Canada Post’s phasing out of home delivery in many urban dwellings reflects an undeniable truth: snail mail is on the decline. While nobody likes paying more for less (as stamp prices rise as well) and though many dogs will miss their daily “intruder,” the Crown corporation is hampered by a faltering business model on the one hand and a political cold shoulder on the other hand.
It is not alone. Down under, Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s Communications Minister responsible for digital reforms, recently announced that a new integrative portal, myGov, will be made available at no cost to all government levels, thereby creating a truly national framework for online service. Seemingly a victim is Australia Post: it operates the country’s largest physical retail network that is widely utilized by many state governments as their frontline service presence in communities.
Australia Post has been developing its own digital mail box akin to epost here at home, with an eye to becoming the virtual channel of choice for the public sector at large. The head of Australia Post has acknowledged that if the federal government were to achieve its stated target of 80 percent of government communications online by 2017, Australia Post’s letter volumes would “literally fall off a cliff.”
The Australian experience underscores two weaknesses plaguing digital government in this country generally and for Canada Post specifically: a disjointed system of federalism and a fragmented ecosystem for identity management.
With regards to the first point, it’s long overdue for Canada’s political leaders to build on the laudable and foundational efforts of the Joint Councils (the largely informal gatherings of federal, provincial, and municipal service delivery managers and CIO’s). Notable in Australia’s myGov model is the inclusion of personal electronic health records, a stark contrast to provincial separateness and unevenness across this country.
In fairness, healthcare has long transcended federal and state levels in Australia more deeply than in Canada. Yet more salient is the willingness of governments across Australia to work in concert in creating a critical path toward a holy grail of digital government, namely a single, online login for most all public sector services. Australia Post could well face a bleak future as a result, although it is likely to maintain a vital role across rural and remote regions by virtue of its more engrained delivery partnership network across a range of government actors.
Canada Post, in its five-point renewal effort, has similarly targeted smaller communities with retail facilities embedded or co-located with other services. The problem is that its retail delivery network is but one of many across a bloated set of competing public entities, to say nothing of banks and new financial players such as President’s Choice and Canadian Tire. Indeed, recent reports suggest that Canada Post explored the creation of a new banking unit (not unlike many OECD countries) but faced stiff resistance from both banking lobbyists and the government.
In parallel, Canada’s identity landscape continues to evolve at a painstakingly slow pace. B.C.’s introduction of a new services card combining (albeit optionally) driver’s license and health cards is a notable step and many provinces are devising or exploring similar models. The federal government is similarly upgrading its own identity platform, working with the financial and technology sectors to enhance security and portability.
Yet stitching together these efforts would require a degree of national governance that simply does not exist. While in opposition, Prime Minister Harper briefly called for a new identification card, an idea that proved operationally and politically untenable in both Great Britain and Australia. The latter is instead showing that federalism need not stymie collaboration.
As leading digital nations race to devise genuinely shared platforms for managing identity (Estonians access more than 400 public and private services via their smart phone), Canada requires a national plan inclusive of all governments and all sectors.
Only such an effort can determine an appropriate balancing of virtual and physical facilities in new and innovative mixes that may well vary across urban and rural communities. Only then can we know if a brighter future lies in store for Canada Post.