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.
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.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at email@example.com or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.