The Internet is a key channel for public service delivery. Recent studies by EKOS and the Institute for Citizen-Centred Services show that the Internet has dramatically changed the way Ontarians interact with the government. “We are better serving Ontarians by creating more online options for accessing government services,” explains Minister of Government Services Ted McMeekin.
More online services are a key component in the province’s five-year IT strategy, Beyond e-Ontario. For e-government to reach its full potential, we have to understand recent trends and the factors that will influence the future success.
The Information Highway 8 report by EKOS and the Citizens First 5 report by the Institute for Citizen-Centred Services show dramatic changes in the way Ontarians use the Internet to interact with the government.
Both studies point to a double-digit increase in the public’s use of the web for their most recent contact with the provincial government. Similarly, the Information Highway 8 results indicate that the majority of Ontario businesses identify the Internet or email as their preferred way of accessing key government information or services.
In 1999, over 35% of Information Highway respondents identifying the phone as the channel used in most recent contact with the government. The Internet/email was used by less than 20% of respondents. Today, the situation is quite different: the web has grown in popularity to the point where it is used almost as frequently as the phone or walk-in channels.
The range of government services the public chooses to access online has grown considerably. While services like downloading forms or information remain the most popular, 40% of Ontarians have used the Internet to pay income taxes, 21% to make a payment and 16% to apply for a program. Penetration levels for new online services in Ontario have been surprisingly high: 85% for business registration, 75% for birth certificates and, in key communities, newborn registration is well above 90%.
In terms of client satisfaction, the online channel is ranked highly by Ontario consumers – 69% satisfied, according to Information Highway 8, and 65% satisfied according to Citizens First 5. These results are well ahead of traditional channels such as mail and only slightly behind in-person service.
The rising popularity and satisfaction with the e-channel is particularly significant when one considers its relative cost. Accenture (2004) found that the cost of delivering web-based services was on average, a fraction of the costs associated with other channels. While similar findings have emerged from U.K. studies, it is important not to hinge business cases for e-government solely on cost reductions. Often, cost savings have proven to be more elusive than the convenience associated with self-service for citizens from home or business.
Strategies for success
It is not surprising to discover that 82% of Ontario households responding to Information Highway 8 feel that “greater emphasis on the use of IT by governments is a move in the right direction.” Similarly, the study found that the majority of businesses see the Internet as an effective method for transactions with government.
How then can government ensure the continued success of the online channel for service delivery? Some of the key strategic considerations are:
1. Narrow the digital divide. Home access to the Internet has grown dramatically in Ontario from 59% of households in 2000 to 83% in 2007. And business Internet access has increased from 68% in 2001 to 92% in 2007. However, as Statistics Canada notes in its Connecting With Canadians report, a digital divide still exists for certain segments of the population. Internet access is lower for the elderly and the poor (who are more likely to depend on the government for key services) and for those in rural and remote communities. The 2007 launch of the Rural Connections program will significantly increase the availability of affordable, high speed Internet in rural Ontario. This initiative, combined with the provision of free Internet access in public spaces such as libraries and community centers, will help narrow the digital divide.
2. The web is king for forms and information. Given the “self-service” convenience of the Internet for some users and the potentially low cost of administration associated with simple transactions, it is easy to understand why Ontario and other governments have made the vast majority of publications, forms, laws and regulations conveniently available online. This effort needs to be sustained and downloadable forms need to be gradually replaced by forms which are “fillable” online. Ontario’s Electronic Commerce Act recognizes the equivalency of electronic forms and documents.
3. Huge potential in more complex transactions. As noted by the OECD in its e-Government Imperative report, downloadable forms and information are just the start. Increasing numbers of Ontarians are using the Internet for more complex transactions such as paying taxes or applying for programs.
4. Successful e-government transactions often depend on multiple channels. Citizens First 5 reports that Canadians increasingly use more than one channel to access government services. Similarly, Information Highway 8 reports that over 40% of Ontarians who recently contacted the federal government used multiple channels. Approximately two thirds of respondents described this experience as positive. For complex services, the web is a complement to, not a substitute for, other channels. Citizens must have an ability to move seamlessly between channels.
5. Web 2.0 – supporting government communications and collaboration. Federal and provincial surveys indicate that there is significant support for government’s use of Web 2.0 tools (blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, social networking, etc.) to communicate with and consult citizens and employees. However, interest in these tools tends to be skewed to younger age groups and there is the potential for a new digital divide to open up around use of the new technology. Ontario has recently implemented a series of collaboration websites and blogs across the public service to allow employees to share ideas and jointly solve business problems.
6. Privacy and security are essential for confident online citizens. While there is evidence to suggest that citizens’ trust of government online services has increased in recent years, a significant proportion of Ontarians are still uncomfortable providing their credit card information online. This may explain the Citizens First 5 finding that over three quarters of Ontarians who used more than one channel to complete a transaction, preferred to complete the transaction by phone, in person or mail. While businesses have fewer reservations about using the web for confidential transactions, privacy and security protections are key to winning consumer trust and participation in future e-government initiatives.
7. Simpler easier-to-navigate government websites. Ontario, like most governments, has made significant efforts in recent years to improve the look and feel of its websites and to organize information into “life event bundles” which correspond closely to the public’s search patterns. It would appear that this has paid off: Information Highway 8 found that over 90% of consumers who visited an Ontario website reported success in finding the information they were looking for. Citizens First 5 points to the importance of well-designed websites – respondents who had trouble finding what they needed on government websites re