Compared to the other obstacles, technology is the easy part of getting government online.
“The difficult part,” says Colin McMichael, assistant deputy minister for the office of information technology in the Government of Manitoba, “is changing our government structure . . . and making that pitch as to why we need to change.”
McMichael was in Toronto Thursday to address Manitoba’s e-government strategy at the Provincial Government Online conference, which ends Friday.
According to McMichael, it’s not the citizens who need convincing that online government works, but the government itself. It’s a matter of pointing out the benefits of e-government in terms politicians are familiar with – the benefits to their individual constituencies. And, as McMichael points out, “it’s really the politicians we need to get at to allow us to do some of the things that we intuitively know are important.”
The whole nature of government structure changes when it’s examined under the lens of the Internet, he says. Barriers between departments begin to fall and commonalties are identified.
“It’s going to force everybody — as it has forced us — to deal with some unique collaborations,” he says. Common processes in departments can be run from a single platform, which will ultimately reduce cost and improve ease of use for citizens. “The days when individual departments have the right to do what they want, when they want and how they want to do it – particularly from a technology perspective – are long gone,” says McMichael.
One of the main reasons for pursuing online government at all is to allow citizens a single window entry point to all services with a common look and feel. But that doesn’t presume the obsolescence of over-the-counter, face-to-face service, says McMichael. For those still uncomfortable with navigating the Internet, counter service should always remain a viable alternate.
However, according to research from PricewaterhouseCoopers released late last year, the number of Canadians online is rising. Forty-eight per cent of Canadian households are now online (versus 43 per cent in the U.S.). Manitoba is slightly above the national average at 52 per cent. The demand is there and online service, says McMichael, should be considered mandatory for governments.
Manitoba has already rolled out a number of e-services, including daycare applications, student loan applications and various corporate and personal licensing. By working from a common platform, government can gain a better understanding of how money is being allocated and where services are being used in conjunction. (For example, says McMichael, single mothers may be looking for daycare and applying for student loans in the same sitting.)
The technology may be the easiest part of government online, but that doesn’t mean the job is anywhere near finished. “We’re a long way from Nirvana and the ideal world,” notes McMichael. For instance, Manitoba’s portal may accept electronic approvals, but hasn’t got around to digital signatures yet. Over the next 18 months, the number of services will be increased to accommodate new taxation acts coming in December, as well as company name registrations and more social services.