Canada has once again left the rest of the Western world in the dust when it comes to e-government, according to the fourth annual Accenture study released Tuesday.
The study is based on the results of a survey of 5,000 regular Internet
users in 12 countries in North America, Europe and Asia, as well as a quantitative assessment of the maturity of e-government services in 22 countries. Singapore and the U.S. tied for second place, followed by Australia, Denmark, Finland and Sweden.
And while the news might be a salve for the sting of recent criticisms of Canada’s government online project lobbied by Auditor General Sheila Fraser –who warned of missed deadlines and budget-related problems — the study also calls for a major change in direction for the nation’s GOL initiative.
“If we’re going to push for service transformation benefits from Government On-Line in Canada it’s going to require rethinking of the plan,” said Graeme Gordon, partner, Accenture’s government practice in Canada. “The original plan was good to get us to where we’re at … but the goal of service transformation requires a brand new plan.”
According to the Accenture study, most countries are reaching plateaus in their e-service delivery. Most regular Internet users surveyed for the study said they visited government sites to gather information rather than conduct transactions. That means in order to get a better return on their investment, governments are going to have to work harder to push their citizens to serve themselves online when possible.
Gordon noted that the Canadian government recently conducted a study comparing the cost of the various channels of service transactions. In-person visits cost $44, mail costs $38, telephone calls cost $8, and online transactions cost $1.
“So what we’ve got to get good at now is getting people from the expensive channels onto the more cost-effective channels to really get the benefits from e-government,” said Gordon. “The other trick is once you’ve harvested those benefits from one area, how do you use those benefits to cross-fund to other areas that need investment, because the money is limited and if they want to continue transformation it’s going to require different business models to deal with funding issues.”
Ways to drive adoption of e-services include providing incentives such as reducing the amount of time it takes to get an income tax refund for e-filers, providing bundled services where it makes sense to do so and cross-marketing.
“In the end we believe service transformation will require governments to become more proactive in anticipating and pushing services out to citizens in a timely and appropriate manner,” said Gordon. “Canada is one of the top countries in terms of using marketing techniques.”
Next phase: service transformation
But the decision to pursue service transformation has not yet been made, says Christine Desloges, director general of government online initiatives at Public Works and Government Services Canada.
“I think what the report talks about is if we want to go for further service transformation then there might be some other funding models required, but the GOL initiative has a target of putting online the most commonly used services by 2005,” said Desloges. “Those are the 130 services most commonly used by Canadians and Canadian businesses, so that is something we’re on track for. If we want to go for the next phase, which would be service transformation, different types of funding models may be required.”
And while the issue is something most governments are looking at, “at end of the day it’s a decision that is made at another level,” added Desloges, whose department recently published the 2004 GOL Report, available at www.gol-ged.gc.ca That report discusses the issues GOL will be addressing next year, such as increasing takeup of services and dealing with gateways and clusters.
Desloges also pointed out that the Auditor General’s report was conducted a year ago. “We have made tremendous progress and we have taken action to deal with the observations in the auditor’s report.”
The Accenture study also found a growing interest in what the consultancy calls “personalized services.” In the private sector, that’s called customer relationship management, but that’s a term that tends to make government officials nervous due to its privacy implications.
Gordon said Accenture is seeing a growing interest in “anonymous personalization,” which is about maximizing the services for individuals while requiring the minimal amount of information from them.
For example, some countries allow citizens to view personalized information based on their postal codes. Canada’s government site also allows residents to create their own personalized home pages.
“The idea of segmentation is going to become important to understand how to create services that meet the needs of that segment, so the thinking won’t be done on an individual (basis) but on groupings of individuals,” he said.
But the biggest challenge governments face in taking the next step towards e-government maturity is to integrate services both horizontally across agencies and departments and across other levels of government, Accenture said.
“The real challenge we’re facing now is enterprise- wide, government-deep integration,” said Gordon. “We’re also seeing in Europe integration crossing the border, where services are becoming multi-country. That’s going to be the most challenging part of it and it requires a completely different set of governance models.
“We’re really at that point now where the transformation is going to be more challenging than ever, and getting progress is not a matter of just getting services onto the Net.”
William Eggers, global director, public sector at Deloitte Research in Washington, D.C., agreed.
Deloitte recently released a study called Citizen Advantage: Enhancing Economic Competitiveness through E-Government. The study argues that public sector organizations should evaluate information technology investments not only by the cost savings they generate for government, but also by the financial benefits they create for citizens and businesses.
According to Eggers, for e-government to be adopted by citizens, it has to take less time than a phone call or a visit.
“If it saves them money, that’s going to be a plus too,” he said. “I think a lot of governments believe that just by putting services online people are going to flock to them, and that certainly hasn’t been the case with all the services, so it has to be faster and cheaper.”
Eggers called Canada’s fourth-time first place “a tremendous accomplishment,” adding that many other countries, the U.S. included, have been gunning for that honour as well.
“The U.S. has made significant advances at the federal level over the past few years, but they have been unable to overtake Canada,” he said. Canada, he added, has mastered certain techniques for making its e-government efforts a success.
“Some of things that come to mind are the uniform look and feel of the Web sites, the enterprise content management — those are real advantages.”
Eggers also cited the user-friendly aspect of the Canadian government’s Web sites, such as quick loading times and easy navigation, as another reason for its popularity with citizens.
“Things like that make a difference and not all governments have understood the importance of things like pages loading quickly,” he said.
“I do think the next step for Canada is going to be with the federal government using its premier position in this area to get some of the provincial governments up to speed.”
Eggers, who is speaking in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick next week, said some of the provincial governments have not made as much progress as some of the U.S. states have.
“I think the more they can look at intergovernmental partnerships and the more the federal government can help the provincial governments leapfrog in this area it’s going to be important at this point.”