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Canada’s e-government initiatives are among the best in the world

That will come as a surprise to many online Canadians

By Gail Balfour
September 9, 2010

One blustery winter morning, Toronto-based software developer Kieran Huggins wanted to know when the next bus would be coming before he ventured outside, but when he searched the Internet for transit schedules and updates, he found only incomplete data that was difficult to navigate. No help with his commute.

So he decided to write his own application. That was in 2007. Huggins, a partner with Toronto-based development shop Refactory, soon discovered the app was the easy part. The hard part was trying to navigate the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) information, which was stored in inaccessible formats and missing a lot of crucial elements.

“Mostly, their data was terrible,” he said.

He and business partner Kevin Branigan did a lot of legwork and calculations and were eventually able to build their own accurate data set of all the stop times for every route in the city. The data is housed on their Web site, MyTTC.ca, as an open-source trip planner. It is not, however, endorsed by the TTC.

Open road ahead

Huggins’ frustration at not being able to easily find public information is one that is shared by many Canadians, and has caused many to push for a national open-government initiative. But it’s not an easy road.

“There is no one universal definition of openness. That said, greater access to, and transparency around, services and information is a good place to start,” said Carmi Levy, a London, Ont.-based independent analyst.

He said that open access will pave the way for greater participation of citizens, who, in the pre-Web 2.0 era, were more likely to just be passive receivers of government services. “Now, open government gives them a significantly more active role in defining and delivering the kinds of services most relevant to them.”

Chris Moore, CIO for the city of Edmonton, agreed that a truly open government is one in which citizens have a more active role, but he said the technology and access to data sets also need to be in place in order to allow this to happen seamlessly.

“But it’s more about the people than the technology,” said Moore, who was one of three Government Web 2.0 panelists speaking at the fifth-annual mesh conference in Toronto last spring. “Edmonton is the fourth city in Canada to have an open data plan. Community engagement is the most important thing.”

It makes sense that municipal governments may be a bit further ahead with Web 2.0, said Michelle Warren, president of Toronto-based MW Consulting. Not only are the municipalities smaller, more agile and able to respond faster than provincial or federal offices, the community tends to interact with them on a more regular basis “due to the frequency and regularity of issues, such as transit info and garbage collection.”

But even at the municipal level, e-voting exists only as isolated pilots and has not even been mentioned federally.

But inroads are also being made in the federal government and collaboration is key, according to another mesh panelist. “Web 2.0 is changing the way we work together within our organizations, and the way we serve Canadians,” said Marj Akerley, Ottawa-based executive director, Organizational Readiness Office, CIO branch of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.

“Several departments already provide open access to some of their data, and have been doing so for some time.”

Worldwide recognition

Back in 1999, the Government of Canada boldly announced it wanted to become “known around the world as the government most connected to its citizens” with the release of its Government On-Line (GOL) initiative. Its goal was to make more information and services available online while continuing to provide services through traditional modes.

This government-wide initiative, led by Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), had many successes: it generated a common look and feel for all government Web sites, online availability of the 130 most commonly used services and secure electronic payment capability.

The cost savings of GOL were also significant: while an in-person transaction costs on average about $30 per person and about $10 via telephone, it costs $1 or less per interaction via the Internet. And because the federal government conducts about 400 million transactions each year, the savings add up. In fact, for the fifth consecutive year, Canada ranked number one in “customer service maturity in eGovernment” out of 22 countries surveyed in Accenture’s Leadership in Customer Service 2010 report.

Though the GOL concluded in 2006, there are several other long-term e-government goals for Canada, such as continuing to improve efficiencies and transparency between departments, according to PWGSC.

“As more of these wins become part of mainstream government operations, late-adopting agencies will be more motivated to get on-board,” Levy predicted. “Success in open government won’t just breed more success. It’ll breed accelerated buy-in and adoption of those who still hold on to more traditional forms of public service and leadership.”

Changing the system from within

Despite the success of the GOL efforts, Canadians like Huggins are critical of the seeming lack of openness and access to timely, accurate information for everyday citizens. That may be because, up until now, much of the government’s focus has actually been on the internal use of Web 2.0 technology to collaborate and share knowledge.

In 2008, the federal government launched an internal wiki called GCPedia as a way to capture, build upon and share the collective knowledge of employees across the country. GCPedia is accessible to 250,000 employees in more than 100 departments. The wiki has approximately 16,000 registered users and 444 user groups.

Federal employees can use the platform to post, comment and edit articles by their peers. Departments that had not shared much information in the past are suddenly now collaborating. “When you are talking about 250,000 people, the potential for cultural change is huge. This is starting to break down walls, break down barriers between departments,” Akerley said.

“As government employees become more comfortable with new technology and seek mechanisms for collaboration, their confidence in the effectiveness of the tools is increasing,” she said, echoing Levy’s comments.

On a smaller scale, she said, some departments are using social media tools for interaction directly with the public, and the Treasury Board Secretariat is currently developing a guideline on the use of external social media tools by employees. In developing these guidelines, many elements need to be considered, she said.

“As government employees, we must comply with all applicable Government of Canada policies. We also have a responsibility to respect bilingualism and accessibility, and ensure the security and privacy of employees and citizens are protected.”

Increased pressure

Levy noted that the federal government has some challenging work ahead, and agreed that cultural change is what is needed most in order to make e-government initiatives a success.

“This is not an environment that changes easily, if changes come at all,” he said. “But the government is under increased pressure to do more with less, and they no longer have a choice.” According to Levy, citizens have come to expect the same level of service they can get from other online information providers.

“Accelerated adoption is being driven not by a growing desire by government to get ahead of the curve. Governments don’t necessarily want to become leaders in the open government movement. But if they want to remain responsive to citizens’ needs, they have no choice. In other words, they’re being pulled into it,” Levy said. “Cultural change always evolves more slowly than technological changes. But the government needs to keep pace.”

The e-Citizen Studio, a Fredericton, N.B.-based initiative of the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada, is striving to help other offices of government do just that. The Studio provides a forum to evaluate third-party technologies and to conduct design sessions, focus groups and video conferences. “Transformational change has to happen,” said Marc-Alain Mallet, director of business development and research support at the NRC. “There is an increasing demand from citizens for greater access, more information and better collaboration.

“The fact that mobile devices are now ubiquitous and people are online more often is driving big changes to the way people search for information. These things have caused a higher level of awareness. Citizens want to take an active role in the way the future is shaped,” he said. “Here, we have an environment where we can test.”

Reduce, reuse, repurpose

The Studio evaluates a wide range of technologies and looks at ways to create an environment that is open, added Dr. William McIver Jr., senior research officer and e-Citizen Studio manager.

“We are looking at ways to make data modular and highly flexible, to reuse and repurpose data.” This will make developing it faster and deploying it easier, because different departments could reuse the same modules over and over with little customization. And they wouldn’t need to develop anything themselves.

Key areas of research include public transportation, health care and location-based services, he said, and one key to success is to look for ways to engage the citizens and leverage the expertise of the community and private sector as co-developers.

In fact, citizen-driven development is what Huggins did with MyTTC.ca, and what the third mesh panelist, Montreal-based Michael Mulley, did as well when he created openparliament.ca. The site strives to “keep tabs on Canada’s parliament” by posting data aggregated from a variety of sources. Visitors can sort by name of MP, subject or postal code of their riding, and find out what is being said.

Mulley’s story is similar to Huggins’. He was looking for information on government sites and found it very difficult to locate. “My first impression was that it’s way harder than it should be. Many frustrations could be removed in a day. And that day is long gone,” he said, adding that citizens are often in the best position to make changes happen.

“There is immense potential for interested developers like me and like many other Canadians to do interesting things with government data. It’s much easier for citizens to do than it is for government…to experiment and innovate.”

Huggins echoed this point. For example, he noticed a gap in detailed TTC information regarding accessibility, and said the best way to understand what was needed was to just go there in person. Huggins and business partner Branigan spent hours riding to every stop on the subway, assessing the elevators and stairs and the time each took. “It was kind of fun,” Huggins said.

So in the end, it seems the government and the communities both want the same things: to be more transparent, share the most accurate information, and have more interaction with each other, McIver said.

“After all, the people we work with in government are citizens too.”


Government online

5 examples of open-access successes

Most of us have been frustrated at one time or another when trying to find information about a particular government service. There can be confusion around which department or office to contact, and how to find up-to-date information or download the right forms without spending hours digging on the Internet or sitting on hold on the phone. But when I tried to find specific examples, I was quickly faced with the enormity of the task. Where to start? The sheer volume of data and the plethora of departments and offices can be overwhelming.

On the plus side, I was pleasantly surprised at the consistent look and feel of government Web sites, and at how many departments seem to embrace some aspect of e-government, be it open data sets, downloadable forms, blogs or social media bookmarks and RSS feeds. For example, Health Canada’s Web site features widgets, videos and social bookmarking, while Industry Canada’s Twitter feed actively engages in conversations with citizens.

Some higher-ups within government are also striving, on an individual level, to seem more approachable within the confines of their online personas. Governor General Michaëlle Jean has a robust video blog (www.citizenvoices.gg.ca/en), while Industry Minister Tony Clement has been known to tweet about Iggy Pop and Justin Bieber in between his posts about cabinet meetings.

But because the data is so many layers deep, this progress might still be pretty close to the surface, according to Carmi Levy, a London, Ont.-based independent analyst. “In many cases, the fundamental core underneath has not yet evolved. So the question is: how do they make it permeate?”

This is a question the government is just beginning to answer.


Examples of government 2.0 in action

National Resources Canada offers its geospatial data for free.

Industry Canada invites citizens to participate in an open ideas forums online.

Veterans Affairs has a Facebook memorial page.

Department of National Defence has a “write a letter to the troops” feature.

Environment Canada offers open real-time access to weather data.


Illustration: Enrico Varrasso
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