Survival Guide: Perspectives from the field

Michelle D'Auray, Canada's chief information officer

Focus groups, polling and listening to online feedback: Those are some of the ways the Canadian government keeps its award-winning Web sites relevant and useful to its citizens and businesses.

Often the first, or nearly the first, to put different types of government services and information online, Canada has built its government portal around three channels: Services for Canadians, Services for non-Canadians and Services for Canadian Businesses. The approach has won kudos, including a gold medal from Accenture in its 2002 global e-gov study, "Realizing the Vision."

Michelle D'Auray, Canada's chief information officer and one of the architects of the country's e-gov initiatives, spoke with Senior Editor Nick Wakeman about how Canada keeps up with ? and sometimes anticipates ? change.



WT: What do you think the United States can learn from Canada?

D'Auray: Before we set up the first Canada site and its three gateways, we had done about a year's worth of focus-group testing. Then we went out earlier this year and validated again. We tested again to see if that structure still held.

We've had to do a few changes. That's the challenge in doing something like this: If people tell you it is no longer relevant, you've got to change. And getting government to change and make change on an iterative or constant basis is really hard to do.

WT: Focus groups are a key component of that?

D'Auray: Sounding out your users is important, so focus groups are a definite key. Polling is another, and just monitoring the online feedback that you get. We set up an Internet-based panel, which is a regular group of people who use the services, so we can validate or see the changes in the use patterns over time.

One thing we found: How people use the Internet changes. The way I use it today isn't the way I used it six months ago. So you have to have a touchstone group as a means of seeing what's working and what isn't.

WT: What are you trying to learn from the United States?

D'Auray: The interesting thing with [the Office of Management and Budget's] 24 e-gov initiatives is the headway in re-engineering business processes. That is probably one of the toughest things to do.

You are dealing with programs and services that have been established for close to 40 years. How you change those is really, really tough, so I give kudos to the U.S. government for launching these 24. I won't be just looking for lessons learned, but the how and the doing as the re-engineering takes place.

WT: What are the biggest challenges you see facing the U.S. government?

D'Auray: The same challenge facing any government: time, people and money. E-gov projects are big change initiatives, even if you take them bite sized. You are re-engineering as well as continuing to maintain your existing services. That takes a lot of time and effort, and there are a huge numbers of priorities that governments are facing at the same they are trying to do this, such as public safety and anti-terrorism efforts. You have to continually weigh your priorities while new ones emerge.

WT: What does Canada face that the United States doesn't?

D'Auray: What I haven't seen in Canada that I see in the United States is a lot of senior political leaders engaged in e-gov. Our political leaders hear "e" and they hear "technology." For most people in the political arena, technology is not an interesting thing. We haven't found a way of expressing that government online isn't about technology in a way that resonates politically.

WT: When you look at the United States, is there something there that you wish you had in Canada?

D'Auray: We'd like to see a bit more political engagement in Canada, where ministers are more publicly engaged in e-gov initiatives. But on the flip side, there are many, many political actors in the United States, and it is very difficult to keep all of them engaged at the same level of understanding. I think this would be very challenging to manage.

The sheer resource base in some of the U.S. departments and agencies also is quite astounding, but moving a machine of that size is very difficult.

Canada's e-gov site can be found at www.canada.gc.ca/main_e.html.

About the Author

Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.

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