In November 2013, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada issued its report on Access to Online Services. Not surprisingly, the OAG Report found that while in 2005 an independent assessment ranked Canada first as a world leader in bringing online government to its citizens, more recent United Nations studies show Canada dropping in worldwide rankings – from 3rd in 2010 to 11th in 2012 among 190 countries.
As described in the OAG Report, the Government of Canada announced its Government On-Line (GOL) initiative in October 1999, with a goal of ensuring that all key government services would be available over the Internet by 2005. When the initiative ended in 2005, the government reported that Canadians could access all 130 key services online and that online transactions accounted for 30 percent of all transactions with government. Since that time, the audit finds that, notwithstanding some incremental improvements, “the government has not significantly expanded its online service offerings since 2005.”
For those who have followed progress on e-government throughout this period, these findings may come as no surprise. In fact, I’m surprised that Canada might still rank as high as 11th.
In the heady period of GOL, Canadian CIOs at all levels of government were talking about using technology to improve services to citizens and businesses. In the period after 2005, the focus shifted to consolidation and cost reduction – e.g. consolidating data centres, integrating email and networks, rationalizing back office systems, etc. While such focus was understandable in the context of broader efforts to reduce the size and cost of government, there is the danger that we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
While Canadian governments were pulling back on their efforts to use technology to improve service delivery, the world was not standing still. Social Media, mobile technology and the cloud have radically changed the technology landscape. Other governments have been moving forward aggressively to embrace these new opportunities. Even conservative governments with a cost-reduction agenda, such as in the UK, are implementing aggressive digital strategies including “digital by default” – defined as “digital services that are so straightforward and convenient that all those who can use them will choose to do so, while those who can’t are not excluded.” Such governments recognize that aggressively developing and promoting online services can yield huge cost savings, as well as improving services to citizens (and perceptions of government).
In this context, the Canadian government’s failure to deliver a new digital strategy, despite repeated promises to do so, risks further eroding Canada’s ranking and performance in this area – and ultimately our world-wide competitiveness. Yes, such a strategy may require new investments – but 10 years after the end of GOL, can we afford to do otherwise?
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.