Service delivery
May 7, 2012

Better public services or your money back

CGE Vol.13 No.7 September 2007

Governments and their public service organizations are at the heart of our system of democracy. They are the custodians of taxpayer investments, and that comes with an abiding responsibility to deliver services efficiently and effectively.

Public servants understand this; they work hard to make a difference in contributing to the economy and our quality of life. Political leaders understand it, too; they work even harder, and assume the lion’s share of accountability when government does not work well.

Both politicians and public servants want to have happy customers and satisfied citizens. That’s why governments in Canada and around the world are taking steps to catch up with public expectations for better service delivery.

In November 2005, an unprecedented thing happened in the world of public service delivery – and it happened in Ontario. The provincial government introduced a service guarantee for online applications for birth certificates: delivery in 15 days or your money back. It used to take several months to get a birth certificate and the Premier found that unacceptable.

The new model works. We’ve met the target 99.7% of the time, with only 121 refunds issued between November 2005 and December 2006.

Building on this success, 15-business-day service guarantees were introduced in January for online marriage and death certificates. There is also a two-day, money-back guarantee for ordering a Master Business Licence through ServiceOntario.

Public satisfaction rates soar above 90% when services like this go online. More and more citizens around the world are buying services online 24/7, with fast delivery and self-service discounts. The walk-in retail experience is getting better – quality is going up and prices are coming down. Not surprisingly, citizens want better services from government, too.

And the research tells us that trust and confidence in government grow as service quality improves. This is important and powerful stuff. Better customer service is a goal that’s uniting public servants and politicians, regardless of political stripe. And so it should. It’s what taxpayers are paying for. Ontario public servants respect the value of taxpayer dollars and work in a corporate culture that promotes prudence.

Doing better means moving from department or ministry “silos” to common counters so there is no wrong door into government. In Ontario, we’re meeting this challenge through ServiceOntario counters that put the customer first.

But it’s no longer just about governments working well. It’s also about different levels of government working well, together.

In Ottawa, a new government services centre brings the municipal, provincial and federal governments together at one counter. A total of 130 distinct services are offered at this location. Usually, a parking permit, a health card application and a passport application would take three trips to three different offices. At this counter, you can get them all in one place.

Ontario and the federal government recently signed an agreement to harmonize corporate tax collection that goes even further. The federal government will collect and administer most of Ontario’s corporate taxes, which will streamline administration and reduce duplication. The province is also working with the federal government to harmonize services such as job training and adjustment services for new immigrants and laid-off workers.

New parents can go to a single web page to apply for birth registration (municipal), a birth certificate (provincial) and a Social Insurance Number (federal). If you’re a first-time parent, this seems like common sense. If you had to deal with three levels of government separately in the past, it’s revolutionary.

These are early emblems of better government, not a declaration of victory. As auditors general appropriately remind us, we have a long way to go to build better governments and better services. It means thinking about and organizing government services from the citizen’s perspective. It will increasingly require joining hands with other levels of government, as well as the voluntary and private sectors.

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour is dramatically reducing lost-time injuries in the province’s workplaces by working with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and health and safety partners. There have been more than 14,600 fewer lost-time injuries over the past two years, less human suffering and savings of close to $1 billion in costs associated with workplace injuries.

Ontario continues to be a leader in road safety, not only in Canada, but all of North America. This is due to the solid partnerships among governments, police and road safety groups.

The truth is, there are hundreds of things that go right each day – from managing provincial parks to supporting social programs to ensuring emergency services are there when people need them.

However, there is much more to be done. How do we move from the current fragmented approach of providing health, social and community services to one that responds better to clients with complex needs? And what about one common environmental assessment process and a more harmonized approach to other government regulations?

This will require more of the sort of political leadership that brought money-back guarantees to public services.

Public-sector leaders need to step forward, take risks and put the customer first – to change the face and feel of public services. To be guardians of the public interest, yes, but also champions of better and more responsive services.

Tony Dean is Secretary of the Cabinet and head of the Ontario Public Service. Vic Pakalnis is Regional Director, Eastern Ontario, Ontario Ministry of Labour.

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