Online government services don’t take lunch breaks
NationalPost.com – FullComment
Jun 18, 2012. Chris Selley
Reports suggest that if Ontarians are subjected to a summertime election, it will not be because of the McGuinty government’s plans for ServiceOntario, which (as the contentious budget document puts it) “provides Ontarians with fast, easy access to government information and services, including registrations, certifications and licensing.” Basically, the plan is to expand the suite of services provided and (from the budget again) “explore alternative service delivery models, including leveraging private-sector investments.”
Eek! Privatization! The New Democrats had a duty to protest. But leader Andrea Horwath has reportedly backed off on this front, and is rattling her sabre on other matters. This is a good thing. ServiceOntario is something of a success story, as Don Drummond noted in his report on the province’s dire fiscal situation: It has reduced per-transaction costs for health cards and driver and vehicle licensing by 7.6%, for example, and has set and achieved high goals for customer satisfaction.
I’m a satisfied ServiceOntario customer chiefly because I don’t have to go anywhere, wait or talk to anyone to avail myself of its services. Indeed, it’s easy to forget how recently you actually had to go to two different places and line up and wait to do things you can now do over the Internet. It’s a minor revolution, and it deserves praise. The more Ontarians can be pushed towards automated licence and registration renewals, the more the savings will rack up. Who in their right mind would miss the old ways?
Of course, there is no cause to blunder headlong into privatization for its own sake. But there is no reason whatsoever to rule it out. There were privately run ministry of transportation offices when I was a teenager. And once you’re performing all these tasks on an Apple-brand laptop in a Google-brand browser using third-party web guts, the distinction between public and private is somewhat moot. The important thing is that the product in question eventually arrives with the government’s imprimatur. Of course there are privacy concerns, but there are privacy concerns now: All of ServiceOntario’s automated kiosks — like ATMs, but you use them to give the government money — are currently shut down, after card-skimming devices were found on some.
While we’re considering this minor timesaving miracle, it’s well worth thinking even bigger — or, rather, smaller. From Mr. Drummond’s report:
Where possible, services should be shifted to the least expensive platforms available, resulting in savings for the government, a more efficient service experience for the client and a positive environmental impact through digitized services (i.e., digital rather than paper records). … An example of shifting consumers towards more convenient and less expensive channels is the provision of Vehicle Validation Stickers (Val Tag). ServiceOntario processed about 6.6 million validation stickers in 2010, at a cost of $18.4 million. Vehicles need not receive and display a new sticker each year; instead, their registration could be logged in an electronic database. Other jurisdictions, such as Quebec, have successfully moved away from vehicle licensing stickers and found that technology-based enforcement (like licence-plate scanning) is far more effective.
It’s a potential cost-savings hiding in plain sight. Stickers, for heaven’s sake? What year is this?
In a similar vein, Mr. Drummond also suggested extending the renewal periods for driver’s licences and health cards, which seems more than reasonable. The more digitized our permissions and entitlements become, the less point there is in renewing their physical manifestations at all. My driver’s licence doesn’t constitute proof of my legal permission to drive until it’s verified on a computer — for all a police officer knows, it might have been revoked. Same goes for a health card at the hospital.
And if we wanted to go absolutely nuts, we could ask ourselves if it really makes sense for 34 million Canadians to share 13 different bureaucracies for driver’s licences, health cards, birth certificates and vehicle registrations in the first place. No province need give up its jurisdiction over health or transportation — nor would any, to state the obvious. But theoretically — highly theoretically — there’s no reason two or more of them couldn’t pool their resources in the issuing of wee pieces of plastic. We’re not talking about the services themselves at all; we’re simply talking about a card that provides some baseline suggestion that its bearer is entitled to drive a car or access the Canadian health-care system. These permissions are, or will soon be, subject to verification every time the card is produced.
That’s not going to happen, obviously. But the Ontario government deserves credit for dragging such services into the 21st century. No politician should want to find herself standing in the way of further progress.
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