Q&A Michael Cowley

Q. When you look at the creation of the single business number for British Columbia, it seems like an obvious step to take. Was it that easy?

A. I think it was the obvious thing to do, but the simplest is sometimes the most complex. It’s the old saying about the devil is in the details. Governments should be prepared to treat business customers in a full and comprehensive way across statutory and jurisdictional boundaries.

What we realized after many different discussions was that if we were really going to simplify the interface between government and the business community, we had to have a common understanding of who the customer was that we were talking to. It became very apparent that a program within one ministry identified the client differently than in another one. For instance, in our tax area, where there are 14 or 17 different taxes, each of those taxes has different identifiers even though they were within the same department. There wasn’t any cross-communication to give a better presentation of the business clients’ obligations and requirements to them.

So the process started with adopting a common identifier for some of the tax programs and then the provincial tax program began to talk with Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Soon there were other areas that should be included to give a simpler interface with government. We took a look at what a person has to do when starting a business: What are the common registrations that have to be made? So we gathered together those organizations, including the CRA, our provincial revenue ministry, the workers compensation board and our finance ministry, which is responsible for corporate registries and some municipalities. We realized that a business is a business and a client had to submit the same information to multiple agencies. You can imagine what that’s like. Businesses said it takes too long to start up and I can’t find the answers and everything else I need from government. So we realized that we had to build a common identifier foundation to get a more integrated service delivery concept for business.

Q. Can you pinpoint the start of the process?

A. It goes back to a Ministers’ consultation in 1994. One of the key issues that was raised was the red tape because of the complexity in the regulatory process across the three levels of government. The Minister took it on to respond to those views. Generally it’s small businesses that don’t have the resources or the knowledge base to navigate government.

Within two years, we developed a very basic and innovative project using technology – One Stop Business Registration. The agencies I mentioned before agreed to develop something online and asked in a question and answer format for businesses’ tombstone information, so they only had to enter it once. There was an electronic file that got converted into a fax that went to the respective agencies to deal with it. In 1996, this was one of the earliest applications of technology to do all that. The program met with considerable success and the minister got some good press about reducing red tape. That has just kept growing.

Q. You said the information was faxed to government departments.

A. The technology then didn’t allow us to take it from the database and transmit the file. Every legacy system was independent. It took us 10 years to get to where we are now. From my perspective we are still only looking at the tip of the iceberg of where we really want to go. It relied on really forward looking partners willing to step out and be early adopters and take risks and have a client-centric view of the world. It was the key champions within these ministries that allowed us to move forward collectively.

Q. So you had to wait for the technology to catch up with your ideas?

A. That’s very true for that particular stage. We were out in front of the technology because there was no open source or open standards. The technology had to catch up to where we were going. Now I think technology is ahead of us in some cases.

We began by getting municipalities on board. That got us more partners, but we were still restricted in being able to use the technology and to give a more fulsome response in terms of deeper online registration, update and remittance functionality. We were stalled because we still had our individual identifiers. So that’s where a meeting between the CRA, and a group of us out here, spun off with our initial experience into One Stop. We came to the understanding that a common identifier used by all participating agencies was absolutely critical to give a full and rich customer experience in an online environment.

So we looked around provincially at what identifiers were out there but we came right back to the CRA, which had done really good innovative work on adopting a common identifier for all their different programs. We entered into discussion with the CRA on how we could utilize the federal number as a key identifier in provincial agencies. Now the provincial revenue and finance ministries and the WCB have all done a conversion process. When you put them and the CRA together, they can all identify a client the same way. We know exactly who we are talking about.

Now we are looking at giving complete customer experience, moving into ongoing reporting. If you call up your file, you can draw out of our respective databases the information pertinent to you and make any changes. They will be seamlessly be downloaded into your file when you enter the information.

Q. In addition to change of address, what other kinds of information could that include?

A. It could be changing the status of your organization, changing the number of employees you have, anything like this – any reporting that is required by a particular agency. In the future it could lead to a more common experience in terms of remittance. We have laid the foundation for so much more. We are now looking at, and actively working with other program areas to come on board.

We are also managing expectations, because the clear goal in British Columbia and other jurisdictions is to have a customer-centric simplified interface between government and the business community. No longer does business have to be the integrator of government; government can integrate on the back end and present a simple front face to the business community. No matter which way you cut it, the foundation is a common identifier.

Q. So now that B.C. has demonstrated that a common identifier works, are other governments copying it?

A. There was some work done in Nova Scotia as well on this and we levered off some of their experiences. And there was some preliminary work done in Manitoba, so we levered off a bit of their knowledge. But we have taken it further than any other province right now. It’s not easy to bring these disparate organizations together from a business perspective. There are different technologies, different information management schemes, different legislation.

We really had to redefine some business processes and the statutory framework. All of these things take time dealing not only within the provincial government but across Crown corporations and across others levels of government. So there is quite a bit of complexity to bring this about.

Q. Is the complexity largely within government?

A. It is all within government. Government has to realize a more simplified interface. We are trying to do away with that complexity so businesses don’t have to deal with it. Why should we expect a business to be the integrator of government? Look at the banks, for instance. No longer do you have to go from department to department. You have a personal banking person who you do 80 per cent of your business with.

Q. None of the other provinces have gone as far as B.C.?

A. None of them are as far along in terms of the number of partners or the depth that we have. Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have done some work. We are actively talking with Ontario on opportunities on what we have done from a business, technical, policy and financial perspective, and they are realizing that this identifier is key to providing that customer experience. You have to have political champions and, at the deputy levels, not just trying to look after their own interests. The CRA has to get a lot of credit because they have demonstrated the same approach within their own organization. It has been more problematic for them to get more market penetration across the broader federal government.

One identifier doesn’t mean one database. The program level database has to remain with the department that has the authority for it. We do not share that back and forth unless enabled by statute. 057612