As the Internet has grown and evolved, so too has the philosophy behind providing government services to Canadians. Governments at all levels are moving away from using their websites as digital libraries, opting instead to look at how they can better serve Canadians online. An early adopter of web 2.0 thinking, the Canada Business Network (CBN) team at Industry Canada is part of a new generation of government leaders implementing web-based solutions to improve the user experience.
It’s an approach that has earned the CBN team recognition as an Honouree at this year’s GTEC Distinction Awards, which celebrate the projects and people who use technology in innovative ways to deliver services to the public.
Launched in October 2009, the new CanadaBusiness.ca represents government modernization at its best. Working closely with its regional partners, the CBN team condensed 14 federal, provincial and territorial websites into one to provide Canadian entrepreneurs with a single online access point for government services.
“The process involved some risk-taking and new ways of thinking,” says Dan Batista, the director of Service Innovation at Industry Canada’s Small Business and Tourism Branch. “We repositioned the web as the first stop for small businesses looking for information, allowing our in-person and phone services to shift to dealing with more detailed questions and delivering value-added services. This is a critical change to our service delivery model that places the Internet at the centre of our operations and gives businesses across the country anytime, anywhere access to government services.”
GTEC executive director Kevin d’Entremont says effective online service delivery is no longer about getting information out to Canadians. It’s about automating government services and aligning technology with business priorities to achieve operational efficiencies.
“The nature of innovation in government has changed,” he says. “Public sector service delivery has become extremely sophisticated. This year’s Distinction Awards honourees overcame financial and operational hurdles to ensure Canadians would benefit from their innovative ideas.”
As d’Entremont points out, some of the best examples of government systems modernization involve inter-jurisdictional cooperation. Batista’s team worked in close consultation with regional partners to research solutions and develop a detailed plan to transform the Canada Business website into a true model of online service delivery to entrepreneurs. They conducted an information triage, turning 272 business guides into 10 online manuals and 15 topics. They also introduced new quality assurance processes to ensure greater consistency in content creation, writing and publishing.
The new Canada Business site no longer “pushes” information out. It allows users to pick what they want, when and where they want it. They can customize their experience according to regional and industry-specific interests, subscribe to blog and RSS feeds, follow CBN’s tips on Twitter, and much more. Batista says it’s all about putting the users in control.
His team achieved this goal – and significant cost-savings – with the decision to opt for an inexpensive, open source content management solution. Costs for the software and cloud hosting are minimal, while previous annual software licensing fees ran close to $550,000. Before making the leap to open source, the CBN team examined its options closely, conducted a risk assessment, and evaluated a number of solutions.
While critics of open source say the technology can expose government organizations to security threats, Batista says the Canada Business website contains publicly available content with minimal risk associated to it.
“Our move to open source software allowed us to shift development and maintenance work in-house. That, in itself, saves us a tremendous amount of money and time each year. We also repurposed regional web master and content development roles, allowing staff to create a better in-person and telephone service experience for Canadians.”
The result? A single online point of contact for businesses, a new and vastly improved site, and significant annual cost savings. More importantly, though, Canadian businesses are now at the centre of CBN’s business model.
Industry Canada’s approach is more than a case study in innovative online service to the public. It offers a model that is portable to other organizations. While Batista acknowledges that the web cannot always replace an in-person or on-the-phone experience, he says governments at all levels can realize true benefits from positioning the web as their primary service point. After all, it offers clients access to services and information anytime, anywhere – increasing their engagement with government.
Nicole d’Entremont is the founding partner at Ottawa-based Waterwood Communications (email@example.com).