Trying to get specific information from various levels of government is often like going to the library and not availing yourself of the search technology. The information you want may well be within the confines of the four walls but it is impossible to find.
Traditionally government Web sites have given users a similar experience. Visit, surf, search, sigh and leave exasperated with nothing to show for the visit.
The government of Ontario has revamped its Web site, in part based on user input, in an attempt to create an experience that lowers rather than raises blood pressure.
“We are going to simplify the whole thing for the public,” said David Tsubouchi, Chair of the Management Board of Cabinet for the government of Ontario.
Tsubouchi explained that visitors to government Web sites often do not know which department is in charge of the information they are after. To ease user frustration Tsubouchi said the site is designed to make access in terms of how people think and not how government thinks. For example, now when an individual sends an e-mail request to the government, the e-mail system sorts out where the e-mail should go instead of the individual trying to find out which ministry is best to contact.
Besides, Tsubouchi said, government ministries often change their portfolio responsibilities and it is difficult for individuals to keep up with who does what.
Gaylen Duncan, president of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) in Mississauga, Ont., agrees ease of use is the key but goes one step further, noting that often individuals are not only unsure of what ministry handles their needs but what level of government they should be corresponding with.
“There is no reason Canadian citizens have to know which level of government handles their problem, technology should take care of that,” he said.
As it stands now users have to know which government site to visit, though things may change in the future. Tsubouchi said the Ontario government is working together with the federal government to create such things as a one stop shop for change of address.
“We don’t always fight with the federal government, we do some times act with them,” he joked.
The government has set itself an aggressive timetable and has set it sights on being the world leader in delivering e-services online by 2003, Tsubouchi said.
“I look at this as a chance to really advance government,” he added.
But others are not sure the government’s timetable is either the right one or even achievable.
“I think their objective should be 2002, that will motivate them, that will actually get some things done,” Duncan said. He is also not sure the deadline can be met. “I think they are starting late, I think there are other countries that are well underway and their deadlines are not 2005, they are 2003, 2002.”
He cites Finland, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand as being ahead of Canada as a whole.
Other than the fact “the province intends to be a leader in the delivery of government services electronically by 2003” and their list of 24 transaction to be available by the fall of 2002, there are not a lot of specifics of exactly what Ontario residents will ultimately be able to do online. The 24 transactions include address changes for vehicle, driver and outdoor licenses but no renewals, and a series of other offerings ComputerWorld Canada staff had a hard time deciphering. Vehicle, driver and carrier abstracts, certified and uncertified accounted for 25 per cent of future online transactions. The majority of the transactions fall under the umbrella of the Ministry of Transportation.
“At a very simple level it is about providing access and services and transactions to the citizens,” said Martin McGrath, president public services at KPMG Consulting in Toronto. But he added that the long term objectives are a great deal more encompassing. E-government is part of a larger strategy and vision for the province, he said.
“It is how you use this as a catalyst for driving economic attractiveness to the province,” he said.
“You end up with a labour pool and a citizenry who are not just consumers of the services that you are providing but actually differentiate themselves across the world as being literate and comfortable with these types of technologies.”
“[Companies] are going to come to an economy that is digitally aware,” McGrath said.
Duncan agrees there is a great deal of potential for government online especially as a portal for a wide variety of services. But for this larger economic objective to be successful, all levels of government need to work together, something Duncan has not seen a lot of.
“We have seen the talk but we haven’t seen the walk,” he said. True integration will not come until 2005 or 2006, he predicted.
“And that is not acceptable.”