In an October 16, 2013 article (“Service Ontario’s web failing to attract users”), the Toronto Star reported that even John Milloy, Government Services Minister (with responsibility for Service Ontario) didn’t know that he could review his vehicle sticker online.  As someone who also recently renewed my vehicle sticker, I’m not entirely surprised.  Although I was pretty sure that it could be done online, I had to read carefully through the mailed-out reminder to find this option – buried in the small print.  As a result, apparently only 9.3 percent of stickers are renewed online.  Apparently, 91 percent of us either don’t know (like Mr. Milloy) that there is an online option – or (unlikely) we prefer to stand in line at the Motor Vehicle Registration offices.

The same article also reports that the Ontario government expects only five percent of motorists will take advantage of the online option for renewal of drivers’ licences.  Why so low? While some potential users may not have convenient access to a computer or may have limitations that make online renewal difficult, this can hardly account for a projected five percent take-up rate.

More to the point, why is the government so reluctant to aggressively promote the online option, when standard analyses suggest that the cost (to government) of in-person transactions can be 20 to 30 times that of the same transactions completed online.

In my observation, the Ontario government is not unique in its reluctance.  Only this year, the Government of Canada stopped mailing out paper tax forms to millions of Canadians – even though 65 percent of Canadians filed electronically in 2012 and early reports suggest that this could be as high as 76 percent in 2013.  Even then, instead of proudly proclaiming how it was saving money (and thousands of trees) through this measure, it left it to the media to report the story, focusing on a few complaints (e.g. from the Canadian Association of Retired Persons) and putting the government in a defensive mode.  (CRA could, perhaps, have avoided such complaints through better communication and/or including a check-box option for those filing electronically to indicate that they didn’t wish to receive paper forms in future years.)

These are not isolated instances.  For some reason, it appears that governments have concluded that promoting online services is “toxic.”  Perhaps they are concerned that online services may be considered impersonal or insensitive to seniors, the disabled or those without easy access to computers.  But the alternative of simply accepting a five percent take-up rate – without even trying to convert the 70 percent or more of us who would be only too happy to use the far less expensive (for government) online channel – seems hardly responsible.

Instead of hiding, let’s proudly promote “modern government”, taking full advantage of the cost-saving opportunities (and increased convenience) provided by modern technology, without taking away the in-person option for those who still want or need it.

Roy Wiseman
Roy Wiseman is currently Executive Director and was a founding member of MISA/ASIM Canada. He is a Board Member and Past President of the Institute for Citizen Centred Service, Past President of MISA Ontario, former municipal Co-Chair of the Service Mapping Subcommittee and Project Director for the Municipal Reference Model (MRMv2) project.