Easy access means no wrong door to e – services

The focus is shifting in governments everywhere, and information technology is smack-dab in the middle of it. The emphasis is moving from internal processes and systems to serving citizens. Government’s traditional structure of department and agency “”silos”” will be weakened, with lines between ministries

blurring and perhaps even vanishing.

“”We’re probably going to see more change in public administration in 15 years than we’ve seen since the American or French revolutions,”” says Brian Freeman, vice-president of single-window government initiatives for Montreal-based consulting firm CGI Group Inc. Freeman is also a former vice-president of operations at Service New Brunswick, one of Canada’s best-known electronic service delivery initiatives.

Jim Alexander, the federal government’s executive director of information management and information technology stewardship, says the two key principles of IT strategy today are client-centricity and an all-government approach. Two major forces are at work. The first is the availability of technology that changes the way governments communicate with citizens. The obvious example is electronic service delivery — using the Web to deliver information and transactions. But the telephone is still the top channel of communication between government and citizens, and there too, the ability to put large stores of information at the fingertips of call-centre agents is helping promote the idea of “”single-window”” government services. To deliver single-window services, separate government departments — and even separate governments — must work together more and even change the way they operate so they fit better together.

The second major force is pressure from all directions to make government more efficient while providing better service. “”People are looking for simple service, easy access when they want it,”” says Graeme Gordon, partner responsible for the e-government practice at consulting firm Accenture. This reinforces the trend to electronic service delivery, and it’s an incentive to break down barriers within government. The public sector can use resources more effectively by sharing information and technology.


Together, these forces might change the traditional structure of government as a series of separate departments, each concerned with an area such as health, defence or education. The work of dealing with citizens and businesses may be brought together in one place, while the ministries are left to develop and administer policy. Or it could go even further, erasing lines between ministries.

Electronic service delivery has taken hold across Canada. Every province delivers information and at least some transactions on the Web. Some also use electronic kiosks, such as the more than 70 ServiceOntario machines. Accenture has ranked Canada’s federal government first among 22 nations in e-government leadership three years running.

The next step is integrating services. “”It’s not enough to put what we currently do or how we currently do it on the Web or (make it) available electronically,”” says Liz Gilliland, acting chief strategist and government chief information officer for British Columbia. Instead, she says, governments must improve service delivery and learn to disseminate and use information as single entities. “”A lot of the big value is going to be where we start delivering services that cut across departments,”” says Hisham Adra, senior vice-president at CGI.

Service New Brunswick, for instance, offers services from multiple government ministries and even from more than 30 towns and cities within the province. The federal government’s Canada site provides electronic access to a wide range of government services.

Ontario calls it “”no wrong door.”” Whatever door you choose, you can get to what you want. Ontario’s approach is a federation of portals dealing with clusters of services — a seniors’ portal, an export portal and a portal for routine services for individuals are under development today, says Joan McCalla, corporate chief strategist in the provincial corporate CIO’s office. A tourism portal is another possibility. These will be interconnected so “”clients”” — as governments increasingly like to call citizens — can move easily among them. McCalla says this will eventually extend to letting people personalize on-line access, customizing portals to put the information and services they use most at their fingertips

It’s not limited to the Web. If citizens are to feel they are getting good service on the telephone, says David Primmer, assistant deputy minister of information and communications technology in Manitoba’s Energy, Science and Technology ministry, they can be transferred no more than once before getting their questions answered. The best way to do that is to give call-centre staff access to a wide range of information so they can answer questions immediately rather than transfer callers.

Increasingly, no wrong door will mean not only not having to know which department or ministry you need, but even not having to know what level of government is involved. Prince Edward Island’s GovInfo.ca portal incorporates information and services from the federal and provincial government and P.E.I. municipalities. Businesses in Nova Scotia can register on the Web and have relevant information automatically fed to the provincial workers’ compensation system and the federal Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA), says Bob MacKay, Nova Scotia’s chief executive of economic development. Ottawa and British Columbia offer combined services to help businesses start up and build export markets. “”It works gorgeously,”” Gilliland says.

While governments try to offer one-stop services to the public, they are also trying to get more mileage from IT investments. Alexander says the federal government now spends more than $5 billion a year, or 12 per cent of operational expenditures, on IT. “”That’s a significant chunk of investment,”” he says, so it’s important to make the most of it. One way to do so is to eliminate duplication by sharing and reusing resources.

That mainly means opening lines off communication from ministry to ministry, using government’s bulk purchasing power more effectively by creating government-wide standards and vendor partnerships and co-operating more in working with the public.

Some provincial governments are creating clusters of ministries that share services, including IT. Gililland says a cluster of social ministries and a cluster of natural resource ministries are examples of where this works well in British Columbia. Ontario has similar arrangements.

Several years ago, the Nova Scotia government struck a deal with software vendor SAP AG to use SAP software not only across the government but in other government entities in the province, including school boards, municipalities and health agencies. The province holds 90,000 SAP licences. This not only brings the province volume discounts, but promotes common software infrastructure, says MacKay.

Manitoba has an enterprise-wide agreement with Microsoft Corp. and is seeking similar arrangements with other large vendors, Primmer says.

Ontario already chooses government-wide vendors of record for technology used heavily throughout the government, and is working toward common IT infrastructure and re-using applications it develops internally across multiple ministries, McCalla says, adding that the common infrastructure will help ministries deliver single-window access to information and services.

Some governments are also looking at how processes can be reused for different purposes. “”A licence is a licence, a permit is a permit and a payment is a payment,”” Freeman says — so why not use the same processes in multiple departments?

Today only about 10 per cent of Ottawa’s IT expenditures go for shared services, Alexander admits, while in provinces such as B.C. and Ontario the figure ranges between 40 and 70 per cent. The private sector does even better, he says, and government needs to improve.

Ottawa’s secure channel initiative to develop online security technology for government-wide use is one effort to promote shared services. Another is the “”Receiver-General buy button,”” technology to let citizens do online transactions with the federal government using major credit cards.


Put together single-window services and efforts to improve efficiency by duplicating fewer functions in different parts of government, and the shape of government could change profoundly. Freeman predicts that service delivery will move into a “”one-stop shop,”” leaving individual departments with the legislative, policy and administrative responsibilities. In short, not just the way government deals with citizens but the way government works will change. Even individual departments will co-operate more than in the past, he suggests.

Traditional government silos serve two main purposes, says MacKay. One is to protect privacy by limiting access to personal information — no one government agency knows everything about a citizen. The other is focus: The health ministry’s role is health, not economic development. But, MacKay says, “”the difficulty we have had was the silos went all the way to the ground.”” Some separations are necessary, but there can be a common foundation.

“”That’s what we’re going to see,”” Accenture’s Gordon predicts. “”More shared services, more looking at the way the government is managed.””

Among other things, that could mean a common information infrastructure holding information about citizens. That sets off privacy alarm bells. The answer may be security and privacy provisions ensuring that while data about citizens may reside in one huge database, individual officials have access only to what they need to do their jobs. In the past privacy was the happy side-effect of different systems not talking to each other. Now, MacKay says, it will need to be explicitly designed into systems. But while a few problems such as privacy require technological answers, the biggest challenges are not about technology. “”It has more to do with organizational change and cultural change than technical change,”” Freeman says.

IT may be the catalyst for this reshaping of government, but its outcome will depend on people

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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