The rise of e-democracy – FP/Executive
Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010.   Rebecca Walberg, Financial Post

Today’s Internet evolved from projects largely funded by the U.S. government. While it took markets and private-sector innovation for the Web to become a virtual commons for sharing information, ideas and transactions of all kinds, many governments are now closing the circle by incorporating information and communication technology into their interactions with citizens.

As well as encouraging a more citizen-centred framework for service delivery, e-government saves time and money for all stakeholders, while making it easier for both parties to communicate with each other in many ways.

The core of Integrated Service Delivery (ISD) is the creation of a seamless interface through which users can obtain information, download and submit forms, purchase licences and ask questions.

When that single point of contact is online, the time and effort citizens must spend dealing with different departments, or jurisdictions, is substantially reduced.

BizPal isa Canadianexample of virtual ISD in action. Developed by Industry Canada in partnership with seven provinces and a growing number of municipal governments, the website provides a streamlined interface that identifies the relevant permits, licences, registrations and inspections required to start a new business, whether it’s building a manufacturing centre, starting a boarding kennel for pets, or opening a restaurant.

Some of the necessary forms can be completed online, and the great majority can be downloaded through a link provided. Much of the paperwork must still be submitted in hard copy, but aspiring business owners can obtain all the information and documents needed to meet the requirements of all levels of government without entering a single office.

While BizPal is aimed primarily at small and medium-sized businesses, many other e-government initiatives simplify routine transactions for individuals. Ontario has won awards for its commitment to becoming a “digital state,” and for its emphasis on connecting with citizens online. The proportion of Ontarians whose last contact with the provincial government has grown from slightly less than one in five in 1999 to one in two today.

The Ontario Ministry of Government Services promotes the use of its e-channel over mail, telephone or in-person transactions in a number of ways. Some registration or permit fees are lower online than through other channels, and for marriage and death certificate requests, the ministry offers a refund if it doesn’t respond to an online application on time. Increasing the proportion of interactions conducted online has financial benefits for departments and taxpayers.

A 2008 study found that the average delivery cost of face-to-face transactions was $44 in Ontario. The same exchange by mail or fax costs $38, and by phone is $8. When the transaction is conducted online, the cost falls to slightly over one dollar.

Streamlined online applications save time both for departments and individuals. The eligibility form for the Ontario Student Assistance Program, for example, takes about six weeks to process through the mail.

When students apply online, their eligibility is determined within minutes. As a result, the percentage of students submitting their information online has risen from 43% in 2000 to more than 99% in 2010.

Another benefit of direct online applications is greater accuracy. When the province simplified the process for registering the birth of a newborn, so that a single transaction was needed to obtain a birth certificate, Social Insurance Number and OHIP card, the number of errors dropped significantly, since data entry by a third party was taken out of the equation.

The revolutionary aspect of e-government services, beyond savings and accuracy, remains the potential technology has to produce rapid change. Technology, it seems, can bring voters closer to their democratic institutions and increase participation in the discussion of public policy.

One powerful example of how technology can drive increased participation in the democratic process emerged during the last presidential election in the U.S. The Obama campaign was characterized by an unprecedented and highly successful use of social media and the Internet not only to raise money and attract supporters. Yet that was not all. Another key success factor in the use of technology in the campaign was using social media and the web to communicate with voters and direct volunteers where they were most needed to help bring out the vote.

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