In October, CGE reported on AgPaL, an online innovation developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) that helps farmers, processors and agri-businesses easily find the programs and services that serve their needs. It and BizPaL, a similar client-centric, online government service content discovery tool, offer the seeds of hope as a way forward for the government of Canada’s web renewal initiative.
The Pal approach can easily be adapted to federal government web renewal and pave the way to success.
From 1999 to 2006, the Government On-Line (GOL) initiative gave birth to an experience within the federal government that washed across many departments and agencies. Many of the noble GOL principles for online, client-centric service delivery were preserved at the departmental level and evolved in tandem with the maturity of federal government organizations writ large.
GOL principles and the notion of “one window,” however, are holdovers from the time of Web 1.0 thinking, with a legacy of approaches that still run rampant in governments today. The online world has evolved around us at a much faster pace, and while there have been successes post-GOL, many government executives will be the first to admit that the federal government is at least five years behind where citizens, business and international stakeholders expect them to be with respect to online innovation.
The advent of “social,” “mobile,” “open,” and “semantic” have served to further expose a tangled, sprawling federal web presence of over 1,500 online properties. The concept of an effective “one window” for information and services is a paradox that should only be used as a conceptual metaphor rather than a physical manifestation of how content should be accessed.
Evolution is possible
As the federal government struggles to catch up to Web 2.0, Web 3.0 is on our doorstep. Clients and stakeholders no longer expect to find content, they expect content to find them. If the latest federal government web renewal initiative is to succeed, it will not be by focusing on the containers, the small set of “one window” websites. It will succeed because the focus will be on content, process, standards and interoperability within the context of a federated architecture.
Thankfully, there is hope. It may surprise you to know that the federal government is already sitting on the kernel of the solution, and has been for a decade. In the early days of GOL, two departments adopted a different approach to online service delivery that let citizens discover and aggregate content to meet their needs.
Industry Canada’s BizPaL and Agri-Food and Agriculture Canada’s AgPaL demonstrate a successful horizontal, multi-stakeholder approach that meets user needs by streamlining the process of discovering applicable information and services from all levels of government. Each project tackled the problem of creating a consistent, high-value client experience through simplified discovery and data management without forcing centralization and rationalization of data resources.
BizPaL (Business Permits and Licences) is an online service that simplifies the business permit and licence process for entrepreneurs, businesses, governments and third-party business service providers. It reduces red tape by providing a seamless experience across all three levels of government for opening and operating a business in Canada. Proof of success, it has won multiple awards and received glowing feedback by users for its value to Canadian businesses, while meeting economic policy objectives.
Seizing the opportunity by building upon the lessons learned from BizPaL is AgPaL, a web-based discovery tool to help producers and others in the agriculture and agri-business sector find the federal, provincial and territorial programs and services that specifically apply to them. Again, rave user reviews testify to the utility of the resource. In 2012, it received an award from GTEC.
The Pal approach as the way forward
Both “Pal” projects faced similar challenges to those faced by federal government web renewal, including:
• Content from multiple areas of accountability with no desire to concede control of the data source to a central federal partner;
• Terminology based in legislation, through acts and regulations, with little to no possibility of standardizing vocabulary to more plain language terms; and
• Personalization of existing web-based assets and certain stakeholders insisting on being exceptions to the rule.
To offer clients a simple way to find relevant information, the following “Pal” approach was developed:
1. Turn the focus toward basic client research to determine commonly understood terms and how best to label source content.
2. Develop a middle layer of interpretive metadata to assist with user-focused search and content discovery without imposing a centralized content management system.
3. Constantly iterate and use rapid prototyping methodologies that capture and respond to user feedback, resulting in early stakeholder engagement as well as a relevant and responsive discovery tool.
The approach balanced “just enough technology” with open source tools and protocols to ensure that the agile method of prototyping wasn’t encumbered by unnecessary technical burden. Prototyping was a matter of weeks, with a first instance of the online solution in a few months rather than quarters or years.
Pal project participation by stakeholders follows a federated model, which highlights how the methodology allows partners to maintain their own content, while effective governance, standards and procedures manage the middle layer. This effectively removes the need for stakeholders from various jurisdictions to consolidate, rationalize and migrate content to a centrally managed content store.
As a result, everybody wins: clients have effective, seamless service delivery while participating partners can fulfill their policy, program and service obligations to their clients and stakeholders.
Paving the way to web renewal success
The simplicity of the Pal methodology, which can easily evolve to meet various needs from internal business intelligence gathering to delivering personalized multi-channel client journeys, is successful because of the basic conceptualization of information architecture and putting the emphasis on what Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld, in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, call “the interconnections between people and content that underpin knowledge networks and […] how these concepts can be applied to transform static websites into complex adaptive systems.”
The Pal approach is a forward-looking, user-centric methodology that can lay the foundation for the future of Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government, with little to no need for extensively overhauling governance within a federated model and with no need to extensively rethink content delivery systems. Mike Bracken, executive director of the U.K. Cabinet Office working on the UK.gov initiative, states: “In an analogue world policy dictates to delivery, but in a digital world delivery informs policy. This is what agile means for government and its services, and if delivered in this way, the ramifications are profound.”
The Pal projects and their multi-jurisdictional data sources showcase what the Action Plan calls “the principles of Open Government … [and have accelerated the progress of] the delivery of programs focused on the needs of Canadians [resulting] in more responsive and cost-effective services.”
Seizing upon the success of the Pal methodology multiplies the opportunities for all departments and agencies participating in federal government web renewal and offers an easily adaptable solution for the digital business transformation of online government services.