Canada strains for Government On-Line success

OTTAWA — Governments are only in the first mile of the marathon when it comes to e-government.

Graeme Gordon, a partner with Accenture, outlined the reality and rhetoric of Government On-Line during a speech at Technology in Government Week (GTEC) Tuesday.

In a study of 22 countries conducted last January, Canada ranked No. 1 worldwide in its e-government initiatives. For the study, subjects tried to execute 165 government services over the Internet, and then ascertained their level of maturity.

But while Canada ranked No. 1 in the “depth” of services it offers, of those 165 services, only five are considered to be transaction-based. And since Canada is leading the world in this area, it shows how few government transactions are actually taking place online anywhere in the world, Gordon says.

“It’s really the beginning of the race and there’s an awful long way to go.”

He says government vision statements have stalled development of e-government by exhorting that agencies “be online” but lack further details. The resulting rush to get online has lead to breadth — but not depth — of online offerings.

“Citizens and businesses have received very little benefit from this plethora of government Web sites,” Gordon says.

According to Accenture’s global research, 39 per cent of services that could have transaction capabilities are only at the “publish” level.

Challenges to getting services online include regulatory barriers, privacy and security concerns, as well as social equity issues (which is more of an issue outside of Canada).

Another problem is that government agencies around the world have few incentives to cooperate in organizing online services around the citizens and businesses they serve, and development remains concentrated at an agency level.

What has differentiated the leading countries in e-government — and will continue to — is leadership and political will, Gordon says.

But now there’s a new challenge. “Can we keep the focus going on GOL given what happened on Sept. 11?”

Gordon says security has become much more of a concern because of the current political climate — not to mention that people’s attention seems to be elsewhere these days.

But Canada is continuing to make progress. Gordon says Canada has become more citizen-focused, has made progress toward delivering a portal and has a strong policy imperative. To stay ahead, he says Canada needs to harness new technologies to improve service delivery, continue to develop its breadth of services online, complete its portal program and ensure cross-agency development is sustained.

Marketing of online capabilities has been sorely neglected, he adds, and governments will have to persuade citizens to use the Internet through better marketing efforts. “Governments are now recognizing they have to treat citizens as customers,” he says.

Norway, the Netherlands and Ireland have all made significant gains in e-government leadership, because they “think big, start small and scale fast.”

Ireland, for example, has made progress over the past few years in building an IM/IT infrastructure and stimulating the development of its IT sector. Its vision is to create an “information society,” which includes policy objectives such as access, participation, e-commerce enablement, infrastructure and e-government.

Mike Neary, director of communications with the Information Society Commission in Ireland, advises the Irish government on policy. The Holy Grail, he says, is to offer integrated services to citizens.

But there are obstacles in the way of reaching this Holy Grail. These include an immobile bureaucracy, a limited focus of activity and the “strange concept of ‘the customer is king,'” he says.

“We have to change our attitude and treat citizens like customers — that’s going to be a tall order.”

The Irish government is re-engineering its services around the citizen and creating a “virtual” government.

The Public Sector Broker (PSB) is a virtual organization focused on customer relations management and service delivery, providing a single point of interaction for citizens. The PSB has been rolled out as a pilot project in one county so far.

“We’ve made a good start, but it’s only a start,” Neary says. “We’d like to be moving at a quicker pace.”

Delegates from the Australian government were also on hand, representing the “Showcase Country” at GTEC.

E-government initiatives in Australia include online immunization records, organ donor registration, electronic lodgment of business activity statements, environment protection and biodiversity conservation decision support tools and online support for teachers.

The Portals Framework provides a customer-focused approach to the Australian government’s Web presence, consisting of a set of portals focused on customer groups, a set of portals focused on topics or subjects, and a key point of access for federal services as a whole.

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