The importance of being partners

After more than a decade of e-government analysis, discussion, policy debate and collaborative brainstorming, only one national program reaches out to all three levels of Canadian government. Five years after its conception, the small phenomenon that’s known as BizPaL remains an isolated model of cross-jurisdictional service delivery. CIO Government Review catches up with the little licensing Web app that won’t stop growing.

Relating to my contracting business, I have spent many hours on the phone and litres of gas trying to find various government offices – and usually I had to give up and go back to work. It seemed that no one knew what all the other departments were responsible for.

This new Web site is a godsend. I won’t feel like such a dummy stepping up to a government clerk and finding out I am on the wrong side of town. I know many others who have had the same experience. Let’s hope this new service continues; it is really needed.

Thank you,
Sam Holloway
Owner, Sam’s Electric
Whitehorse, Yukon

Breathes there a government program manager who wouldn’t be thrilled to receive a letter like that? But such plaudits are rare. Most business people seeking services from government are less than complimentary.

A survey of opinions on provincial government services, published in November 2006 by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), found the majority of business people surveyed were unhappy about spending too much time waiting in lines, filling out forms or trying to find a person who could answer their questions.

Sample letters published in the appendix of the “Serving up better government” report included this one from a CFIB member in Quebec:

“We waited 35 minutes before we could speak with an agent, but he had to transfer us to a colleague. We waited another 10 minutes and finally our problem was resolved. The resolution took five minutes.”

The Lac Carling community of organizations has been meeting and working for more than a decade in the hope of replacing this level of service with the “godsend” level discovered by Sam Holloway. In all that time, only one national program has been implemented to break down barriers and deliver citizen-centred services across jurisdictions.

It’s the one Holloway described in his letter to Industry Canada early last year. It’s called BizPaL and it’s unique in having demonstrated that interjurisdictional service delivery can work on a large scale and be sustainable. And that one lonely program may be enough to turn the tide.

The achievements of BizPaL are already having an influence on the structure, practices and technological foundations of other service programs. Although there is some question whether the governance of BizPaL is ideal, and whether it can ever become a fully national program, it has been successful in other ways and provides the best existing model for seamless citizen-centred service delivery.

Lightening the paper burden

BizPaL (Business Permits and Licences) is a permit and licence identification system. It gives business owners a single point of contact to determine which permits and licences their prospective businesses will need from municipal, provincial, territorial and federal governments.

Entrepreneurs who wish to start a business can log on to the BizPaL service through the Web site of a participating municipality, province or territory. By answering a series of interactive questions on the nature and location of the business, they can obtain a customized list of required government permits and licences. The list includes basic information about the permits and licences, the order in which they should be obtained, contact information and, in some cases, links to begin the application process.

Since its first appearance in Whitehorse as a pilot project in December 2005, BizPaL has spread to most provinces and has grown in stature. It has become a cornerstone of Treasury Board’s Smart Regulation initiative, launched in March 2005. The federal budget of May 2006 included an expenditure of $6 million over two years to promote the expansion of BizPaL.

BizPaL’s developers say it provides measurable benefits to small and medium businesses. Research by the Yukon and British Columbia. found it takes about seven hours using the traditional routes for somebody to figure out what kinds of permits and licences they need to open their business.

“With BizPaL it takes less than 10 minutes,” says Myriam Montrat, chair of the BizPaL Steering Committee and a director of service delivery and partnerships with Industry Canada.

But BizPaL is not only about saving time. When Montrat addressed the 2005 Lac Carling Congress to describe the project, she pointed out that Canada’s two million small businesses were disproportionately affected by confusing and overlapping compliance regulations. Business owners faced the risk of involuntary non-compliance because they didn’t know and couldn’t find what regulations existed.

When the City of Ottawa conducted a feasibility study before launching the program in September 2006, it learned the value of BizPaL as an incentive for abiding by the law.

“To build a business case for doing this, we actually sat in the lobby where small business people were coming in,” recalls Philip Clarke, director of client service and public information.

“After they had completed their transactions, we did some intercept interviews. One of the quotes we got back from a business person was, ‘If you want me to do the right thing, don’t send me on a wild goose chase.’ As soon as I heard that quote, I knew we had to do this.”

Business owners are becoming more aware of BizPaL as a place to find answers to how to do the right thing. In Halton Region, Ont., 15 to 20 people a day now use the service, accessed from several municipalities within the region, west of Toronto. In Ottawa, 500 people used BizPaL in its first full quarter of operation.

Carrying the standard

On the evening of November 1, 2006, a group of officials representing the federal government, provinces, territories and municipalities stood beaming onstage at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel Conference Centre in Toronto to acknowledge the applause of almost 900 senior executives from the public and private sectors across the country.

Trophies in hand, the officials took turns praising the BizPaL partnership that had just received the Diamond Award of