Online services are on the way

Several years ago, the Ontario government started thinking and talking about how to get services to the public in a faster manner. The government thought about improving over-the-counter service, but decided that the Internet would be the wave of the future for the public sector as well.

Now, Ontario has signed a five-year deal with a consortium of companies, including Bell Canada, BCE Emergis, KPMG and CGI to bring as many services online as possible.

By fall of 2002, the first batch of 24 services should be up and running. Many of these services will centre on the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Health.

Paavo Kivisto said the strategy behind this plan is to: “think big, start small and scale it up.”

The project will incorporate online services through Internet connection, IVR through phone lines and public access terminals, which Bell Canada will place across the country.

Kivisto, the assistant deputy minister, integrated service delivery division, for the Ministry of Consumer and Business Services, said there is a substantial amount of work to be done on the government side.

“The back end legacy systems need to be configured to accept these new channels,” Kivisto said. “We have re-engineering technology.”

He added they would try to implement as much customer relationship management as possible, but that they are constrained by privacy issues.

“You can’t move information between ministries,” he said, noting the government had to make sure there was no way to track transactions to any individual.

Clive Howard, vice-president architecture and technology for Montreal-based CGI, said the privacy constraints are hard to deal with at times.

“The privacy laws are so strong that the ministries can’t share information at all,” Howard said. “We can cross over information with the permission of the citizen. We can do an address change across four ministries with one inquiry from the citizen, but we have to send a note internally to each ministry and then do each change separately.”

He said they keep a record of the transaction without really keeping a record of what the data in that transaction was. “We keep a token and the citizen will give us a key that will open that token. The information that is who they are is hidden in the system.”

CGI is the project manager for the implementation of the online services. Howard said that CGI would implement the ESD system, designed by Bell Canada. Bell will charge user fees to the government based on their use of this system. BCE Emergis will be taking care of some financial programs and the GUIs. KPMG, which has a lot of prior experience working with the government, will build the IT interface.

Howard said that the second part of CGI’s job is to integrate all of these parts.

“This is not a slam dunk of a packaged solution. It’s not your standard e-commerce application,” he said, adding that they have done a similar implementation in New Brunswick, although they cannot actually carry that solution to Ontario and make it work.

He noted the hard part is not building the Web application. “A year is a long time to build an application – so it’s not the code.” The hard part, he said, will be building the business rules. “Some services are provided by a person right now and we have to automate that.”

He also noted there will not be any strict verification process for determining that the person one is talking to is the person who should be issuing the service. Howard added the users would almost always be asked for credit card or debit card information.

The call centre aspect of the plan will be hosted by Bell Canada. This is one area that worries Richard Patten.

Patten, MPP for Ottawa Centre and Liberal critic for science and technology, said the government and the public need to have people on the end of a line somewhere familiar with the procedures.

“Machines aren’t set up to deal with that. They’re for common questions. Someone has to be there to answer specific questions,” he said.

Patten said that when you do automate these services, job loss is inevitable. He added that he hopes the government does not try to completely replace face-to-face services.

He did say that he thinks using technology to provide better service is definitely the way to go.

“I have some concerns about this moving more and more to obliging people to use the Internet, and of course not everybody is on it. Not everybody can afford the initial outlay,” he said. “It’s not as universal yet as people would hope it would be.”

Kivisto noted that more than 50 per cent of Ontarians are online and that number is growing. He said more than 20 per cent of Ontarians want government services online, compared with zero per cent just a few years ago.

The systems will run on Unix servers and a J2EE engine.