The Federal Government’s Complete E-Government Failure

Ten years ago, Canada held the distinction of being the top ranked country in the world for the breadth and sophistication of its electronic government services. Citing the Canadian government’s integrated, strategic approach, annual assessments by Accenture found that more important services were offered online in Canada than anywhere else.

Fast forward a decade and Canada’s e-government rankings have steadily declined, a victim of astonishing neglect by the current Conservative government. Last week, the auditor general issued a scathing report on the state of e-government in Canada, noting the lost opportunities for reduced expenses and greater efficiencies as well as the complete absence of strategic vision.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the successful implementation of e-government initiatives should be a win-win scenario. For Canadian businesses and citizens, it offers convenience and round-the-clock access.  For government, the shift online offers the promise of significant cost savings. Indeed, rather than simply eliminating programs, the government could focus on cutting costs by emphasizing lower cost electronic delivery of its services.

According to the auditor general, a 2011 study by Treasury Board and Employment and Social Development Canada found that the cost of an in-person transaction was $28.80 compared to only 13 cents for the online equivalent. A 2011 United Kingdom study arrived at similar conclusions, with online transactions 50 times cheaper than in-person services.

Given its potential, Canada invested heavily in the early part of the century in online government services. By 2005, the federal government had encouraged a growing number of users to shift their transactions to the Internet by providing access to 130 of the most important government services electronically.

Yet over the past eight years, e-government in Canada has remained at a virtual standstill. The auditor general reports:

“We examined whether there is a Government of Canada strategy for delivering online services and found that there is no government-wide service delivery strategy and that there has been no overall assessment of client needs and satisfaction since 2005. Therefore, the government has little information about what Canadians want and how they wish to be served across the departments. Although the government has identified in both Budget 2012 and Budget 2013 the importance of improving services to Canadians at a lower cost, no strategy has been implemented to establish priorities or guidance for doing so online.”

In fact, the e-government strategic failure cuts across government departments. For example, the auditor general looked at Industry Canada and found that Minister James Moore’s department “does not have an overall service delivery strategy” and “there is no overall strategy that focuses on service delivery or online services.”

The failures are not solely a matter of a missing strategy. Earlier this month, Public Works and Government Services Canada changed its approach to granting crown copyright licences for users of government works with no consultation or advance warning.

While the government’s earlier approach exempted non-commercial uses from the need to obtain a licence, the non-commercial licence has mysteriously disappeared and the department now says it no longer handles licensing.  For Canadian publishers and educators, the change creates significant uncertainty, requiring them to track down the relevant department and hope that permission is forthcoming to use works that have been paid for by taxpayers.

The government has accepted the auditor general’s recommendations and promised to take action. However, it is remarkable that an issue like e-government has been neglected for eight years, resulting in lost opportunities for cost savings and more efficient delivery of government services.


  1. Hugh Chatfiled says:

    President – CyberSpace Industries 2000 Inc.
    How true! Canada is significantly behind on the adoption of e-invoicing and the open OASIS Universal Business Language (UBL).

    For example, Denmark legislated the used of e-invoicing the UBL invoice back in 2005, quickly followed by activity by the EU and Latin American countries.

    Imagine, if Canada gets the free trade agreement with the EU finalized, and a Canadian company lands a contract with a EU govt or company, only to be asked to submit their invoice electronically using the UBL invoice (else they don;t get paid quickly). Oops – blindsided.

    Fortunately, technology has advanced to the point where SMBs don’t have to wait on government action to solve problems like this. In the following ITBusiness article I outline how any company can solve this problem quickly and inexpensively.

    All it requires money wise is to purchase a General Location Number (GLN) from the Canadian Government to uniquely identify your company on this planet, and make use of the free e-invoicing service from Tradeshift. Tradeshift originated in Denmark and has recently opened world headquarters in San Francisco. Tradeshift provides portals into both the Danish EasyTrade and the EU PEPPOL networks. Tradeshift has become the planets largest e-invoicing network within the past 3 years.

    My company is a founding member of the business ecosystem to promote the use of UBL in North America.

  2. You’re kidding me, Michael
    The government has no interest in allowing the citizens to direct their actions and their corruption is so deep that it goes into all things, including online access. You have probably 10 companies all spending money trying to get a contract to build e-government and then dragging their feet for eternity so as to drag out the month to month payments.

    It really is as bad as you’d cringe to think.

  3. It’s complicated, that’s why experienced managers who are tech visionaries are key.
    After working for small startups and private sector companies for years, I was recently hired to do a “hit and run” contract as a programmer / senior architect for Treasury Board. I was part of a small unit charged with innovating with open source software to build new government infrastructure quickly.

    I was shocked at the level of technical experience of my managers. They would get very excited about ideas that would be considered old news in the private sector, and then jump to conclusions very quickly about the benefits of such technology by listening the whatever junior developer shouted the loudest. There seemed to be no overarching open source strategy, or visionary capable of driving such a strategy.

    One strategic decision in particular causes huge problem for Treasury Board, is very expensive, and is positively anti-open source, but someone has convinced them it’s a great open source idea. It’s the new shiny Common Look and Feel 2.0, which is having a stifling effect on every department’s ability to innovate by themselves, and no on is talking about it AFAIK. Prof Geist, if you have a student looking to write a thesis, I can feed them with great information on how this is an absolute killer, complete with comedic overtones of truly epic and tragic proportions. But then again, I suppose that would be nothing new right ūüôā

    Regarding UBL and OASIS, this is a tiny corner case. The government deals with much bigger technology challenges that override any one technology or application. But it serves as a good example. Imagine downloading an open source UBL app and getting it up an running in 5 days, serving 500 of your partners or suppliers. Now imaging doing the same project to make it TBS CLF 2.0 compliant. You can now add 6 months of development to the original 5 days, at $1000/day IF the department can actually find a qualified person. End result. Cancel project. Long term impact: no one in the department wants to innovate with open source anymore, because they’ve been deflated by that original experience. Meanwhile everyone at TBS are busy padding each other on the and congratulating themselves on how innovative they are.

  4. Hugh Chatfield says:

    President – CyberSpace Industries 2000 Inc.
    Peter… now imagine that you do’t rely on anything the govt does. The example I used was Tradeshift. Tradeshift is now up and running in over 190 countries. UBL is enjoying great success world wide. Tradeshift and UBL have been designed to plug into the back end of systems such as Intuit, SAP, etc. software. – hence skipping the requirement for CFL.

    I attribute much of it’s success to this – in that it does not try to replace whatever systems are in use at either end of the customer/supplier chain….. rather it concentrates primarily on the transportation of business transactions between Customer and Supplier. To support this a common language such as UBL is critical – to avoid the need for some middleware product to do an N to N data conversion. This transport layer then plugs into the back end of whatever systems are in use at either end.

    BTW – Tradeshift is a SaaS application in the cloud. No need to download anything. Implementation for me took 5 minutes. e-invicing is completely free. Anyone on the network will receive an e-invoice from me in UBL, and anyone not on the network receives an e-mail with the invoice as an attached PDF.

    This article might be useful –
    (the article title is misnamed by the editor not me)

    Still – I take your point about large scale systems in the govt. We can only hope that systems we use outside the govt can be decoupled from internal systems, rules and regulations used by the govt. and be interfaced behind the scenes where common look and feel are not relevant.

  5. crown copyright should be abolished
    Crown copyright should be eliminated. It serves no valid purpose and the licenses generate little income, but it is from time to time abused to minimize the distribution of documents considered embarrassing by the government.