Talking the talk

When it comes to service delivery, governments in Canada have a language problem.

No, not the one we all know about. The real service delivery problem is not about the language of speech, but the language of sharing and integrating information.

Various departments and levels of government need to define and describe their services in a common way if they are to deliver services consistently, without duplication, using service channels that citizens can easily find and understand.

Mostly, governments aren’t doing this well in Canada. Research conducted for Citizens First has found that more than 90 per cent of citizens struggle to locate government services at all levels.

Those in government who are trying to transform service delivery – like participants in this year’s Lac Carling Congress who attended a session on Enabling Collaborative Approaches – know what the major barrier is.

“The first thing you learn when you try doing this kind of work,” said Jane Stewart of Industry Canada, “is that when you bring a bunch of people together from different disciplines, you find that they have a different meaning for almost every word you could think of.”

Stewart is a member of an inter-jurisdictional group – the XML Subcommittee of the Public Sector CIO Council – that is making technical headway in arranging for people and systems to understand the way they communicate, so they can work together in delivering services. Since the subcommittee’s inception in 2003, its members and the government departments they represent have been developing standards and methods to define information and processes to be exchanged among organizations.

The subcommittee is also sponsoring two demonstration projects that have the potential to show how collaborative services can be delivered in practical ways. What the subcommittee members fear, however, as revealed by comments throughout the session, is that, despite their long and laborious efforts, neither politicians nor senior managers in government are paying attention.

Alphabet soup

Why not? One reason is that discussing the technical concepts behind standards-based collaboration soon leads to a mind-numbing overdose of what another presenter, Joanne Harrington of Veterans Affairs Canada, called an “alphabet soup” of information management acronyms – XML, ebXML, CSDML, GSRM and many others.

Nevertheless, it’s the job of the XML Subcommittee to try to make these standards workable – and to sell them to their bosses. Some of the most important technical foundations are:

• XML, eXtensible markup language, is a family of languages for describing data, data structure (XML schemas) and data conversion. Data contained in a Web page written in XML can be manipulated, extracted by various database systems and recycled.

• Canadian Service Description Markup Language (CSDML) provides a means of structuring commonly used types of XML data and information (such as descriptive metadata, names and addresses) in a manner that facilitates exchange and reuse.

• The Government Services Reference Model (GSRM) provides a generic way of describing public sector programs and services. It can be used by all levels of government to map their services, so each can discover what the others are doing within a given jurisdiction or for a given client group.

• EbXML, Electronic Business using eXtensible Markup Language, is a suite of specifications for the structure and syntax of messages, which enables enterprises in any geographical location to conduct business over the Internet. The XML Subcomittee is using this international standard to build a pilot Pan-Canadian Registry as the hub database for sharing national standards and reference models across jurisdictions.

Much of the XML Subcommittee’s work in developing standards has been assisted by the Business Transformation Enablement Program (known as BTEP) of Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC). Another big supporter is the Ontario government; its corporate chief technology officer, Dave Wallace, is co-chair of the XML Subcommittee, along with Peter Baril, CIO of Nunavut.

A further driving force behind the adoption of XML standards in service delivery has been the Canada Business Service Centres (CBSC), the national network of offices that provide call-click-visit informational services to businesses about government programs, services and regulations.

Since CBSC delivers services through local and provincial partners, and maintains a database to disseminate its information to them, it is essential for it to standardize the structure and content of service descriptions. But years of work have not produced the desired results. Why? Because, said Jane Stewart, standards have been viewed as a “straitjacket” by stakeholder organizations.

As Director of Information Management for Canada Business, Stewart told the Lac Carling session that a new collaborative approach is replacing the previous one, which focused on the creation of uniform platforms or applications for all partners.

“That approach has failed us often because of the length of time it takes to build those kinds of structures, and because the requirements that evolve are very brittle and hard to adapt,” Stewart said. “We really need a different approach that stresses the need for agility and flexibility in collaborative initiatives. The solution has to share the burden and benefit equally.

“For example, if we say to a partner, ‘We’ve developed an XML schema for describing programs and services and we’d like you to use our online offering template to create instances of it that we can then use to serve clients,’ it’s important to be able to say, ‘You can also use that information in XML for your own business practices.’ The instances of the information become a shared resource.”

This is the approach that now underpins the two demonstration projects, eContact and the Collaborative Seniors’ Portal Network, which the XML Subcommittee hopes will help them sell their collaborative technology vision to senior levels of government.


eContact is an inter-jurisdictional initiative that is trying to give citizens a solution to the age-old problem of finding the right service at the right level of government.

Sponsored by both the Public Sector CIO Council and the Public Sector Service Delivery Council, it has two main components: a database that integrates information across jurisdictions, and a Web user interface that enables citizens to ask questions in familiar language. The software converts the questions into more formal government language to facilitate information searches.

The eContact service directs citizens to the appropriate government services contact or information, regardless of department, jurisdiction or location. Either directly or through agents, eContact provides contact information for all participating organizations via telephone, the Web, fax, e-mail and local offices.

A proof of concept, using search-and-retrieval software installed at a call centre, was launched in Winnipeg in October 2002. A second pilot project has been completed at Kingston, Ont., and more are planned for later this year in several New Brunswick communities.

Dennis Duhame, eContact Senior Project Manager with PWGSC, outlined a vision for eContact that is similar to the concept explained by Jane Stewart.

“eContact will be a collaboration of information partners, like a joint venture,” Duhaime said. “Partner systems will talk to each other and exchange information based on an agreement of protocols and standards among them.

“The interoperability framework includes XML schemas, registered repositories, standardized messaging protocols and toolkits. Partners will remain completely independent, and will not need to change their own systems to anyone’s specifications.”

Collaborative Seniors’ Portal Network

The same sort of strategy now forms the basis of a business plan for the Collaborative Seniors’ Portal Network (CSPN). At present, the initiative is governed by a steering committee known as the Canadian Seniors Partnership, led by Veterans Affairs Canada. In future, though, this initiative also wants to be a joint venture supported by partners from all jurisdictions.

Joanne Harrington, Director of the Seniors Cluster within Veterans Affairs Canada, said that after four years of developing the initiative – including a pilot project in Brockville, Ont. – CSPN is “starting to coalesce and declare more clearly what it is that our strategic business design is all about.”

“We are not about to create one mega seniors’ portal,” Harrington said. “Why would we? Municipalities have their own Web sites and their citizens and communities go there. We have provincial sites and federal sites, and citizens go to them. Are we really going to knock people off one site and make them go to another?”

Harrington said CSPN will be relying on the Government Service Reference Model as well as XML schemas and ebXML in setting up an infrastructure to provide information services to seniors’ portals in the Ontario communities of Hamilton, Sudbury and Windsor/Essex County in pilot projects this year.

Finding the way forward

The challenge faced by both these demonstration projects is that they will take several years to be implemented, and their future funding and governance are uncertain.

Duhaime estimated that it will take three years for eContact to evolve from its current enterprise application model to a modified model that “implements full operational interoperability with a limited number of partners.”

The CSPN strategy presented by Harrington calls for the creation of governance and funding strategies in 2005/06 and the launch of 20 networked seniors’ portal sites during that fiscal year. It calls for 40 new sites on the network in each of the succeeding two fiscal years.

In her presentation, however, Harrington asked, “Are strategic business designs the way to convince senior executives responsible for service delivery that information management is a key enabler?”

She also asked, “If you were in my shoes, how would you encourage more senior managers to spend time learning about XML, ebXML, CSDML?” 053708

Lawrence Moule ([email protected]) is co-editor of Municipal Interface, the national professional journal of the Municipal Information Systems Assopciation.

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