Canada has been hailed a global leader in e-government initiatives for many years. The government has consistently ranked atop consulting firm Accenture Ltd.’s annual e-government maturity report and citizens have dished out top marks in opinion polls regarding public access to government services online.
But despite early successes, with many e-government policies popping up throughout the late 1990s, interest now appears to be diminishing. “There are many areas where Canada has clearly fallen behind,” said Michael Geist, research chair of Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa and notable blogger on electronic law.
The problem, according to Geist, is that some of the initial enthusiasm for e-government projects was predicated on the fact that it would lead to significant cost savings. “It was the idea that as you migrated online, you could slowly do away with the offline delivery channels,” he said. “And that just hasn’t been the case.”
In the end, Canada has been left with duplication of many services online and offline, Geist added, killing the political will to continue with such initiatives in the future.
A recent example of this occurred at Passport Canada, which last month, scrapped its online application service. The move came after complaints from the federal privacy commissioner about sloppy security measures at the passport services branch — an area that might have been addressed with greater investment, critics suggested.
While recent data from Accenture shows that 53 per cent of Canadians feel the government is doing a very good job of delivering a better quality of life through e-government services, many technology observers still see a lot of room for improvement. And the best place to start might be to look to enterprise IT shops.
Here’s how the Canadian government can learn from the private sector from future e-government projects.
Citizens as customers
According to Greg Parston, director at the Accenture Institute for Public Service Value, the issue for government is its inability to tailor its services to different citizens. In the same way Amazon.com has recognized purchase patterns and recommended books to their online shoppers, e-government services have failed to target and engage their users.
“It’s not about buying books, but rather it’s about getting social care, getting your kids into school or just generally asking questions and participating in what’s going on,” he added.
The lack of strong interaction with its citizens has left government struggling to predict the kind of adoption its services will have, said Lewis Cardin, a former Forrester research analyst covering e-government and current president of Ottawa-based SkyView Management Consulting Ltd.
“As soon as you start getting into areas like healthcare, for example, it’s a big gamble to spend hundreds of millions of dollars and take the risk that adoption will be slow,” he said.
A big mindset to overcome for the public sector is to stop looking at themselves as government organizations and to start transforming themselves into organizations that operate on the Web, said Rob Collins, a retired high-tech executive who last year chaired the City of Ottawa’s Mayor’s Task Force on e-government and IT.
“It’s all about setting people’s expectation as to what they’re going to get from a service,” he said. “If you report a pothole, for example, right now you go in, report it and nobody tells you when it’s going to be fixed. But if you could report it online and receive an e-mail back saying, ‘Here’s how we approach these things and here’s when you can expect a response,’ the taxpayer will appreciate it.”
Collins added that sites such as fixmystreet.com have popped up to fill the void that local governments have left in this regard. “Because cities haven’t put this in place, private individuals have had to do it,” he said. “Now that’s a good development, but if it’s not integrated into a centralized system, it won’t be effective.”
In working to revamp Ottawa’s online services, Collins found often the city was simply slapping “a really ugly interface on a really bad form.”
“Banks went to ATMs and online banking to not only cut costs, but also increase services,” he said. “Banks can now add customers without adding tellers. Why can’t government organizations do the same thing?”
Recently, Collins discovered that citizens are able to pay speeding tickets online in the Ottawa area. Unfortunately, the service uses a totally different system than its offline counterpart.
“Can you imagine going to a bank and saying, “Well, I’m going to pay my electricity bill this way and I’m going to pay my credit card bill an entirely different way’?” he asked. “That’s the way most city services work right now and it’s not very co-ordinated.”
Andrew Bartels, principal analyst covering e-commerce for Forrester Research Inc., said government agencies need to focus on process changes to address this issue. It’s not just a matter of putting up a Web site for a new service, but government also has to change its processes to take advantage of that.
“It’s a common issue in both the e-business world and the e-government world,” he said. “We’re looking at things from a technology change implementation and not a process change point of view.”
Smart SOA to save money
Over the last few years, many businesses have begun implementing a service-oriented approach to their business processes, which is a strategy that could certainly benefit government services, according to Geist.
Take Canada’s Access to Information program, for example, which has largely been seen as a slow and inefficient system. “Frankly, access to information is an utter disaster in Canada,” Geist said.
The fact that the program is understaffed is not really an electronic issue, but where IT can help the service is in its ability to disseminate information on prior requests.
“You could build in a lot of efficiencies just simply by allowing people to better identify what other requests have been made and allow citizens to piggyback on those requests,” Geist said. Currently, two identical requests have to work their way through the same time-consuming process.
Taking an SOA approach would allow these requests to be reused, cut down on redundancies and free up staff time.
Web 2.0 for open government
“The need for improvement to access to information provides a nice segue way into another area where Canada really lacks and that’s access to government data and research,” Geist said.
In its early days, e-government was seen largely through the prism of taking traditional government services and providing them on an electronic platform. Today, many people are much more interested in government freeing up much of its data and allowing the public to build upon that, Geist added.
“The same kind of user-generated, participatory activity that we’ve seen in so many other sectors holds an enormous potential when it comes to government data,” he said. “By making it available in formats that people can work with, build upon, remix and mash up creates enormous opportunities.”
Geist pointed to the U.S.-based Sunlight Foundation, an independent advocacy group which provides an outlet for citizen bloggers to share and digitalize public information about the federal government and their elected politicians. The watchdog site also offers widgets that display the most recent Twitter messages from members of congress and a calendar app that gives citizens updates about all the bills before Congress.
“There’s a huge opportunity to leverage the connectivity and the new kinds of online tools to create a much more open government, rather than simply an e-government,” Geist said. “And not just information available for anyone to see, but also available for anybody to use, remix and reuse in other ways.”
With a lot of attention to how it can better commercialize publicly paid research projects and data, Geist added that government should look to the corporate world for guidance.
“We find many private sector organizations adopting open source solutions or open systems where they actually take their data, make it available to there communities and encourage them to actually go and use it,” he said.