The importance of being partners

How shared governance can eschew old norms

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 Excellence from the Canadian Information Productivity Awards (CIPA), one of the most sought-after business awards in the country.

The CIPA award was perhaps the most highly publicized of a series of awards that BizPaL garnered during 2006, including the Government of Canada’s Public Service Award of Excellence; a silver medal for a GTEC 2006 Distinction Award in the Cross-Jurisdictional Partnerships, National Awards category; and an honourable mention for the 2006 Agatha Bystram Award for Leadership in Information Management from Library and Archives Canada and the Council of Federal Libraries .

In addition to the awards, 2006 witnessed a series of upbeat news releases by Industry Canada and regional governments as the BizPaL pilot program spread. From the Yukon, it went to Ontario and B.C. with pilot projects in Halton Region and Kamloops, then to Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and in early 2007 to Alberta and Nova Scotia. The program has been praised in reports by Accenture , Gartner Inc. and the CFIB .

All this good press has made BizPaL the standard-bearer for interjurisdictional service delivery and an example to civil servants of the potential recognition to be gained by pursuing such projects.

Collaborative development

Participants say BizPaL is recognized as a watershed in the management of interjurisdictional projects and Web-based service delivery .

“In the past, people had focused on the portal idea, building a service in one place,” says Ben Benoit of Lightning Tree Consulting Inc., one of three consultants from the private sector who serve the BizPaL Secretariat and assist partners in implementing the service.

“We realized that clients often don’t know which level of government to approach with respect to regulations. Some will go to municipalities as a starting point. So we decided that BizPaL should be delivered everywhere that made sense.”

Delivering the service via the Web sites of partner jurisdictions – with their branding – was novel for the federal government.

“It’s not about Industry Canada,” declares Montrat. “It’s about jurisdictions working together to improve service delivery to small and medium-sized enterprises.

“Somebody who opens BizPaL in B.C. will think it is a B.C. service because it is being offered through their Web site. Each partner has its own look and feel for the service. It’s theirs. Each has ownership of its own data and autonomy within its own jurisdiction. That is one reason BizPaL has been working as well.

“Another uniqueness of BizPaL is that it involves local governments,” Montrat continues. “Three levels of government are working together in a collaborative process. On the Steering Committee and the Program Managers Committee, everybody has a voice at the table. Everybody is treated equally.”

What inspired this collaboration? Ralph Blauel, director of technology services at Halton Region and a former member of the BizPaL Steering Committee, believes it had largely to do with the personalities of its early champions and evangelists.

Among them were Elise Boisjoly and Michael Nadler of Industry Canada, Debbie Farr from the Province of Ontario, Don Garrish and Alex Kerr from Kamloops, Debra Amson from the Yukon, and Blauel.

“The key person who made this project a success was Guylaine Brunet, the first project manager,” Blauel says. “She was the one who ensured that the interests of municipalities were well represented in the developing governance structure.

“She took our case to Treasury Board when it came time to fund the project. She met with a bit of resistance – it was a different way of doing business for Industry Canada and Treasury Board. Our Web sites don’t have a Canadian flag on them.

“This was a huge departure for the communications people at Industry Canada,” Blauel says. “Guylaine championed our municipal position, and got through some real changes to the way we do interjurisdictional projects.”

BizPaL was conceived in 2002 by a group within the Business Services branch of Industry Canada, who submitted a proposal in response to an invitation by Treasury Board to provide funds for service transformation projects.

The initial proposal, along with a prototype of the Web service, was created by project manager Jim Lowe with help from consultants like Benoit. (Lowe left Industry Canada shortly afterward, but is now back with the BizPaL Secretariat.) The name BizPaL was invented by a co-op student, whose name is buried in records somewhere.

Before the proposal was submitted, Industry Canada convened a three-day collaborative planning session in Ottawa in February 2003. With Lowe as chair of the session, representatives from all provinces, one territory and seven municipalities hammered out a business plan for the proposed new service.

Treasury Board approved the final Industry Canada proposal on January 5, 2004, and ultimately provided about $3 million in funding up to 2006. But it wasn’t the money that made BizPaL successful, says Brunet.

“It was partnership engagement,” she says. “Absolutely, totally, unequivocally, partnership engagement from day one. They were part of the business case, the decision making, the governance structure. The partners drove this as much as the federal government.

“There was a strong project management view about partnership – that decisions needed to be made by the partners in order for them to engage,” says Brunet, who had attended the February 2003 meeting as an analyst with Treasury Board and became project manager of BizPaL from May 2003 to July 2006.

“Nothing was built without their approval, without the whole consortium’s approval. That’s what made this project successful.”

Process and technological advancements

The innovative processes and technology underlying BizPaL have contributed to the collaborative breakthrough.

During the pilot projects, teams carried out business process mapping of permits and licences required for a large number of business sectors. This was one of the first applications of Industry Canada’s Business Transformation Enablement Program methodology.

The three pilot municipalities gathered information and helped create templates and application coding that facilitated rapid deployment of BizPaL.

“Any partner coming on board now can reuse the permit and licence information for industry sectors which have been previously mapped, and simply amend it to meet local conditions,” says Debra Amson, program analyst with Yukon Territory’s Department of Consumer and Safety Services, who is also a member of the BizPaL Secretariat.

“We launched in Whitehorse with permits and licences mapped for business startups in more than 200 industry sectors. Other jurisdictions have taken advantage of that and launched with many more than 200 sectors.”

Another significant advance was the technology infrastructure. It was built by EDS Canada, which is still host for the central servers that house the shared data repository with which all of the local BizPaL services communicate.

By implementing this single data repository with a distributed content management model, BizPaL offers a technical solution that can be shared at relatively low cost. It gives partners full authority and control of their own data.

BizPaL was a pioneer in the use of Web services. Data on permits and licences is served to partner-owned Web sites via SOAP-based Web services over HTTP. This enables all levels of government to seamlessly display to businesses both their own data and the relevant data of other partners.

“BizPaL has created a new way of delivering an interjurisdictional service using these new technologies that provide brand independence, and integrate into the way that a jurisdiction delivers its own services, as opposed to previous exercises, where things were more dictatorial,” says Blauel.

Sustainability and governance

BizPaL has been uniquely fortunate in having a deep-pocketed champion in Treasury Board to provide funds for its formative years, then gaining enough support from its partners to be sustainable.

Montrat reports that a cost-sharing model has been agreed upon among the federal and provincial partners, based on population, effective next month.

All levels of government still participate in BizPaL’s governance. Each participating province or territory has a seat on the Steering Committee, as does one municipal government from each province and territory.

There is a dichotomy, however, between the financial capabilities of municipalities and their desire to participate as full partners. Municipalities simply lack funds to pay for a program like this. BizPaL partnership agreements are between the federal and provincial governments, and the provinces invite municipalities to participate.

But municipalities want full recognition as partners. Although municipalities have seven seats on the 15-member Steering Committee, there is discontent.

“In its early days of development, BizPaL was very promising as a new method for inter-jurisdictional collaboration,” says Clarke of the City of Ottawa. “The reality of the Canadian situation has caught up to it, in that it is no longer a three-way partnership. It’s now Industry Canada in partnership with each of the provinces and the provinces deal with municipalities.

“That to me has taken a lot of the lustre from what the municipalities saw as a new approach to citizen-centred services, with municipalities as equal partners,” says Clarke, who is a member of the Service to Business Subcommittee of the Public Sector Service Delivery Council , a director of the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service (ICCS) and founder of the Service Delivery Officials Network of municipal executives.

“BizPaL is not the ideal governance model, but it’s a step on the way there,” he adds. “Perhaps if BizPaL, or the next interjurisdictional Web collaboration, could be hosted by the ICCS or another third party, I think we could get there.”

A second issue affecting BizPaL’s future is whether it can become a fully national program. Two territories, three Atlantic provinces and Quebec are not in the partnership.

Although Quebec officials were represented at the earliest stages of BizPaL’s development, people knowledgeable of the program report that Quebec has declined offers to become a partner, preferring to concentrate on its own business-services portal .

Legacy and influence

Despite these internal issues, it is clear that BizPaL is building a legacy within Canadian governments. It is becoming widely influential, even inspirational, suggests Montrat.

“It is serving as a model for other areas within government,” she says. “People are interested in replicating BizPaL for information other than permits and licences.”

The Secretariat has had discussions with Canada Revenue Agency about establishing linkages with BizPaL, and intends to approach other departments to see if there is value in using BizPaL concepts for their regulations.

One department is already off and running. In March 2006, Natural Resources Canada launched BizPaL Plus . It is a pilot project, in process of becoming permanent, to help natural resource businesses engaged in wind power development and mineral exploration in B.C., and mineral exploration in the Yukon. BizPaL Plus identifies permits, licences and other regulatory requirements from all levels of government.

Susan Masswohl, a senior regulatory analyst in Ottawa who leads the BizPaL Plus project team with Natural Resources Canada Regulatory Affairs, says: “We have mapped out additional jurisdictions and sectors in B.C. and Saskatchewan. We will be mapping all the permits and authorizations required for the sectors in Manitoba, and next fiscal year in Alberta.

“The sectors that we are expanding and mapping with other jurisdictions are mineral exploration, forestry, oil and gas and other energy sub-sectors like wind – whatever is most important to the partner jurisdiction.”

The Yukon government also sees other possibilities for BizPaL-type services. Amson says the territory is considering adapting a BizPaL-type infrastructure to the application process for business grants from the Economic Development department.

“BizPaL really demonstrates a different culture, in which everybody works well together, understanding that they maintain their autonomy” Amson says. “Many people talk about partnerships, but few programs deliver. I think that’s the huge difference with BizPaL.”

The difference has even been felt abroad. Ben Benoit reports that France and other countries have expressed interest in BizPaL, and Egypt is implementing a service that replicates it.

Benoit travelled to Egypt with an international agency last October and spent two weeks advising the Governorate of Alexandria on BizPaL concepts. The Egyptian service was scheduled for implementation early this year.

BizPaL received national recognition in Canada in late January when it was cited in a report by the Crossing Boundaries National Council as one of the few examples of successful collaboration across governments.

The report, entitled “Transformational changes and policy shifts in support of partnering – within, across and outside government,” was prepared by the council’s Private Sector Committee, based on interviews with 1,200 officials of governments and not-for-profit organizations, as well as a series of workshops during 2006.

It found that, despite isolated successes like BizPaL, governments in Canada are lagging in the development and use of partnership arrangements to meet citizens’ expectations and deliver services across all levels of government.

Andy Blenkarn, vice-president of business transformation services for EDS Canada and chair of the Private Sector Committee, says a broader governance structure for cross-jurisdictional initiatives is needed if BizPaL is to advance to the next step – enabling online transaction services, so that business owners can pay for their permits online, not just find information about them.

Methodologies, tools and templates to form best practices in partnership arrangements are needed to overcome the reservations of some provincial ministers, who doubt that BizPaL can add business value without the transaction capabilities to integrate into their existing service systems, Blenkarn says.

“Where is the overall governance organization for BizPaL to embrace that broader strategy, and what would be the funding model to do it?” Blenkarn asks. “We need a governance body to map out the medium- and long-term strategy, the integrated architecture and partnership arrangements, from a technology as well as a business perspective. It’s time to move on.”

The Province of Ontario has a similar view. Ontario has embraced the BizPaL collaborative concept wholeheartedly and is taking steps to make the service available province-wide in the near future, says Amin Remtulla, director of e-channel development with Service Ontario, Ministry of Government Services, and a member of the BizPaL Steering Committee.

Several Ontario municipalities are considering implementing the service. The province wants to establish a critical mass of municipal users before BizPaL goes online within Service Ontario’s portal.

Ultimately, BizPaL will be integrated within Service Ontario’s information and business transaction systems. It will feed information to other sources, such as the Canada-Ontario Business Service Centres, to offer businesses a streamlined, end-to-end transactional capability to comply with business regulations, Remtulla says.

“BizPaL is definitely changing the way we are thinking about collaboration with other jurisdictions. Because of this project, we are building an expertise in this collaborative business model and have developed a framework that can extend to interactions with other jurisdictions.

“It’s a watershed for us,” Remtulla says. “And I hope other jurisdictions are seeing it the same way.”

Lawrence Moule is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He can be reached

Related content:

Business project aims to cut down on clutter

Canadian Information Productivity Awards

Businesses win big time with BizPal

Feds seek to be service providers

Ten tips for effective partnerships

Lac Carling X: A turning point?

Municipalities on the march

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