On February 27 and 28, the Joint Councils gathered in Halifax for two days of intense activity aimed at better serving Canadians. The Joint Councils comprise two separate bodies – the Public Sector Service Delivery Council (PSSDC) and the Public Sector Chief Information Officer’s Council (PSCIOC), whose co-chairs and members include senior representatives from all government levels in Canada. Together, they provide a uniquely holistic forum to address a range of strategic, managerial and policy issues enjoining public sector service delivery and information technology (IT) and information management (IM).
At stake is the evolving apparatus enjoining Canadians with the information and services provided by all government levels across all types of delivery channels. The combined hundreds of millions of information requests and transactions annually represent a critical artery for citizens and businesses across the country. At a time of economic uncertainty, fiscal restraint, technological change, and continually rising public expectations, the effective design and delivery of public services matters more than ever.
Accordingly, and due to the increasingly intertwined nature of service, information and technology, the Joint Councils began the Halifax meeting as one, a departure from previous practices that would typically see the PSSDC and PSCIOC meet separately before converging. This time around, organizers felt that a common point of departure would yield a richer and more integrated dialogue – a dialogue centred on many central and pressing issues confronting all governments both individually and collectively.
Forging shared solutions and collective improvements have been front and centre in the Councils’ achievements that have already yielded several significant inter-jurisdictional undertakings. Examples include the devising of a pan-Canadian national strategy for online identity management and authentication and the realization of service integration bundles such as birth services that provides parents with a streamlined and integrated application process for Birth Registration provincially and a Social Insurance Number and Canada Child Benefits federally (kiosks in Nova Scotia hospitals further enable an electronic submission of this single application).
As a uniquely national venue for such matters, the municipal contribution to the Councils is also noteworthy. Such inclusiveness was underscored by a learning event co-hosted by Nova Scotia and Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration. Held one day prior to the Council gatherings, the forum featured presentations by provincial and local officials on several current models of service innovation and collaboration enjoining stakeholders from both government levels. Among the initiatives discussed were a single address initiative for property services; municipal strategies for public engagement; and service improvement efforts of the Halifax Regional Municipality, including a new and groundbreaking open data strategy.
By way of formally welcoming Council participants to Halifax, the Minister responsible for Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, the Honourable John MacDonell, highlighted the tremendous dedication and talent of public servants engaged in a collective effort to better serve an increasingly well-informed and demanding citizenry.
The meetings that followed featured a rich and detailed set of plenary presentations and discussions covering a wide cadre of strategically important opportunities and challenges. The Councils work in tandem with the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service (ICCS) in devising research strategies of benefit to all member governments. Many current ICCS initiatives, in turn, helped to inform the Halifax discussions as well as emerging steps and priorities going forward.
Though impossible to synthesize the two days of exchanges that took place, a number of critical and inter-related themes may be identified. Four are discussed here: efficiency and cost savings; integrity and security; governance models both within and across organizations and sectors; and openness and innovation. All of these themes should be viewed through a unifying prism of strengthened and accountable government in order to benefit citizens, business and communities.
With respect to efficiency and cost savings, in today’s fiscal environment all Council members are facing similar pressures to do more with less. As such, any new initiatives requiring capital investment face rigorous scrutiny over justifying new spending and realizing net benefit. The Nova Scotia government’s launching in December 2012 of its new Access to Business Online Service is a good illustration.
Replacing the previous online registry service, this new strategy is premised upon a more client-friendly and integrated user experience using greater self-service: a registered business may ultimately manage all of its interactions with government via a single source. An ongoing process of sector-specific bundling (beginning in the current year with restaurants and accommodations) will yield additional improvements through a shared dialogue encompassing both sectors. The initiative is emblematic of Joint Council efforts to improve the Canadian business environment through shared initiatives such as BizPaL and a common business identifier for usage across government levels.
In terms of integrity and security, the aforementioned pan-Canadian identity management effort has underpinned progress on this crucial issue across numerous jurisdictions. British Columbia, for instance, has successfully introduced its new BC Services Card which allows residents to combine their previously separate health and driver’s license cards if they choose to do so. Approved by the Privacy Commissioner, the uptake thus far of the new card has been strong and other provinces are closely examining the potential of this model for similar undertakings within their own jurisdictions. The federal government is presently upgrading its own identity authentication system, and Service Canada is on track to realize a fully virtualized registry for the federal Social Insurance number, an important step in reducing waste and fraud while facilitating more paperless transacting.
With respect to governance, two key sets of issues permeated discussions: multi-channel strategies and efforts to migrate citizens and businesses to online channels, and the organizational structures of service and IT entities underpinning the gathering, processing and delivery of information and transactions.
The first issue is a key research priority for the ICCS – presently leading an international review of multi-channel efforts across industry and government. As one case study included in this study, BC Hydro showcased its own efforts at deploying various incentives to encourage more customers to embrace online and paperless channels. The role of social media was also discussed as a crucial forum to both listen and proactively respond to customer feedback. Yet BC Hydro’s own research has revealed that roughly one third of its customer base has little interest at present in transacting online, underscoring the multi-channel complexities facing public service providers.
The second issue within the realm of governance pertains to the organizational structuring of service and IT entities and infrastructures. For example, Saskatchewan has announced plans to proceed with the partial privatization of its lead entity in this regard (Information Services Corporation). Many governments federally and provincially are preparing the groundwork for significant refurbishments of their IT infrastructures, a critically important issue for CIOs, and one underlined federally by the 2011 creation of Shared Services Canada and its present efforts to move forward with initiatives to both consolidate and improve the government of Canada’s email systems and data centre operations.
These initiatives further underscore the importance of collaboration and partnerships. As Industry Canada looks to develop the next generation of BizPaL, for example, a pilot initiative with Canada Post is exploring potential new channels for electronic submissions and payments. Such changes reflect a growing maturity of service delivery and IT operations and the combined impacts of the three themes noted above.
Finally, in terms of openness and innovation, it is telling that the Halifax meetings began just four days after the inaugural International Open Data Day held on February 23 while concluding one day prior to federal Treasury Board President, Tony Clement, participating in a Google Plus chat on the very topic of open data. Beyond specific open data initiatives, Joint Council participants agreed that in a world of mobility and new forms of collective innovation, finding new ways to both listen and engage citizens in service improvement is a priority rising in visibility and importance.
In sum, governments face the twofold challenge of focusing on tangible and concrete improvements to existing operations – both within and across jurisdictions, while also ensuring an ability to seize new opportunities on the horizon. Maintaining such a balance necessitates a dynamic and outward public service, underscoring the sentiments conveyed by Nova Scotia Minister MacDonell.
The Halifax Joint Council meetings thus marked an important step in the evolution of public sector service delivery and information management across the country. Building on their winter gathering on the east coast, the Councils will be reporting their progress and subsequent actions to an upcoming federal-provincial-territorial meeting of deputy ministers in Winnipeg this spring, converging once again in September in Fort McMurray in Alberta. From east to west and further north, this collaborative endeavour reflects an ongoing and vital mission enjoining all governments and impacting all Canadians.
Jeffrey Roy was an observer at the Joint Council meetings in Halifax and the views expressed in this article are his own and not formal pronouncements of the Councils or their members.