference to meet, discuss and plan together.

Today in these circles there is much talk of the need to establish a “service culture” to support the new community, and especially the evolving role of the new service organizations that have sprung up across the country. There is a sense that we have entered a new phase.

What is less discussed, however, is how the vision behind the movement seems to have changed. A decade ago, the talk was all about “transforming” government and “busting silos.” Today, the new service organizations are described more as a “navigator” or guide to government services. We can get at the difference through their understanding of seamless service.

In the old view, the problem with government services is not only that they are scattered around departments and across levels of government, but that they are trapped in silos. This makes it very difficult to join them together or even to connect different stages of a single service, such as diagnosis, surgery, recovery and home care in the health care system. This fragmentation is a real problem for citizens, who often need to combine two or three different services to meet their needs.

The emphasis here is thus on integrating services. The idea is that similar services should not only be co-located or accessible, but made more flexible so that links between them are easier to forge. Seamless service is the antithesis of the old systems of silos. The call to transform government is an attack on how traditional government is designed and works; it is a call to breach the silo walls through partnerships and collaboration.

By contrast, a service organization like Service Canada or Service Ontario sees its role as providing a gateway into government, one that can help citizens find and access the services they want, quickly and more easily.

This vision of seamless service is different from the first one. It sees the service organization as a guide that makes sure citizens get what they need in a friendly, timely and reliable way. The emphasis is on building the capacity to navigate through the maze of government, but not so much on redesigning it.

So what happened? Why the shift? The obstacles to real transformation have turned out to be numerous and hugely difficult to overcome. They include privacy concerns, jurisdictional barriers, policy differences, conflicting regulatory frameworks, accountability and procurement practices, to name but a few.

While some progress has been made here (see for example Service Ontario’s Life Events section), the hard truth is that this kind of integration has proved far more difficult than anyone realized a decade ago.

The overall impact on the service community seems to be a shift in focus away from integration and onto navigation. As a result, fewer and fewer people in the business are talking about transforming government. These days the more modest goal is one of simplifying access to it.

Some people even see this as a sign of maturity. In their view, the service community has outgrown its radical youth. “Service delivery” is coming into its own as a full-fledged and responsible member of the public administration community.

Moreover, there is talk about eventually combining the capacity for better navigation with a capacity to customize services in ways that better meet individuals’ needs. Ultimately, this could give us the best of both worlds: an ability to move around government and a new kind of flexibility in programs and services.

But not everyone is convinced. The critics note that, while this all sounds good, it is much more theory than practice. Far from being broken down, the silos are still very much intact. And as long as they remain that way, talk of customizing services is little more than talk.

To these people, it looks as though the real story is that the old culture has reasserted itself, forcing the upstart service crowd of a decade ago to retrench and adopt a position that fits more comfortably into the traditional silos of government.

So who is right? The jury is still out; but time will tell. Eventually, we will see whether the new emphasis on navigation and incrementalism signals a fundamental change in the goals of the service community – a retrenching of its position – or more of a shift in tactics that will eventually give us the best of both worlds.

Don Lenihan is president of the Crossing Boundaries National Council, a not-for-profit forum focused on a more citizen-centred approach to government. He can be reached at

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