Innovation in the public sector is possible, but legislators may have to fight an uphill battle with some of their own staff to increase efficiency and make government more business-friendly, a U.S. government official said Thursday.

Speaking at an Institue of Public Administration of Canada

conference, Kim Binkley-Seyer, the Florida secretary of the department of business and professional regulation, outlined her state’s experience with a 19-month-old project to consolidate its existing professional licencing systems into one on-line system.

Responsible for licensing professionals from various industries, including real estate agents and construction contractors, the Florida government was having trouble functioning under a system full of disconnects and red tape that stinted business growth. Re-organizing the whole system seemed like a huge task but it had to be done, said Binkley-Seyer.

“”We had to take 60 outdated systems and incorportate them into one new system,”” she said.

Moving service delivery online meant the department could make a database of general contractors and their customer satisfaction rating available to anyone considering a construction project.

“”This service became really embraced by the construction community. They were able to say to a potential client, ‘Look at the Web site, the guy you’re considering is cheaper but that’s because he doesn’t finish the job. Look at how many of his clients have complained.'””

The department’s biggest windfall came in the form of a Palm Pilot, Binkley-Seyer said. The devices were handed out to department of business and professional regulation investigators working to ensure only licensed individuals were carrying out business in the state.

“”Up to now, we found out, 60 per cent of their time was wasted pushing paper. Now we can get them a Palm Pilot, they can download the information they need straight into their Palm while they’re out in the field. Now they actually have time to do investigations, “” she said.

The hardest part of this project was breaking through an internal culture which had grown to expect innefficiency from government officials.

“”When we went to our stakeholders and told them we wanted to be more efficient, guess what? Some of them didn’t like that,”” she said. “”Some of them had made a pretty comfortable living out of our department being inefficient.””

Cultural resistance to change is also a problem among Canadian government officials, said John Shearer , deputy assistant commissioner of Canada Customs and Revenue Agency. Employees of CCRA have been used to things changing at a very slow pace and their comfort with such a pace is a challenge whenever new initiatives are introduced, he told the conference.

Robert Keyes, senior vice-president international of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, agreed.

“”The current CCRA business strategy is still heavily focused on compliance (with regulations) and not on facilitation,”” he said.

Keyes added that the role of customs officers has changed significantly with the explosion of NAFTA. Canada no longer relies on duties and levies collected at the border as a major source of revenue, customs officers should primarily focus on easing the flow of goods across the U.S.-Canada border, he said.

“”It may be a matter of having to look at our hiring and training practices,”” agreed Shearer. “” A lot of the people we’ve hired recently have come from police training. We’re not a police force and don’t want to be one.””

Shearer added that another major challenge to smoother border crossings for businesses and the public has been the post 9/11 tightening of security on the U.S. side.

But Shearer said the Canadian government is commited to the making our borders easier to cross while ensuring safety of people on both sides of the crossing. He explained that significant investments in IT by both governmentand industry, including biometrics-based identification for people frequently crossing the border, will make the goal possible.

One pilot project already under way — an initiative aimed at reducing wait times for transport trucks — is a good example of how innovation can improve service while maintaining high levels of security, he said.

“”We’re looking at outfitting trucks with electronic transponders where customs info would be transmitted before the wheels ever hit the border,”” he explained.

Belief in innovation is neccessary from government leaders if they want any kind of positive change to happen, especially in a work culture used to red tape and pace much slower than what technology allows for, said Binkley-Seyer.

“”We’re 19 months into a 24-month project and I wouldn’t have added another day to it,”” she said. “”Slowing down the pace would only give people the chance to say ‘Let’s think about this, let’s study it some more.’ Nothing would ever get accomplished this way,”” she said.

“”At the end of the day we’ll probably be able to save the licensees who paid for this system between US $90 to $100 million,”” she said. “”The increased efficiency we’ve seen is mind boggling.””

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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