The Future of Service Delivery: Government in the Digital Age

By: Hiba Siddiqui

We live in a society where individuals use powerful digital services on a regular basis for a variety of purposes. With the speed and sophistication of social networking services, enterprise systems and streaming services, it is imperative that public service delivery is also modernized and transformed to mirror the private sector’s fast adaptation. Digital transformation initiatives have risen across the globe and as a result, the Government of Canada is entering a ‘Digital Age’ of improving the online experience for citizens and transforming government services.

In 2017, the Federal budget outlined the government’s commitment to better use digital technologies to improve the ways people access government services. Learning from private sector leadership and other digital government initiatives within Canada and abroad, The Canadian Digital Service (CDS) was launched in July 2017 at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) to partner departments to improve service delivery to Canadians.

CDS aims to drive a strong service culture and back-end business transformation based on service users’ needs. Its three core functions include 1) Delivering Solutions 2) Capacity Building and 3) Providing Advice. Adopting a user-centric approach to digital service delivery, supported by an iterative, agile, development process that prioritizes rapid prototyping, has become central to delivering better digital services in Canada.

In 2016, TBS began undertaking a series of engagement sessions on digital government to seek input from a variety of stakeholders and to inform a made-in Canada approach to digitization. A total of 20 cities and 10 provinces and territories were visited. During this time, discussions took place with over 1,000 individuals across several sectors. This included provincial and municipal governments, technology sector, start-ups, entrepreneurs, civic tech organizations, communities, non-profit organizations, academic institutions, faculty and students.  

The Government of Ontario is also making it easier for people to access government services and information online through a multitude of methods. For example, the Ontario Digital Service was created to harness user insights to make in-demand information and services published on digital channels easier to find and understand. Additionally, the government aims for better user experience by way of re-designing a series of high impact signature projects to visibly improve the citizen’s experiences with government as well as open, participatory government in which people can easily participate and provide input on government decisions.

Why Digital Government? There are many benefits that come from a digital government ranging from better customer service and responsiveness to time saved and improved morale. With the incorporation of digital services in the government, accessing services become more convenient, services improve as the response time and reliability of government operations are enhanced. Additionally, online self-service forms and automated processes help avoid long wait times whether in person or on phone. Employees are also freed from handling mundane, monotonous tasks, improving their morale as they tackle more gratifying and productive work.

With benefits to digital services come challenges as well. According to the Public Policy Forum, the defining challenge of the digital era is complexity. Governments are moving from a model of planning and evaluating to one of sensing and responding, a trend that is shared across many modernization initiatives including digital government, open government and public sector innovation. Limited capacity to recruit, retain and harness top digital talent in public sector organizations also makes it difficult to respond to the complexity and scope of delivery.  Based on previous gaps identified by the Government of Canada, to remain relevant and responsive to the digital world, governments must accelerate their drive towards modernization and better utilize the potential of digital in its service design and delivery.

The features of today’s changing environment are open, contextual and horizontal . Governments must be more open so that more insight can be included in public decisions, they must also be more contextual for users’ needs and behaviors, and they must be more horizontal- that is work across sectors in a collaborative manner towards a common outcome. These features also reflect the persistent challenges governments are facing in implementation. Essentially, the Government needs to go where it’s hard to get. The digital government transformation is not just about acquiring the latest technology, or redesigning websites or online services – it is about harnessing new technologies, skills, and approaches to modernize the government, and by doing so, improve the lives of citizens.

As recognized by the Government of Canada, digital government extends beyond electronic service delivery and self-service. It touches every facet of how governments manage service delivery and engage citizens and stakeholders- and leverage digital advances to all citizens to access services anywhere, anytime. That being said, the effectiveness of a digital government in the Canadian context will require coordination and transparency across governments at the federal, provincial and municipal level in terms of information and data sharing; but also across sectors.

Hiba Siddiqui is a 2019 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from University of Toronto. Her policy interests include urban and social policy. In her free time, you can find Hiba in museums or photographing intricacies of the city.