Government On-Line faces project failure: Auditor

Canada’s Government On-Line project is already missing deadlines, costs for completion are unknown and specific department plans are short on details, the Auditor-General of Canada‘s controversial report warns.

The government’s online strategy

was well-articulated but it ultimately fell by the wayside, largely because so many ministries were proceeding in “”somewhat different directions,”” and now needs a strong leadership to get it back onto Ottawa’s agenda, said John Reid, president of Ottawa-based CATA.

As it stands, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser charges there’s no umbrella organization coordinating all efforts, which makes it difficult to manage GOL initiatives as an integrated program. She said the GOL Project Management Office directly controls only part of many GOL-related initiatives.

Many government departments have developed only high-level plans to put their services online and to deal with the resulting changes, Fraser said in her report. She said detailed issues around staffing needs, adoption rates of online services, the merger of several information systems and development of new ways of doing business have been neglected.

One key project, the Secure Channel –– which the government considers critical to GOL because it gives citizens a secure, responsive system –– is estimated to cost $604 million, yet implementation of some parts of this project are behind schedule and obstacles like long-term financing have emerged, said Fraser in her report.

Jeffrey Dale, president and CEO of Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, described the Auditor-General’s comments as fair, “”but it’s like any organization that’s going through a whole new way of doing service delivery . . . It) does take time.””

Bernard Courtois, president of ITAC in Ottawa, said a government saddled with checks and balances and public policy priorities has an extra degree of complexity compared to a private enterprise that might be attempting to transfer services on the Internet.

Moreover, Canada is still leading the pack when it comes to establishing e-government, according to a 2003 report by consultancy Accenture that weighed the country against 21 others in Europe and Asia, he said.

“”If I had my druthers, we’d be a lot farther ahead,”” Courtois said, referring to what he described as less than 50 per cent of services — such as tax-related programs — that are now online. “”But that’s probably wishful thinking in terms of what’s doable.””

Of all the question marks surrounding the government’s ambitious proposal, Fraser suggested one of the biggest unknowns is GOL’s cost. She said by December 2001, $880 million of new funds was provided for GOL, but since then the government has announced no new direct financing.

She predicted that delivering such an array of online services will cost much more, because goverment departments are spending large amounts of money on internal online projects. Moreover, Parliament needs more up-to-date reports on the status and funding of GOL.

Chris Bishop, president of Public Sector Research Inc. in Oakville, Ont., said there had been rumours at one point that GOL would receive $1 billion in funding. But after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Canada’s throne speech later that year, the federal goverment earmarked only $600 million. (Bishop said the $880 million figure quoted by the Auditor-General includes money government departments have spent on individual projects.)

Once the $600-million figure was announced in the throne speech, the Treasury Board realized it “”had to do it quick and dirty”” rather than take the time to integrate online services, he said.

Although others in the technology sector are hesitant to pinpoint the expected date of transferring government services online, CATA believes a more realistic timeframe will be over the next three years.

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