Passport Canada doesn’t want data travelling online anymore

I spent my Easter weekend in a panic because we are going on an overseas family holiday next month and I could not find my passport. I hadn’t used it since last fall and after a fruitless search around the house I realized I would have to do the unthinkable and apply for a new one. This involved downloading the usual form, getting new pictures taken and asking my parish priest to sign as my guarantor immediately following the Sunday service.

Naturally, I found it in my office just as I was preparing to visit the local Passport Canada office on my lunch hour. At no point did I consider using the online option. Which, as it turns out, won’t be an option for long.

The Canadian Press reported on Monday that Passport Canada is discontinuing online applications by the end of this month. And I quote:

A spokesman for Passport Canada says the online service is being wound up simply because it isn't as “convenient” for Canadians as using downloadable forms that must be filled out and brought in person to a passport office.

“Passport On-Line has been replaced by interactive forms because they are more convenient for applicants,” Jean-Sebastien Roy said in an e-mail response to questions.

That’s right, downloading PDFs and printing them is a lot more convenient (and greener) than working electronically and submitting remotely. Oh, wait a minute: that’s completely wrong, isn’t it?

The only convenience in this case will be enjoyed by Passport Canada, which a little more than a year ago found itself in hot water (again!) when an average user was able to play around with the agency’s site URLs and see personal information about other users. The response then was equally weird: Passport Canada emphasized the fact that nothing bad happened to anyone, rather than being proactive about improving its ability to protect user information. The Privacy Commissioner’s office was not pleased.

Now, according to the agency’s Web site, the online service is “stepping aside” in favour of interactive forms, a technique that was last considered innovative in 1998. From a public sector electronic service delivery standpoint, this has to be the more bizaare reversal, well, ever.

I can’t think of too many private sector IT managers who would want to walk away from the Internet as a transactional channel, and it’s the one area that the Canadian government has been critiqued in the past by firms such as Accenture. This is not just hiding from failures; it’s giving up. From a citizen-centric viewpoint, it’s also sad that Passport Canada has apparently made this decision without providing any information on user research (if it did any), offer any real opportunity for feedback and failed to work with the media on the subject other than the e-mail responses to CP.

This could well end up becoming a poor metaphor for the Canadian government’s ability to engage online. Passports are all about providing access. The agency is cutting off access to the one place that almost everyone is going.