OTTAWA — There is no reason why Canadian government departments couldn’t achieve 98-per-cent penetration by partnering with more portals, experts told a public sector conference Tuesday.

While the federal government-online (GOL) initiative is often regarded as a success story when compared

to such industrialized counties as Japan and the U.S., it doesn’t mean that public consumption of online government services in Canada couldn’t be better, said Brent Lowe-Bernie, president of comScore Media Metrix Canada. He addressed about 100 government Web designers and developers who attended Web Site Content Management for Government, a two-day conference at the Ottawa Congress Centre.

As of April, online Canadians totaled 17 million. Of this group, about eight million reportedly visit government Web sites. Lowe-Bernie estimates 98 per cent of online users in Canada access the Web through portals provided by such companies as Bell Sympatico or AOL. Of this group, there are roughly eight million users who don’t go to government sites.

Partnering with these portals would require a sales pitch on behalf of government officials to portal owners, demonstrating the mutual benefits. For example, an online news section within a portal could include relevant government links at the end of news stories – a timely move with such things as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in Toronto. Including a link to Health Canada at the bottom of a SARS story would provide a value-added service to the user, Lowe-Bernie said in an interview.

“”Portals are always looking for competitive content,” he said, adding government departments could work with several portals similar to a virtual “”bee hive,”” he said.

ComScore’s Bryan Segal added the idea has been talked about a lot, but, as far as he knows, it hasn’t been put into motion yet.

Meanwhile, Willian Sheridan – a former consultant for Public Works and Government Services Canada – said government departments need to shift their attitudes regarding online services and Web site design. In the past, a common federal government approach to developing Web sites was: “We know best.” A common mistake, said Sheriden, is for developers to assume they know what the public wants. But without seeking the public’s input, how will they ever know, asked Sheridan.

In California, there are strict laws that require extensive public consultation on how government Web sites are crafted and what kind of online services they offer.

“”This applies not only to policies, but to regulations,”” said Sheridan. “”The question is: Why don’t we quit dragging our feet and get going on this?””

Sheridan anticipates a lot of resistance from Canadian public servants if such structured rule-making became the norm here. Bureaucrats might assume that the public wouldn’t be able to comprehend such complicated concepts.

“”But the public does understand, and you often have a dedicated group offering feedback,”” he says. “”So there’s no reason why public involvement cannot be a pivotal part of the production process.””

Sheridan said such public input could take the form of chat rooms, discussion groups or online submissions.

The conference wraps up Wednesday.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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