There is no doubt that advances in information technology have paved the way for mobile and continuous interaction capabilities between citizens and government anytime, anywhere, on any device and any channel.

There are, of course, multiple orders of government in Canada: federal, provincial and municipal. Many will have further definitions, but clearly at the municipal level there are two tiers, the upper tier (counties, regions or single tier cities) and the lower tier that usually includes towns, cities and villages. There is some debate as to which order of government is closer to the citizen, but most will agree that the relationship between the citizen and government is closest and strongest at the municipal, and that relationship needs to be reinforced by providing access to government services anytime, anywhere, via any device and using any channel.

The trend toward these four “anys” is unmistakable. Citizens are increasingly demanding greater access to information, transaction and feedback services from their governments. This is being amplified by the expectation that government should be able to emulate private sector services (banking, insurance, retail, etc.). The rapid change in technological innovation (cloud computing, open data, smart mobile devices and digital social media) will create even more pressures to re-enforce that relationship.

While the phone continues to be the dominant communication channel between citizens and government, other channels such as over-the-counter services, direct mail and fax are losing ground to web-based services. Canadians have embraced the internet as the way of interacting with government. Most government agencies have recognized that a healthy online presence is the most effective communication channel to optimize the use of the other three “anys.”

At the municipal level, Canadian cities continue to invest money and resources in their online initiatives, particularly web portals. But, especially for smaller cities, the capacity to fully utilize these portals is often constrained by tight budgets, insufficient infrastructure and lack of skilled IT resources. Some have only a basic website and are not leveraging the power of a full-scale portal solution that can increase information access, communication and collaboration among the city, its citizens and its businesses, as well as boost tourism and economic development.

This is further complicated by the perceived difficulties of developing a comprehensive integrated solution that would satisfy most municipal needs.

What are the characteristics of a comprehensive integrated portal solution? First and foremost, it has to be highly affordable and scalable to accommodate online growth. Next, it should be easy to manage on municipal premises or must be fully managed and hosted externally to overcome some of the challenges mentioned previously. Experience with some municipal portals developed to date shows that most cities underestimate the complexity and effort required to manage and host these portals. Municipalities should therefore pursue where possible managed hosted portals where they do not need to burden themselves with costly IT investments or allocate already over-tasked employees with maintaining yet another system along with the associated security and privacy considerations.

What value does such an integrated solution bring to municipal government? Such a portal will enable the municipality to move beyond static brochure-ware websites and adopt real-time information delivery mechanisms. Everyone in the community benefits from such a portal and it enables the municipality to become a truly connected government. Specifically, an integrated portal solution will provide:

• Value for mayors and councillors by providing direct communication channels with citizens, keeping residents abreast of council initiatives, providing feedback from citizens on major issues and city performance, and showcasing the city as a choice location for living, working, visiting and investing to boost economic development;
• Value for citizens by enhancing e-democracy and satisfaction with local government through direct communication with elected representatives and municipal staff, having the convenience of anytime, anywhere access to municipal services with online payments, and also having up-to-date emergency and security alerts;
• Value for business by providing owners opportunities to list their businesses in a local business directory, publicize sales and employment opportunities and, like residents, have 24/7/365 access to online municipal services and forms;
• Value for visitors and tourists through information about municipal attractions, local events, efficient trip planning, directions and accommodation bookings and online purchase of tourism packages, event tickets and souvenirs; and
• Value for municipal staff by reducing the cost of government and staff workload through business process automation, keeping the website up-to-date without requiring technical knowledge, and responding quickly to citizen requests.

There are many portal solutions on the market but they vary greatly in terms of scope, complexity, cost and ease of implementation. One effective solution is iCity by Imex Systems. This comprehensive portal solution is designed to be the epicentre of city-citizen interaction and reflect the four pillars of connected government: information, communication, collaboration and e-services. It enables the city to rapidly deploy a comprehensive transactional website while maintaining the municipal brand and identity. Its major components are:

• Content management system to enable non-technical staff to create, author and publish content to the website;
• Portal information features along with tools to help drive the dialogue with the community and provide easy access to city information, directories, bylaws, agendas and minutes of council meetings, application forms and RFP postings and downloads; and
• E-services that enrich transactional capabilities and provide a foundation for e-commerce initiatives (i.e., applying for services, paying bills online and purchasing city merchandise).

A comprehensive integrated portal will provide a foundation upon which all these capabilities will grow and mature. In particular, e-payments via telecommunication land lines or wireless networks will grow exponentially in the near future. Municipalities are currently struggling with payment card industry (PCI) compliance issues. However, once again, the most effective solution is to have a hosted and managed e-payment processing system that puts PCI compliance issues on the back of the provider rather than the municipality.