After early success as a world leader, Canada’s e-government performance has languished in recent years. In contrast to more ambitious digital initiatives across a range of OECD countries that are steadily producing results – witness Australia’s ascent to number two in the 2014 Global E-Government Survey conducted by the United Nations, for example – transformational change within the Canadian public sector is seemingly in short supply.

Nowhere is this characterization truer than in the realm of online service delivery. Findings published in 2012 and 2013 by the Auditor Generals of Canada and Ontario, respectively, highlighted under-achieving online channels leading to an imbalance between cost and performance. For provinces in particular, saddled with relentlessly rising demands for spending in health and education, such an imbalance is clearly not sustainable.

Society, too, is evolving, as governments confront accelerating technological change that, in turn, heightens societal fissures among those enthusiastically embracing online activities of all sorts, and those unable or unwilling to do so. In the pragmatic middle, governments can also be victims of their own success as the ease and familiarity of call centres, envelopes and stamps outweighs a willingness to try something new, especially for longstanding, though infrequent, inquiries and transactions.

The opportunity for government, in this regard, lies in shifting from a mindset of channel by choice to one of channel by design. Channel by choice is synonymous with allowing citizens to select from numerous available channels: in person, telephone, online, or whatever mix works best for you. Channel by design instead seeks to encourage and incentivize online interaction and eventually, where feasible, suppress traditional channels in order to drive efficiencies, re-allocate scarce resources, and improve performance.

Jurisdictions ranging from the United Kingdom and New Zealand to most states in Australia have begun to shift their mindset accordingly. South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill recently made a “digital-by-default” pledge for his jurisdiction. The corresponding efforts encompass both the delivery of core services and state government becoming a digital model to stimulate wider industrial ingenuity and employment creation.

In our estimation, understanding and successfully leveraging the strategic nexus between a digital-by-default mentality and a channel by design service architecture is a transformation with three inter-related dimensions: i) political leadership; ii) infrastructure; and iii), value and performance.

Political leadership
In keeping with the South Australian declaration, a change in mindset begins at the top and elected officials must first signal a new service delivery ethos. Moving toward digital-by-default clearly requires political courage as contentious matters present themselves, notably the potential for lessening the physical presence of government across various communities, the resulting impacts on public sector employment, and ever-present questions around information security and personal privacy.

The issues transcend partisanship. British Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s Coalition Government comprises Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers, whereas the aforementioned Premier of South Australia is leader of the Labour Party. In Great Britain, moreover, the opposition Labour Party recently commissioned a far-reaching review of digital government that embraces continuity in many facets of the current strategy, albeit with some fine-tuning and a stronger emphasis on digital inclusion.

On the opposite end of the European Union, Estonia’s leadership in most everything digital, and mobile identity in particular, is equally revealing. The country’s progress is owed to an ambitious political declaration of digital leadership forged during its early transitory years away from Soviet-era suppression and control. While identity management has largely met with political indifference across much of this country, British Columbia’s introduction of an integrated services card stands out as a notable exception. Over the past year, the government of B.C. has undertaken a ground-breaking public consultation on the future of online service delivery, understanding that public input and support are critical enablers of future innovation.

Citizens have always compared government services to those in the private sector and this standard has always been a challenging one for the public sector to meet. In the early days of e-government, an overly-simplistic discourse confronted public sector entities: to in-source or outsource IT infrastructure.

Such debates crystallized in 2012 with the government of Ontario’s announcement, since seemingly abandoned, of their plans to privatize ServiceOntario. The ill-conceived scheme, hatched on a dime to fill a growing budgetary shortfall, illustrates the temptation of financial enticement that so often presents itself. Yet ServiceOntario already partners with Teranet, the quasi-private entity (now owned by a municipal pension fund) that runs the property registry for both Ontario and neighbouring Manitoba. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of ServiceOntario’s physical outlets are privately operated.

This example merely reflects the growing myriad of governance arrangements across the service delivery landscape. Saskatchewan has recently privatized Information Services Corporation (ISC), previously a Crown corporation operating many of the province’s registries and online services. Seeking a middle ground between public and private routes, Nova Scotia has recently begun to spin off its Service Nova Scotia entity into a more autonomous public agency. Having imported a chief executive from the banking industry, the hope is likely to strike a new balance between private ingenuity and public accountability.

While Ontario may have shelved its plans to fully privatize ServiceOntario, it bears noting that the province, like many of its counterparts, continues to build new health care facilities and other forms of infrastructure via public-private partnerships. Central to this path has been the devising of innovative procurement models to shift upfront capital investments into a more manageable leasing arrangement financed by private investors. The shared arrangement between Manitoba and Teranet is illustrative.

These types of arrangements help to solve a critically important component of increasing online service delivery – continued enhancement and maintenance. Private sector entities in the United States have partnered with state governments, for example, to develop innovative online platforms and funding models. Governments at all levels are also turning to cloud-based solutions to enhance backend infrastructure, notably email and data storage systems.

Pointing to a recent provincial auditor’s report in Ontario, critics of such partnering contend that governments pay a hefty and often excessive premium, and that in an era of record low interest rates, a traditional model of public borrowing and capital expenditure makes more sense. Yet whether the endgame is hospitals, fighter jets, or hardware and software, government’s procurement track record in balancing complexity and cost containment is hardly stellar. For this reason, Mike Bracken, the British government’s Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office has called procurement the “elephant in the room.”

Value and performance
Any reforms in a citizen-centric environment are ultimately judged by whether or not they improve outcomes through the creation of public value. The World Economic Forum defines public value in four ways: the delivery of quality public services, the achievement of socially desirable outcomes, citizen satisfaction, and increasing levels of public trust. The Singaporean language of “co-creating public value” exemplifies the convergence of Gov 2.0 and public value around both digital and participatory reforms.

In Canada, while the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service has made great strides over the past decade in gauging public satisfaction with service providers, a more participatory approach toward performance measurement and service design is now required (one in keeping with the spirit of the Singaporean emphasis on co-creation and B.C.’s public engagement efforts). The advent of mobile devices and social media platforms create new possibilities for public engagement and collective innovation: simply listening is no longer enough.

Finally, across all three of these dimensions we believe that provinces should be innovating collaboratively via pan-national and regional formations that stimulate the sharing of investment costs and the realization of new frontend and backend capacities. Teranet in Manitoba is a case in point. Further east, Atlantic Canadian provinces initially attempted to collaborate over a decade ago on a shared platform for online service delivery, mainly going their separate ways ever since.

In today’s environment of openness and portability, with even Nova Scotia’s infamously autonomous universities collaborating to procure a single online learning platform, the logic of working together has never been more compelling. By contrast, the evolution of e-health in this country and the struggles of ten separate provinces to pay for and operate similar yet largely separate systems, provides testament to the futility of the status quo.

At a time of fiscal uncertainty and unparalleled technological change, digital government is less a possibility for the future than a necessity. If online service delivery is to become the default option for much of the populous, only a combination of strong political leadership, innovative infrastructure solutions, and an incessant focus on public value can suffice. Only then can Canada regain its stature as a digital leader.