Slowly but surely e-services will arrive

Government online has been a hot topic for some time as more and more levels of government are going forward with enterprising initiatives. It isn’t exactly a repeat of the 1960s race to the moon, but it is refreshing to see groups – which are traditionally dinosaurs when it comes to technology – finally embracing the Internet as a means to reach out and offer services to Canadians.

As a whole, Canada is doing reasonably well in moving toward e-government. Though we aren’t exactly at the head of the pack, those spots would be reserved for the likes of Sweden and Finland, according to ITAC president, Gaylen Duncan, we are doing an admirable job yet with a time table that is a tad too long.

“I think [the government’s] objective should be 2002, that will motivate them, that will actually get some things done,” Duncan said in a prior interview with ComputerWorld Canada.

But governments don’t have the freedom corporations do. First of all their work force tends to be more resistant to change and, secondly, their IT budgets tend to be a pittance when compared to the corporate world.

“We have a huge demographic challenge,” said Lori MacMullen, referring to the pushing of technology onto government’s senior managers.

“We have got to change the culture; we are the transition generation,” said MacMullen, the CIO for the government of New Brunswick at the CIO Summit held in Toronto in November.

“Either they (the older generation in government) will get it or they will retire.”

Getting Some Cash

While some financial institutions might spend upward of 10 per cent of their budget on IT, governments with complex, and at times, dated technology get two per cent if they are lucky. Canada’s largest city has an IT budget of about 1.3 per cent of the $6.1 billion operating budget. This pales in comparison to even the provincial government.

“If you look at budgets, our budget compared to the provincial government is a drop in the bucket,” said Michael Franey, acting director computer operations and telecommunications for the City of Toronto

But he is not complaining, just explaining.

So the city takes a cautious route toward implementing e-government services.

“We haven’t contracted a third party to come in and do it for us, most of it has been analyzed and developed in house,” he said.

The easiest service to offer online would have been the payment of parking tickets. It had a well documented business process with the necessary banking interface already in place, but there was a downside. Politicians, ever sensitive to public opinion, realized making parking ticket payments the first available application was a bit of a political hot potato. The government didn’t want its first service to be one with negative connotations.

“What we were looking for was a more subtle business application to go live with,” Franey said.

The city wanted to go with business licence renewals (like hotdog vendors) but their renewal cycle is twice a year and the city missed the most recent one.

So Toronto focused on the dine safe program. Residents and visitors alike can type in the name of a restaurant and see if it passed its latest health inspection.

The solution required integrating a complex architecture with multiple databases, Franey said.

Though this is still a one way transaction, the goal is for certain two way transactions to be available by the summer of 2002. The city’s parks department would like to have online registration for such programs as swimming lessons or summer camps, Franey said.

With more services available online, another issue raises its head – the digital divide. Though schools and libraries across Canada have Internet access, there are still millions of homes with no computers let alone Internet access.

“We realize access is an issue and not everyone will have a computer in the home,” MacMullen said.

Franey agrees. His said politicians are less focused on digital democracy today than the digital divide knowing full well that residents of some Toronto neighbourhoods are unlikely to have Internet access.

To have true digital democracy there can be no digital divide.

But even for those with Internet connections at home, it is often difficult to find what you want and you may have to visit multiple Web sites to get the services you need. Franey admits the traditional telephone blue pages style is not really that intuitive but that there are ongoing talks between various levels of government to work together to create a more cohesive solution.

“We do believe that there are economies of scale, we do believe that the relationship that we do have with the provincial government, from a Toronto perspective, should be no different than what they are experiencing in Mississauga and anywhere else,” Franey said.

In other words, consistency is the key.

We are still years away from the sorts of e-services many envision, but when they do get here it will make our lives interacting with the government that much easier.

Imagine your next camping trip up north. You visit one integrated Web site and get your fishing licence, reserve you camp site and stop your mail. Today it is still years away, but no longer an impossibility.