by John Chenery
E-government is coming to a federal or provincial department near you. Canada's governments seem intent on applying e-commerce tools and techniques to the business of governing.
Proponents say it will transform the way governments provide services and interact with citizens - changing the way they do business. If all goes according to ambitious plans currently being formulated and implemented in Ottawa and in provincial capitals nationwide, it will transform government.
Today, almost half (44 percent) of Canadians with a home Internet connection access government services online, according to last year's Canadian Consumer Technology Survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers. This was up sharply from 32 percent a year earlier. Current users, though, are still not rushing to take advantage of new services, sticking to functions like getting information on programs and services (83 percent), finding an address or phone number (36 percent) or looking for work (32 percent).
Far fewer were using newer services - filing a tax return (17 percent) or applying for a service or payment (10 percent). This finding is supported by a global study by Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) which reports that, despite the financial and competitive advantages of offering government services online, even those countries that have advanced the furthest towards e-government, including Canada, transact relatively little business digitally.
More than 90 percent of the 157 transaction-type services national governments could offer online are not handled electronically. Even e-government trailblazers - Canada, the United States, Australia and Singapore - have achieved only 20 percent of their capacity to provide online service delivery.
The relatively low maturity of transactional online government services is attributed to several factors in the Accenture report. Potential barriers include issues such as privacy, fear of systems development costs, the complexity of migrating to an e-environment, the time required to integrate with legacy systems and the change implications for people.
The report also points out significant potential cost savings, estimating that for every "brick and mortar" government transaction that can be moved online, government stands to save up to US$400.
"E-government, if approached correctly, will blur the lines of government, enabling citizens and businesses to conduct business electronically without thought to which particular agency they must approach," said David Hunter, worldwide managing partner for Accenture's global government practice. "Not only does the Internet allow government to never close, it makes it simpler for citizens and businesses to obtain information and comply with government."
Services offered were categorized in one of three evolutionary phases toward e-government: publishing, interacting or transacting. To date, governments are generally stuck at the earliest stage - disseminating information - and have made only limited progress in interacting with citizens online and transacting business, according to the report.
In the most complex phase - transactions - the top five countries conduct eight to 18 percent of transactions fully online, with Canada leading. Graeme Gordon, an Ottawa-based partner with Accenture, said, "This study highlights the need for all levels of Canadian government to provide more services online. The most successful governments of the 21st century will focus on public policy and outsource the delivery of traditional public services. Innovative public-private arrangements will be vital to effectively deliver citizen services such as e-government."
"But governments really cannot afford to shrink from the challenge, as they have much to gain," said Hunter. "Citizens who transact online demand it, and they will hold elected representatives accountable in elections to come if their governments do not transform themselves."
Oliver Kent, an e-government expert with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Canada, believes that governments must remember why people use electronic services. "Whether in the private or public sector, the main driver is convenience," said Kent, citing last year's survey figures showing that most people accessed government services online either because it was faster, the office in question was far away or they needed information outside office hours.
Canadians are already accessing all levels of government online although municipalities lag far behind at 20 percent compared with federal (68 percent) and provincial services. Most of those polled in the study said they would like to see an all-encompassing website providing access to a wide range of government services, regardless of the level of government.
"We're at the beginning of massive growth in the use of e-government services in Canada," said Kent. However, he warned that governments still must take note of the continuing digital divide - younger and more affluent Canadians are two to three times more likely to have home Internet access. This gap is expected to close slowly.
According to a 2000 EKOS survey, Rethinking the Information Highway: Security Convergence and the E-Consumer/E-Citizen, 68 percent of Canadians have a home computer, while 51 percent have home Internet access. For people who do not have Internet access at home or work, the most commonly used access site is the public library. EKOS found continued strong support for governments' greater emphasis on information technology, with 74 percent of Canadians saying it is a positive step and 69 percent agreeing that the Internet has simplified access to government programs and services.
That public support, albeit qualified by privacy concerns, has encouraged the federal government to make information technology a high policy priority. The Treasury Board is to announce soon the successful bidders on a first round of contracts to develop a government-wide e-platform known as the "secure channel" project. The secure channel is a major part of the technology infrastructure that will allow citizens to access federal services online. It is vital to the government's plan to have all its programs and services online by 2004.
Treasury Board president Lucienne Robillard, the minister leading the federal e-government initiatives, says, "The Government On-Line (GOL) initiative allows us to serve more Canadians, in more ways. Programs and services will be available through several channels: telephone, in person and online. This is especially important to Canadians in rural and remote communities."
Regional access is targeted by another federal initiative whose goal is to provide high speed Internet access to businesses and residents in all Canadian communities by 2004. The National Broadband Task Force, announced by then Industry Minister John Manley last year, will report to the government by the end of March on a strategy to achieve this commitment.
The government would like a consortium approach to bidding on these major IT contracts - companies with different areas of expertise bidding as a group with one company assigned lead responsibility - and wants vendors to work with Canada Post wherever possible in delivering the new platform and broadband capability.
"This is the kind of competitive approach we need," said Public Works and Government Services Minister Alfonso Gagliano. "By making a single entity responsible and accountable, from technical design through implementation and operation, we reduce risk and still have access to the range of expertise and innovation required for a large and complex contract of this type."
According to Canada's chief information officer, Michelle d'Auray, no single vendor can provide all the business solutions for the secure channel project. "Rather than have to contract separately for different aspects - architecture, security, service brokerage, to name a few - we wanted to have a single group to deal with from beginning to end."
The secure channel contract will involve significant new building combined with a lot of work aimed at making the government's existing systems work together on a common platform, said d'Auray. "The potential for new services is enormous. Everything is possible but it is only when we actually start putting some of these things to the test that we will get a feel for the level of public acceptance."
Last year's federal budget allocated $160 million over two years to design and launch GOL. Of that amount, about a third was earmarked for projects to integrate services between departments, address "horizontal" policy issues such as privacy and security or break new ground to help the government meet its 2004 commitment.
In the latter category, a steering committee of deputy ministers has approved a number of "pathfinder" proposals which, d'Auray explains, will be used to test public response. With a total price tag of $60 million, the first batch of projects contains dozens of new initiatives, including:
But a couple of important issues have to be addressed before the e-government express can really build up a full head of steam. One is PKI (Public Key Infrastructure), a combination of software, encryption technologies and services that enables enterprises to protect the security of their communications and business transactions on the Internet. PKI integrates digital certificates, public-key cryptography, and certificate authorities into a total, enterprise-wide, network security architecture. It is generally accepted that citizens will need some form of digital signature and data certification will be required if the government is serious about doing business online. The Passport Online project is just one example of a service that can only operate if the user's identity can be verified beyond question. The federal government has yet to decide on its approach to PKI.
According to d'Auray, providing each citizen with an electronic signature is "an option, but not necessarily the only one. Maybe doing business online will involve a multiplicity of signatures from a variety of providers, including the government. It depends on our technical capacity, policy and legislative requirements and, more importantly, the level of public acceptance."
The Ontario government, another enthusiastic proponent of e-government, may look to its proposed new "smart card" program to tackle the online identity issue. Under legislation expected in the spring, the smart card program will begin by replacing each Ontario resident's health identification card with a new version carrying personal information in a tiny computer processor.
Kirk Corkery is corporate chief of iSERV Ontario, which provides common infrastructure services, such as processing and communications, from its internal resources and vendor partners in support of the Ontario's information and IT agenda. He says a smart card is "like carrying a diskette in your pocket," opening up direct access to services ranging from health to renewing your driver's license to buying a fishing and hunting permit. "Personally, I'd like to see the digital certificate be part of the smart card but realistically I can't see that happening for a while."
Corkery believes that privacy and security concerns will continue to play an important role in how quickly and comprehensively Canadians embrace the idea of doing business online, whether it's with the government or with an online bookseller. The 1998 EKOS study, Information Highway and the Canadian Communications Household, found that most Canadians (56 percent) feel that the information highway is reducing the level of privacy in Canada, a sentiment that increased dramatically with age.
Focusing on the e-commerce sector, the study found that these privacy concerns represented a major impediment to Canadians' willingness to share important information electronically. Canadians were overwhelmingly reluctant (87 percent) to provide the basic information (i.e. credit card number) required to carry out commercial transactions online. Even those most familiar with the Internet expressed considerable reluctance and there was agreement that the government should take steps to ensure the security of online transactions.
"With federal and provincial governments looking to do more and more business online, public concerns about privacy are only going to increase," says Adam Kardash, IT law specialist with the Toronto office of Heenan Blaikie. "A basic principle under private sector legislation is that personal information collected for a stated purpose must only be used for that purpose. If governments are going to offer services online, then they are going to have to act in a manner consistent with legal and industry standards in the private sector."
If there is one point of agreement among federal, provincial and private sector experts, it is that the pace of change in the IT sector is so rapid that a lot of carefully considered policies and positions are obsolete before the ink is dry. "What is technically possible changes from day to day," says d'Auray. "That makes it hard for me, or for anyone, to predict what this thing will look like in 2004."
John Chenery has worked as a journalist and editor for national newspapers in Australia and the UK. Before moving to Toronto from Costa Rica, he was Director of Communications with the Earth Council.