The Internet would help to remove barriers to governments at all levels and make their services more accessible.
Photograph by: Ashley Fraser/Postmedia News files, Ashley Fraser/Postmedia News files
E-government, putting government information and access to services online, and the choices and options this could generate, is currently being implemented in many Canadian jurisdictions. It has the potential to transform the way citizens interact with governments while achieving efficiencies that save time and money. But there is still a long road to travel before Canada is an e-government country.
Canadians living in rural areas are less likely to have access to a reliable Internet connection, a serious obstacle to accessing services that are delivered virtually. This problem isn't insurmountable, but solving it will require resources and political support.
"The recently re-elected government in Australia plans to spend $43-billion on a national broadband strategy to get rid of the rural-urban divide," says Jeffrey Roy, sssociate professor at the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University. "They've decided that broadband is a public good, and in the public interest, whereas Canadians have taken a more market-oriented view of it." The Conservative government hasn't made rural Internet access a priority, and neither did the Liberals under Paul Martin, Dr. Roy points out. As a result, access varies widely between provinces, and the rural-urban divide is most sharp in the Maritimes, the prairie provinces and remote regions of Ontario and Quebec.
The United Nations 2010 E-Government Survey, part of a program to promote and develop e-government worldwide, reflects this challenge. While Canada ranks third in the world on the E-Government Development Index, which evaluates how many government services are offered online, it ranks significantly lower for E-Participation, which measures how many citizens use these virtual resources.
Trials in many regions in North America and western Europe have demonstrated that the ability to interact with government online has a positive influence on public trust. The perception of greater responsiveness to requests for information and services heightens confidence in the public sector. Effective use of information and communications technology by government also enables more direct mechanisms for increasing transparency and building confidence, such as a dedicated online platform through which citizens can monitor the use of public resources.
An example from California shows how creating such a channel pays off fiscally and in terms of public trust. The state government currently posts all expense claims, budgets and contracts worth more than US$5,000 online, and recently added a feature that allows visitors to report unnecessary spending. The website costs about US$40,000 annually to maintain and operate, and in its first year it helped Sacramento achieve US$20-million in savings.
As government spending and services become more transparent, secure data will become increasingly important. In every country experimenting with e-government, electronic transactions involving sensitive information and money are constricted by concerns about identity theft or financial fraud. Another limit on e-government involves the difference between the exchange of information and the delivery of services; hospitals can post information about waiting times, allow patients to make appointments online and let people post reviews of their services, but there is no virtual substitute for delivering medical care. There is already a model of how to negotiate both security concerns and the need for face-to-face service delivery, though, Dr. Roy points out.
"Banking is a great analogy. When e-commerce first started, people predicted the end of retail banking, but in reality a lot of banks are building new branches. They've been very effective at creating a multi-channel model where there are incentives for carrying out routine transactions online, and for high value-added services, or for transactions that are more complex, you can still interact with the bank in person," he explains.
For governments as well as for banks, multi-channel service delivery allows resources to be concentrated where they are most needed. When routine transactions are carried out through online automated processes, all parties involved save time, and this means that complicated, more involved cases can be given more attention, while overall efficiency improves.
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