An ambitious plan to make it easier for Canadians to obtain information and services from the federal government got a little noted green light in the Feb. 23 budget.
However, it could take at least three years to bring Service Canada to the point where decisions can be made by the cabinet on its ultimate shape and status, according to Maryantonett Flumian.
Flumian is deputy minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada; her department is responsible for making Service Canada the main government contact point for Canadians.
“We’re not sure yet,” she says in response to questions from CIO Government Review about whether Service Canada will be a separate department or agency. “There’s a few years of consolidating some of the areas that are needed before that can be determined. Of course it will be the Prime Minister’s decision as to how he is going to structure it.”
Flumian cautions that creating Service Canada by integrating existing government operations could make it a work in progress for some time. “In three years we will have enough progress on enough of these fronts that this will be the standard against which we will continue to grow and evolve. I’m not sure we will be able to do absolutely everything in three years.”
Treasury Board officials began developing the concept of Service Canada in the late 1990s. They looked at consolidating almost 300 federal information centres, help desks and call centres into a one-stop operation that Canadians could access electronically, by phone, by mail or by walking into an office.
“What Treasury Board created in the late ‘90s and transferred to this department about a year-and-a-half ago was their pilot Service Canada sites,” Flumian explains. “They were information only sites such as kiosks and offices where you could go in and pick up pamphlets on all the things that the government does.
“They didn’t have the expertise we are proposing. As well, our initiative is going to be supported by the kind of structure that allows the public to send information such as death notices to government. The original Service Canada was about how we could make information available to people.”
With new technology, expertise with GOL and the development of secure communications channels, she says, Service Canada will be able to do a lot more than originally expected. Certainly citizens will be expecting more because of their experiences in using information technology in other areas.
The current Service Canada model “is much different from the original initiative. Treasury Board shifted it to us because of our expertise and the nature of our existing networks. We are incorporating the idea of one-stop into what this is evolving into now. I think it will be an ongoing evolution.”
Human Resources began modernizing service delivery to Canadians about three years ago, she says. “We had to make investments in technology and we were seeing how we could make our program offerings more seamless. We started thinking about and making our investments according to some of the principles that now underlie what Service Canada has become.”
Service Canada was endorsed in advance of the budget by ministers on the Expenditure Review Committee, established to look for ways to streamline government and cut spending. The committee “reviewed the work done to date and undertook new work – and concluded this was indeed an idea whose time has come,” budget background documents say. “In fact, the Service Canada model fits perfectly with the ERC mandate of finding ways to improve the delivery of federal programs and also lowering costs.”
Flumian says her department’s planning “was well advanced by the time the ERC ministers began to work. We had two-and-a-half years of thinking and design work and proposals under our belt. We were asked to go before them and talk about what we had done. They saw it as one of the areas where you could materially affect how citizens were served by government.”
Treasury Board President Reg Alcock says the government wants “to offer Canadians the best public service possible. We must work smart, pay attention to the needs of Canadians, and react more quickly to change. We will support public servants as they deliver services to Canadians.”
The budget documents says that establishing Service Canada “will be one of the biggest single reforms ever in federal operations.” It will enable Canadians “to get benefit payments without having to apply or complete a multitude of forms and resolve the majority of any issues, needs or problems they have on a single, first contact with the government.”
The documents estimate that Ottawa can save $2.5 billion a year, over five years through the Service Canada approach.
While the budget didn’t say so, some insiders warn that the government is also expecting to layoff thousands of employees from the existing information networks. Flumian, however, insists that the government will want to use existing staff that deal with the public because of their experience.
Existing staff will require additional training and employees working in information centres in other departments can be added to Service Canada’s roster. They will be prepared to deal with all the issues citizens might have. If they came looking for unemployment benefits, for example, the staffer could also tell them about retraining programs and other benefits.
For now, the priority is getting Service Canada firmly established. “We’re aiming to position and align parts of HRSDC that are going to be fundamental to the establishment of the Service Canada initiative,” Flumian says. Her department operates human resource centres across Canada plus the centres it inherited from Treasury Board. Add Social Development Canada’s call centres, Government On Line, the 1-800 O’Canada number operated by Public Works and the facilities operated by the Canada Revenue Agency, Veterans’ Affairs, the Passport Office and Heritage Canada, and one has formidable array of government offices dealing directly with the public. The plan doesn’t include Canada Post, but Service Canada may wish to use some of its rural and remote outlets in the future, Flumian adds.
“Our first step is to align those in the best fashion possible to give birth to the notion of one-stop service because between the two of us (HRSDC and SDC) we already deliver about $65 billion worth of services and benefits to Canadians,” she comments. “So we are already doing a lion’s share of the government traffic.” Then the services provided by nine other departments and agencies will be drawn into the Service Canada orbit.
“We are working now on phasing in what we would provide for Canadians,” she explains. “We need to determine the plan and be able to live by it.” HRSDC is discussing a proposal for rolling out the Service Canada operation across the country with the other departments. Setting up telephone service will be easiest, she points out, because the government already has 130 call centres. “We are already reaching about 50 million Canadians that way, so we have a pretty good idea of what it takes to run that kind of business.”
Flumian expects that getting up to speed in terms of online services will be done fairly quickly, but it will be important to make sure the web site is easy to navigate – especially for those who have specific issues they want answers for. “We have to make sure it all gets pointed in the way that makes it the most intuitive and easiest for Canadians to navigate through.”
Officials are also working on how to accommodate people who have to be contacted by phone or come to an office to see a representative. And many Canadians still deal with the government by regular mail, Flumian notes; many applications must be accompanied by additional information that can only be shipped by mail.
It will be important for Service Canada to ensure that its representatives are fully trained so they can assist Canadians with their queries or quickly find them someone who can, she observes.
“That requires training for our staff and the appropriate arrangements behind the scenes between our staff and the various departments that we will be representing. Or we will have their staff in our office to figure out what they can help with and where we need more specialized help. We have to figure out whether we are going to…that service or how we hand it off in way that provides the answers that people need. We will try to do this in the most one-stop experience possible.”
So what will Service Canada look like to most Canadians? Flumian says that on first contact, a citizen will deal with a person who can help them navigate through government. Except in the most complex issues, the initial contact person will handle all the individual’s queries even if they cut across several departments.
Alex Binkley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa.