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Why wait for 2004?
It's past time for talking about ESD

by Richard Bray

If your organization is still just talking about electronic service delivery (ESD), then it will have to run to catch the next train - Government On-Line (GOL). The single concept that attempts to capture the GOL vision is "user-centric." The goal is to build electronic services around what is variously described as the user, client, customer or citizen.

The concept represents an enormous challenge for procurement specialists who will oversee the purchase and implementation of the three public 'electronic windows' to tomorrow's systems: the hardware and software for direct voice response; kiosk systems that put government systems in public spaces; and of course, building and maintaining secure Internet sites.

Art Daniels, a veteran administrator with the Ontario government said, "For the purchasing person, it's a great market, because it's very competitive. There is no longer a need for departments and ministries." People want to deal with products and services, not branches and levels of government, and Electronic Service Delivery enables that kind of interaction. Daniels cited the Kingston, Ontario experiment that removed levels of government from the telephone book's blue page section and listed products and services like firearm permits or birth certificates instead. Public satisfaction was immediate and intense.

Dean Miller, an Ontario-based director general with Human Resources Development Canada, said, "Timing pressures have forever changed. Services are expected online and we have to be all things to all people. We have to help people in their choices."

The citizen will have something Miller called managed choice. He advised planners to think about services first and then select the appropriate delivery channels - not everything through every channel. People with special needs will still require special service delivery options and government is obliged to provide them.

Jim Alexander, program director of the Strategic Infrastructure Initiative at the federal Treasury Board Secretariat says today's government websites are department-specific, which runs counter to how people want to use the Internet. Service expectations are already exceptional. Information and transactions must be accessible within three or four clicks of the mouse. The new, digital citizen expects a response to an email inquiry within four hours, whereas a reply to a mail inquiry within two weeks is still considered adequate.

What will federal online services look like? They will be fully bilingual and available everywhere through a single Internet site, though still duplicated by existing, traditional service delivery methods: mail, telephone, counter service, facsimile, all channels which private enterprise can modify or avoid completely. The difference between e-commerce and e-government, according to Campbell Robertson, manager of e-business solutions in Oracle Canada's Ottawa office, is the number of suppliers each wants to deal with and the time spent with them.

"Where private-sector organizations want to reduce the number of suppliers and amount of time needed to deal with suppliers and other stakeholders," he said, "governments want to increase the number of suppliers and the number of contacts with them."

Canadians expect to see a consistency of service in their contacts across those channels and also across governments. Why should similar federal, provincial and municipal permits involve vastly different forms, fees and requirements for information? The GOL equivalent of comparison shopping will be citizens who demand ease of use, reasonable fees and an end to what they perceive as pointless bureaucratic demands for irrelevant information.

The Speech from the Throne remains the federal guiding star in the move to become the government "most connected" to its citizens by 2004. While the framework at the federal level to make that happen is falling into place, with policies on consumer protection, privacy guidelines, electronic signatures, security systems and a tax neutrality policy, some Canadian businesses still don't see the need. Our top retailers are half as likely to be online as their US counterparts, and many businesses simply do not see e-commerce in their future.

Helen McDonald, director general of GOL at Industry Canada, said Canadian companies traditionally have about a two percent share of any market in which they participate. In the case of e-commerce, the federal government would like to see that increase to a market share of about five percent. That level of participation would create 180,000 new jobs.

So far, the Canadian government is not online in a real sense. "We don't really have a critical mass of services up there yet. What we really lack is a clearly articulated vision and targets that are out there in the public," McDonald concluded.

There are many ESD success stories at every level of government, but the challenge of GOL is to make products and services multi-jurisdictional. Alexander sketched three tiers in the development of GOL.

  • The first is a simple presence, with information, email capability and perhaps a common look and feel across departments and agencies.

  • The second is full ESD, with online transactions and all the security features and "back office" processing that implies.

  • The third level, and possibly the ultimate that can be realistically visualized today, calls for, in Alexander's words, "a fundamental shift in our business processes - inter-jurisdictional integration."

While the online public servant will be on an equal technological footing with the rest of the world, the GOL initiative will be won or lost behind the scenes, in the business arrangements between branches, departments and levels of government.

Can we succeed? Alexander sounded an ominous note when he said, "Fifty percent of all government information technology executives are in a position to retire within three years." Canada, with multiple and often conflicting jurisdictions, faces real obstacles in transforming ESD into GOL. Can politicians resist branding their electronic services by name and department to the detriment of usability? Can bureaucrats resist barriers like compulsory surveys, unnecessary passwords and "upselling" to other programs and services?

Canadians will undoubtedly compare the federal online service with those of other cities, provinces or countries. A host of private-sector providers stand ready to provide whatever online services bureaucrats cannot.

Connecting Canadians with security

The "secure channel" project, a critical element in the federal government's strategy to connect with Canadians electronically by 2004, would provide for secure communication of sensitive information.

In a speech last October, the Chief Information Officer, Linda Lizotte-MacPherson, said, "Sometimes we have to proceed without all the answers, like what we are doing in phase one to create a common, secure channel. We don't have all the answers - but we can't afford to wait."

Despite that sense of urgency, as Summit goes to press six months later, the secure channel project has still not been tendered. Some observers believe the delay puts the government's online strategy in serious doubt.

Gaylen Duncan, the president of the Information Technology Association of Canada, said, "The consultation process went well; the drafting of the RFP went well. I think the issue here is that there is a conflict between what the bureaucrats think is reasonable and what the politicians would like to do."

Duncan is worried that a fall 2000 election could delay the process even more.

"One of my concerns is that it is not likely that a party (Liberal Party of Canada) as controlled as this party is will want a multibillion dollar tender on the street during an election," he said. "The potential for, I'll use the word 'stress,' is so significant that they would defer the whole process until after the election."

Richard Bray is a freelance writer based in Nepean, Ontario, specializing in Canada's high technology sector. His work has appeared in magazines and newspapers in Australia, the US and Canada. He has worked as a producer, reporter and senior news editor with the CBC in Toronto. Read more of his thoughts in his regular Summit column, wired.gov.


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