Megacities drive citizens online for services

A report released Monday from a municipal IT organization indicates Ontario municipalities are delivering more of their services online.

The report, from the Ontario chapter of the Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA), spells

out the various initiatives 21 Ontario municipalities have undertaken in the areas of electronic service delivery, improving internal operations and e-democracy, and the advantages of expanding service delivery options for citizens.

MISA describes itself as an association of municipal governments and private sector companies interested in the effective use of IT to provide better and more cost-effective services to municipal taxpayers and clients.

Over the next few years, the report claims, citizens will be able to complete any transaction they now do at City Hall from any computer with Internet access, including paying bills or parking tickets, getting the results of a home inspection or renewing city licences.

Jim de Hoop, director of IT for the City of Kingston, Ont. and president of the association, says the report addresses a lot of the questions MISA receives from people who want to know what municipalities are doing in terms of e-government and e-service delivery.

“”It’s the first publication of its kind that captures the local stories of each of the municipalities,”” he says. “”It also provides a benchmark of their progress with other municipalities and offers useful information for municipalities that need to undertake some risk mitigation strategies as well, because it’s a challenging area, it can be expensive and the investments are considerable.

“”It’s at least an initial learning kit that municipalities can use.””

He points to the City of Toronto’s online billing capabilities, the City of Mississauga’s intranet designed to help customer service reps do their jobs more easily, and the City of Vaughan’s project to place GPS signals on snowplows so residents can see where snowplows are at any given time as a few examples of e-services that are making a difference for city residents.

According to de Hoop, municipal restructuring has driven much of the demand and the provision of electronic service delivery at the municipal level. As many municipalities across the province have been amalgamated, citizens are turning to the local government Web sites for information on where to find the services previously provided by individual municipalities.

“”All the municipalities in Ontario that have undergone restructuring have found that Web site usage has skyrocketed,”” says de Hoop. “”I know that’s the case for Kingston. Citizens are viewing places like Kingston as a single region and there is for the most part a single city.””

Although municipal e-government promises the advent of electronic voting, that seems a distant future scenario, at least in Canada admits de Hoop.

And while some U.K. local governments are piloting e-voting systems, Canada has yet to make any serious moves in that direction (for more on this story, please see the August issue Technology in Government).

“”There’s a lot of backend security and verification stuff that has to be worked out,”” says de Hoop. “”Some jurisdictions are doing online Webcasting and some polling, but not direct voting. I think we’ve got to move forward in Canada. With this geography we’d really benefit from online voting.””

If there’s any one lesson the report has for municipalities that have not yet made the move to e-government, it’s that the time is now, says de Hoop.

“”I think the lesson is to get involved at either the strategy stage or the actual delivery stage right away rather than contemplating the unknowns for a long time,”” he advises. “”Municipalities that are late adopters really have to move to get caught up to our leading players at the federal, provincial and municipal levels.””

Another topic the report addresses is how community-based networks (CBNs) are helping provide high-speed Net access to rural communities traditionally under-served (or in many cases not at all) by the major providers.

Debbie Millar, a principal with Lanark Network Associates, a consultancy based in Lanark County just outside of Ottawa, says CBNs came about as a way for communities to attract equitable and affordable access.

“”The idea was that a community really needed to understand its needs before it went clamouring for telecommunications services,”” she says. “”In some cases (having a CBN) meant being able to keep corporations in town that were potentially leaving because they didn’t have affordable high-speed access. In some cases it was managing schoolboards that had become amalgamated and had huge territories and facilities to connect, or hospitals that restructured and had more than one campus and needed to share patient records.””

Millar, who has worked with the organization Regional Networks for Ontario, says there are now some 30 to 40 CBNs covering the province.

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