On a handshake

It’s an ambitious database venture known as ExpressAddress. It’s delivered by a complex partnership, among two cities and four Crown Corporations.

And, according to its organizers, it was carried out “on a handshake.”

Kevin Peacock, Director of Information Systems with the City of Saskatoon, described ExpressAddress to a session at this year’s Lac Carlng Congress. An electronic address change system, ExpressAddress is a joint venture between the Cities of Saskatoon and Regina and four Saskatchewan Crown Corporations – SaskTel, SaskEnergy, SaskPower and Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI), the auto licence insurer.

The six organizations originallyforged an alliance called E-Sask to provide an electronic service to residents. E-Sask, Peacock reported, decided to start with a change of address service. “We did a lot of things that we have spoken about at this conference: collaboration, sharing, we even crossed boundaries — all to achieve something that is of service to our customers.”

SaskTel launched the project and began talks with potential partners two years ago. Any organization was welcome to join; SaskHealth, for example, showed some interest. “But SaskHealth has some real issues around privacy, sharing information,” Peacock said, and is not ready to participate.

Peacock described E-Sask as “a convenient, quick service for residential customers. Even our business customers can participate. . . .

We believe it’s easy to do telephone disconnects, connects for telephone, natural gas and water. “The key benefits are customer satisfaction. Every one of us in the municipalities and Crown Corporations have the same problem: We want to improve customer service. There is very little else we can do for our customers and basically this is why they pay us – to improve things and make it easier to deal with government.” “It is more accurate information because it’s not over the telephone so there won’t be a problem if someone has an accent. People can’t understand what is being said or the spelling of the name.” ExpressAddress, Peacock said, is meant to provide a single point of contact for residents. Other key components of the service include:

• A secure site with two firewalls to protect data, and 128 SSL encryption.

• Customer privacy. If a client changes an address and does not fill in the appropriate field for the city, the city isn’t notified.

• The service provider is SaskTel. The target was 99.7 per cent uptime, but E-Sask has achieved 100 per cent across the board with help desk time at about 20 seconds.

• No marketing – effective as of last May.

• Web site visits average 2,500 to 3,500 a month or 80 to 120, a day.

• The service handled 3,400 clients in 2003 and 1,150 until May of 2004.

“The numbers do not seem to be large, but we have not actively marketed this,” Peacock said. “We wanted to have a soft launch to ensure the engine we have in place is working effectively, that the various levels of service we provide – from help desk service to performance – are all met…” Cost of the project was $250,000 with 20 per cent in contributions from each Crown Corporation and 10 per cent from each municipality.

“Probably the toughest thing was trying to build trust between each other, and figure out what we wanted to get out of it and who was going to pay for what,” said Peacock. “It became very apparent early on that the Crown Corporations had slightly deeper pockets than the municipalities and were willing to put more money into this than we could.” Each municipality and Crown agency came to the table with different technologies and different personalities. Significant strides were made when a full-time project manager was hired. The group also had an IT Steering Committee and a Governance Committee.

Selecting the technology was the biggest challenge since each organization used a different technology. City of Saskatoon ran with Microsoft; Regina used Oracle; the Crown Corporations ran Sun equipment and SaskTel ran everything. “We decided to look at SaskEnergy, which bought a block of time from EDS consultants, so we checked out what the pricing was like. We hired SaskEnergy to develop this on our behalf.” E-Sask participants agree the project is cost effective, runs well and makes good use of public funds. But most significantly, Peacock added, is the trust and collaboration exhibited by the team pulling together. “Even at this stage of the project no one has signed on the dotted line,” he said. “This whole project has been carried out on a handshake to share the cost of development. This is where trust has come in: If you don’t have trust between participating organizations, don’t even bother getting into it.”

Marlene Orton is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist specializing in high technology issues.

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