Federal government lagging on online services, documents warn
As the private sector offers quicker and easier services online, Ottawa is lagging behind in both expectations and service.
March 15, 2016
The federal government is lagging behind both private sector offerings and Canadians’ expectations in online services, internal documents warn.
A full 77 per cent of federal services still cannot be completed over the Internet, documents prepared for Treasury Board President Scott Brison show.
“Government is not doing a good enough job of meeting the needs and expectations of citizens for quality, accessible services,” the documents, obtained by the Star under Access to Information law, read.
“Fifteen years ago, Canada placed first worldwide in e-government services; today the UN e-government survey ranks Canada as 11th.”
Services like passport applications, requesting access to government information, or obtaining proof of citizenship all require in-person treks to Service Canada locations or mailed application forms.
A minority of services, like filing taxes or updating pension information, can be done online through government websites.
Canadians grumbling about the provision of government services is, of course, not a new development in the Internet age. However, the documents state that the private sector’s online offerings have increased Canadians’ expectations on the speed and ease of obtaining services.
In addition to raised expectations, the documents note that it takes a long time for the sprawling federal bureaucracy to implement changes in how it delivers services.
The average time between implementing a budget decision, for instance, is 15 months between the announcement and the execution.
These factors have resulted in a situation where the federal government is failing to “keep pace” with technological developments.
“The private sector is moving towards a digital experience, even within bricks-and-mortar establishments,” the documents read.
“(But) the 2013 (auditor general) audit on access to online services found that the (government) had not significantly expanded its online services offerings since 2005.”
In an interview Friday, Brison acknowledged that “enterprise-wide” tech solutions are difficult — whether for large companies or for governments. But he said the government must get better at offering services online.
“We need to move forward and modernize our services to Canadians, and be able to offer better services in real-time at better value for taxpayers,” Brison said in an interview with the Star.
Since assuming his post as Treasury Board president, and responsibility for the federal government’s overall service standards and policies, Brison has talked about the need for a culture change in the public service to be more nimble, free with information, and modern.
Brison also recently told the Ottawa Citizen that the federal public service needs an infusion of young blood — more digital-savvy, innovative generation of bureaucrats with fresh ideas.
“It’s much easier to build a modern, digital government if you engage the modern, digital generation,” Brison said. “This is the generation that has grown up digital. And we are never going to be able to render government digital without their engagement.”
But if it were easy to bring the federal government completely online, it probably would have been done already. Brison’s briefing materials detail a number of barriers to making more federal services onto the Internet.
“Legislative and technological barriers inhibit sharing of information for service innovation . . . (and the) potential for dynamic (government-wide) service delivery is unrealized due to untapped business intelligence,” the documents read.
Still, some federal agencies have had success moving traditional pen-and-paper services online — for instance, the Canada Revenue Agency’s push to get more people filing their taxes online.
The new Liberal government will have to figure out a way to bring about more widespread changes, however, if they plan to make good on their campaign pledge to create a one-stop Internet portal for federal services.
External Pressures on Government 2.0
Disruption: According to Brison’s briefing notes, part of the problem is that the way information is transmitted is changing — and old institutions like newspapers, network television and professional experts are being challenged by social media, Netflix, and Google.
Speed: With those changes, information is moving at a much quicker speed — you don’t have to wait for the evening news or for expert opinion to form an opinion. “A superabundance of information has led to a scarcity of attention,” Brison’s briefing notes read.
Authority: The transformation of those traditional pillars, however, brings with it a crisis of authority. Treasury Board notes that citizens are increasingly skeptical — or at least less deferential — to “experts” or those perceived to be “in charge.”
Communication: This presents its own challenges for governments to get their message across or market their services. Information, in real-time, is often unfiltered and “not necessarily true.” On top of this, Google ensures that no casual slip of the tongue goes unrecorded for posterity (and future attack ads from opponents).