Moving the federal needle

Canada is among the global leaders in e-government and service transformation at the federal level, but more Canadians are likely to perceive greater benefits at the local level, where municipal governments are bringing day-to-day services online with a passion.

The benefits of transforming services are numerous — from improving the delivery of everyday services to increasing operational efficiencies, providing information that helps policy-makers do a better job and providing public servants with a better environment to carry out their responsibilities.

At the municipal level, governments are focused on transactional government. Services such as parking permits, garbage pick-up and hockey rink rentals are critical for a municipality to be seen as functioning well for its citizens. To their credit, municipal leaders are using technology to enable much greater interaction with their citizens.

In contrast to that, the federal government’s relationship with citizens tends to be focused on certain life events, or dates on the calendar. For example, students can apply for Canada Student Loans online. Seniors can monitor their Canada Pension benefits online, expectant families can apply for maternity benefits and, every year at tax time, taxpayers can file their returns electronically.

Another reason municipalities may be perceived to be faster to engage in e-government is that technology can be packaged to meet their needs. Most services are more standardized at the municipal level, which means that technology vendors can build a “one size fits all” option that most municipalities can implement.

Most federal e-government, on the other hand, must be created individually because of the unique requirements and situations of each country.

The larger scale of national e-government initiatives also makes them more complex, time consuming and expensive than projects at the municipal level.

At the federal level, there are three areas that could significantly benefit from a concerted e-government development effort. They are: government to citizen; government to business; and government to employee.

Government to citizen

This relationship is key. Citizens can carry out many transactions online, but broader client views across functions are largely still a wish, not a reality.

These government and citizen relationships need to grow beyond transactional relationships, and much is possible. For example, the Canadian government sponsored an international online “chat” called Habitat Jam. The online forum was part of the third UN-Habitat World Urban Forum in Vancouver and brought together people from around the world to share ideas on topics related to urban sustainability.

With over 39,000 participants from 158 countries, the organizers were able to gather 4,000 pages of dialogue and a shopping list of actionable items. Imagine if citizens could participate in the political process this way.

Government to business

There are several challenges here that are simply inhibiting business from seeing some of the benefits of e-government. To nurture trust by Canadian businesses that government is a partner in their success, we need to break down barriers and start encouraging departments and levels of government to work together. Progress has happened here, but it is still largely based on aggregating information, rather than transforming the service relationship between government and business.

Government to employee

There is significant benefit from enhancing the ability for the federal government, as an employer, to improve its interaction with its employees. The federal government significantly lags behind private sector companies that offer their employees things such as online benefit programs, pension calculators and online training.

Some offerings are gradually making their way into departments, but improvements must be made in order to attract and keep top talent. The government needs to look at ways to break down barriers between departments and agencies to improve these services. The shared services initiatives currently under way form a critical success factor.

The federal government has the greatest opportunity and yet one of the hardest challenges. It must figure out how to cluster services around a set of constituents to make their federal government interaction more than just a yearly transaction, learn to embrace change and work better across their organizational silos.

The potential benefits from this fresh approach to service delivery are numerous — services can improve, implementation and development costs can be reduced, there may be less duplication of business infrastructure and an increase in stakeholder and employee satisfaction.

It doesn’t happen overnight and in fact it never really ends. The timeline is years, not months. But the benefits are so clear it’s inevitable that e-government at all levels will expand to encompass all kinds of government interactions.

None of this will happen without clear political and public service leadership, and better organizational capacity to execute transformation. Without this focus on leadership and capacity, major progress on transformation will continue to be a challenge in the public sector.

— Kim Devooght is vice-president, public sector, for IBM Canada Ltd. His e-mail address is

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