If you build it, they will come. That may have worked for a baseball diamond in a cornfield, but when it comes to online government services, the Canadian government should probably let citizens and businesses know about it, and entice them to use it.
Canada’s government portal, www.gc.ca, has received kudos in a variety of e-government studies and from other countries, which look to it as a model for their own sites. It has three gateways – services for Canadians, services for non-Canadians and one for businesses. But people do not seem to be taking full advantage of those services.
BusinessGateway.ca, the portal for Canadian businesses, files its business information and applications under 10 different sections, but Jaime Pitfield, director general for government online at Industry Canada in Ottawa, said businesses mostly use just four: Business Start Up, Tax, Regulations and Financing.
The lesser-used areas are: Business Statistics and Analysis, E-Business, Human Resources Management, Exporting/Importing, Innovation/Research and Development/Technology, and Selling to Government/Tenders.
Pitfield said the government has not really focused on marketing BusinessGateway.ca: “We have to be more creative in how we get the URL out there.” He added that 70 per cent of visitors to the BusinessGateway.ca are first time users, and he admitted it’s a statistic they need to grow on.
According to Pitfield, the majority of businesses using the portal are small businesses, with 50 per cent of users having 10 or fewer employees. “I think the reason is that big business is more sophisticated in terms of dealing with government,” he said.
The Canadian government has promised that by 2005 (it was recently pushed back a year), through the Government On-Line (GOL) initiative, Canadians will have electronic access to all federal programs and services. The guiding principles for Canada’s government site and online initiatives boil down two areas: organizing services and information around the needs and expectations of citizens, and taking a whole government approach, incorporating services from all levels of government and public sector departments.
In terms of service organization, the government is looking to make services accessible to all, easy to use, less time consuming and less costly to use.
Mark Groleau, controller of Hamilton, Ont.-based Fluke Transportation Group and Fox 40 International, said the government portal was very easy to use. He has used the tax section of BusinessGateway.ca to look up tax bulletins and to access forms, which are all indexed on the site and can be printed or, in some cases, e-mailed directly. “It’s just as good as if I went to a post office or government office and picked up the forms there.”
The tax area is linked directly to Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, and Groleau said he uses both those sites frequently. “I think what they’ve done is excellent, but I wonder how many people know it exists?”
He added that when compared to the government sites he has used in the U.S., Canada’s site is much more customer-friendly.
That assertion jibes with the results of a recent Accenture study. The 2002 report, Realizing the Vision, looked at 23 countries and measured the online government services available in each, how the services had changed since 2001 and highlighted emerging trends in e-government. Canada was ranked first, trailed closely by Singapore and the U.S.
The study found that of the 64 online services the Canadian government offers, 32 achieved the maximum CRM (customer relationship management) score. The key to this, it states, is that Canada deploys services that are based on user research and attuned to user needs.
Pitfield said focus groups and testing procedures are used to determine the needs of each service before it can be brought online by the Canadian government.
Graeme Gordon, partner responsible for e-government practice at Accenture in Ottawa, said Canada maintained its lead this year even though there were only four new services being offered online at the time. “Canada retained its lead from last year because it’s very citizen-centred. It did very well in the CRM area. Where it fell down was in the introduction of new services.
“In fact if you look at the progress Canada made between this year and last year – out of the 23 countries, Canada was fifteenth in terms of introduction of new services,” Gordon said. However, he said it’s very clear that Canada is seen as a leader in the global e-government market.
Brian Nutt, COO of PureEdge Solutions Inc. in Victoria, said it makes him feel proud to know Canada is a leader in this field. “Canada is doing something about it. It’s not just an academic exercise. There are tangible results,” he said. PureEdge offers eForms technology based on XML which many government agencies are adopting.
Nutt said that as an informed and tech-savvy taxpayer, all government online initiatives seem like a good thing. However, the degree to which government online will affect the majority of people still remains to be seen. “How quickly can these initiatives impact the traditionally non-connected citizenry? Government online has to be an enhancement to existing services. There is always going to be a cross section of people who are happier with faxes or mail,” Nutt said.
As for taking a “whole of government approach,” the Canadian government’s Web site states they want a centrally coordinated system to achieve progress across the entire government. Collaboration across departments and agencies, across jurisdictions involving not-for-profit and private sectors is also considered imperative.
Currently, Canada’s privacy laws make it hard for different departments, provinces and municipalities to talk to each other openly.
Pitfield said open communication and exchange of information is better on the business side of things. “On the individual level, we cannot share information,” he said.
However, he added that kind of easy flow of information and tying in federal and provincial applications is something people want most. According to Pitfield, the government has released Version 2 of its portal and one of the top priorities is working with the provinces. “In focus testing, the groups said, ‘Thank you for putting all these forms online, but where are the provincial forms?’ So, Version 2 incorporates provincial forms,” Pitfield said.
Gaylen Duncan, president of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) in Ottawa, said Canada is losing ground and users because of privacy and data integration issues. “We lost our privacy long ago. We should merge those files: but we’re doing okay compared to a lot of other countries.”
Nutt said it would be nice to just have to submit one address change to a Web site and have it automatically be spread throughout all levels of government. “One of the best ways to be more responsive is to get collaboration beyond government boundaries,” adding that people have to be more willing to have their information shared.
Gordon agreed that privacy and security are major barriers to the successful implementation of government online services. “How do you deal with it, though? I don’t think anyone has the silver bullet for that right now,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to break down some of the walls, but at the same time do it in such a way that it maintains citizens’ comfort levels with the privacy of their data.”
Vivienne Jupp, managing partner for global e-government services at Accenture, said as online initiatives mature, they are seeing strategies that recognize barriers. “One of the most serious challenges governments face now is building electronic bridges between agencies at the federal level, but also with their counterparts at the regional, provincial and local levels,” she said.
As it stands now, each province has a link to its own government site off of gc.ca, as do all the ministries and departments, but visitors are still required to enter information more than once. Pitfield said they are working on a program for Canadian businesses, which will ask for “tombstone” information and carry that through the business gateway, so soon businesses will only have to enter their information once.
Norman Betts, minister of Business New Brunswick, said beyond data collaboration, government online has still become a good thing for citizens and businesses.
“It has allowed us to not only streamline and be cost efficient in the delivery of government services – and not only to do it conveniently and reduce red tape and all of those things – but to push some of the physical end of the delivery that is required to sustain rural areas,” Betts said.