Which government? For what?

Think Jeeves. Or better yet – Ask Jeeves.

It’s that kind of approach that lies behind eContact, an Internet based tool which aims to improve citizens’ satisfaction with government by making it easier for them to access government information.

In the spirit of the popular Internet search tool Ask Jeeves, eContact is meant to offer immediate self-service to citizens, direct them to in-person assistance as required, reduce citizen error and increase the capacity of governments to help people find what they need.

eContact was part of a plenary session at this year’s Lac Carling Congress on Lessons Learned in Multi-Jurisdictional Service Transformation and the Way Forward. The three presenters were Peter Bennett of the City of Winnipeg, Dennis Duhaime from Public Works and Government Services Canada – the senior project manager – and Lori MacMullen, CIO for New Brunswick.

Why eContact? As reported by Citizens First, 93 per cent of citizens continue to have trouble finding the service they are looking for across all channels and jurisdictions. They lack a solid understanding of the inter-jurisdictional division of labour and services among the three levels of government, and believe an integrated approach will help them find the information they require from all governments. eContact provides that approach. A second major challenge for citizens and governments revolves around the fact that 40 per cent of queries require at least four redirections before reaching the service point. In addition, approximately 30 per cent of citizen queries received by governments are sent to another department or jurisdiction. This costs both money and resources. eContact cuts back on the cost of government services by reducing redirection.

What does eContact look like? To begin with, it is Web-based, country-wide and neutrally branded. It operates from a subscriber Web site (such as a city portal) and consolidates FAQs and contact information across all jurisdictions. It specifically targets citizens who do not know government terminology and/or the service provider. Citizens submit questions; the site’s natural language query capability, and its clarification questions, support client self-service. Where Google gives hundreds of answers to a query, eContact clarifies the nature of the inquiry and leverages previously-asked questions to provide a precise response. eContact can do this because it captures all questions for its database. It can also flag overlap and duplication by mapping multiple points of contact, setting the stage for further improvements through consolidation of service delivery.

eContact is both citizen-centred and responsive to citizen needs. It recognizes that citizens and their vocabulary cannot be controlled, and the system must provide reliable and predictable information if it is to accepted and re-used. eContact not only serves citizens but also government agents who assist them. Agents and call centre operators can use eContact to get answers that are outside their areas of direct responsibility. The project is developing an agent interface through pilots that have been confirmed in Manitoba and the Yukon. Five criteria have been identified for the project if it is to succeed as an inter-jurisdictional collaborative effort to improve citizen satisfaction with government service delivery. It must:

• Be self-sustaining with revenues from subscribers (jurisdictions/departments);

• Provide value to jurisdictions/departments that exceeds their subscription costs;

• Offer the citizen inter-jurisdictional contact information in a multi-channel environment;

• Be collaboratively designed by all partners/subscribers;

• Recognize that multiple directory solutions can exist and, in fact, may be complementary.

So how far has eContact got? After the endorsement of the vision by the Public Sector Service Delivery Council (PSSDC) in 2002, it went from a proof of concept launch in Winnipeg to the project launch itself in April 2003. Since then, a search engine analysis gate has been created, federal/provincial/municipal funding secured until March 2005, and a prototype for pilot implementation developed.

There are challenges if eContact is to succeed as a jointly developed product that provides citizens with access to an integrated source of information about programs and services of different jurisdictions. The challenges have to do with governance.

One key issue relates to decision-making. Up to this point, the steering committee and joint council sponsorship governance structures have worked. As eContact expands and grows, however, it will be important to put mechanisms in place that guarantee the citizen-centred, whole-of-government approach is maintained. Another challenge involves sustainability. The project will have to fund its ongoing operation and is considering options that include memberships, subscriptions and a base budget.

Linked to this is a third challenge: representation. Interests of both participating members and the collective group will have to be met. The ability of members to participate, in terms of time, money and effort, will need to be balanced with their right to influence decision-making. And from a service perspective, a major question remains: Do all jurisdictions need to be “in” for eContact to be a success?

The last challenge relates to accountability – who is accountable to whom and for what, with respect to eContact’s roles as a service, as a jointly owned product, and as an authoritative source of information? How will it be able to leverage multiple authoritative databases that have already been built by various governments to service their clients? And what governance instruments will be required to manage different levels and types of accountability? The eContact project has moved quickly since its inception; if assorted technical and governance issues can be resolved, eContact will be an important step toward easing one of the main citizen irritants with government service delivery: access.

Toby Fyfe (tfyfe@sympatico.ca) is a federal public servant in Ottawa and a long-time participant in the Lac Carling Congress.

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