More than a decade ago, some enterprising folks at Industry Canada produced a powerful PowerPoint depiction of online service and the potential for massive efficiency gains. Simply put, the transactional costs of sending information around the world were illustratively compared: traditional mail, telephone, fax and email.
And so it was that Connecting Canadians was born, giving rise to Government Online and then Service Canada. The result is a robust multi-channel delivery apparatus, that while not without some pockets of success in terms of both efficiency and performance, now seems perpetually mired in a swampland of incremental change and resistance. Massive cost savings have instead turned into massive investments, as the technological treadmill only quickens; government pledges to provide services to anyone, almost anywhere, and by the channel of their choice can only stymie wider and more systemic innovation.
If the next round of service reform is to find real traction, three determinants must be properly aligned: paper, place and politics.
First, with respect to paper, most Canadians remain addicted. Few of us are brave enough to ask banks and utilities to stop sending paper statements even though we give them only a fleeting glance before tossing them into our personal filing system (often a large box or paper bag).
A recent study by Madison Advisors confirms that this affliction is widespread across all sectors, much to the frustration of companies who can only wince at the prospect of those elusive savings as depicted by those clever Xerox commercials of cloistered managers suddenly discovering the holy grail of going paperless. Suppression rates for most common applications – bills, statements, notices – “remain stuck in the high single to mid-double digit range of 8%-15%.”
There are some hopeful signs. The study finds that more than 90 percent of companies surveyed incorporate print suppression into their decision making and planning. The next decade may produce more meaningful results but governments will need to get serious about providing incentives to go paperless, first by doing a much better job of creating paperless processes.
Cloud computing is a critical piece of the puzzle since it is often touted as being more ecologically-friendly – but only if it proves resilient and files stored online are perceived to be as safe and secure as paper stuffed into desk drawers.
The second key determinant is place. At present, any urban centre in Canada is home to a myriad of public sector service delivery operations, at times co-located. In Halifax, this assortment would include but not be limited to: the municipality, the provincial Access Nova Scotia offices, Service Canada and Passport offices, plus a range of semi-public and private facilities such as Canada Post and its private competitors, and financial institutions.
While incremental innovations such as BizPaL and integrated processes for birth registration and social insurance numbers are important and to be commended, the real action lies in sorting out this multi-channel monstrosity both within and most especially across jurisdictional boundaries.
It may not be government’s role to “sort it out” in a traditional sense, however, as more intermediaries offer new ways to bundle and deliver services both online and in person. In Australia, it is Australia Post that delivers most services for state governments, also acting as a recipient for passport applications and other federal services. Last year, the Australian government initiated a dialogue on payment reform – with an eye to expanded usage of electronic systems via a wider assortment of public-private and multi-jurisdictional arrangements.
Australia and Canada, both federations, also share the separate and jealously competing constitutional egos of federal and provincial (state) entities, along with subsumed municipalities. In many leading digital jurisdictions in Europe, by contrast, local governments are the frontline point of access for the public sector as a whole. While much easier to accomplish in unitary countries, even perpetually unstable and fragmented Belgium has managed an integrated back office infrastructure that is now yielding electronic smart card innovations in service bundling across jurisdictional lines.
Belgium, as with much of Europe, benefits from a much higher degree of digital literacy by elected officials than is the case in Canada. Herein lines the third determinant – politics, and the unwillingness of elected officials to tackle hard questions of paper and place in a direct, collaborative and holistic manner. Service delivery and CIO councils are not unhelpful as talk shops, fashioning incremental as opposed to systemic change.
Yet if innovative solutions to the quandaries of paper and place are to be found, the starting point is to forge new political mechanisms that can begin to think seriously and creatively about a more collaborative and integrative architecture for the public sector as a whole.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (email@example.com).