Streamline today, imagine tomorrow

Over the next few days, we’ll be sharing what makes us tick. When we launched FWD50, we put together a manifesto describing what we thought digital government could be, and how we wanted to shape the content of the event. You can read the whole thing on our About page.

A key element of the conference is timeframes. Change takes time, but that’s not an excuse for inaction. Some innovation happens at speed; some happens at scale. As a result, we have to streamline today while imagining tomorrow.

Streamline today

In almost every interaction between a citizen and a government, technology can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the interaction. We’ve seen how simple interfaces — Craigslist, Facebook, AirBnB, Wikipedia, Uber — can create an entire industry in sales, publishing, housing, shared knowledge, or transportation, without any real assets. The right interface can unlock tremendous potential, at scale, very quickly.

And yet government lacks many of these interfaces. Here are four examples:

  1. Consider the steps someone must take to report fraud to the federal government; despite an option to remain anonymous as a reported of fraud, the user must complete a lengthy GCKey account creation process, which itself has a number of fundamentally bad security practices.
  2. Realize that 70% of immigration inquiries are simply those of applicants asking for a status update on their paperwork. This kind of inquiry should involve exactly one person — the applicant.
  3. To get an OHIP card, you need to provide proof of rent. The service bureau won’t accept copies; it has to be an original lease. But if a landlord uses Docusign for rental contracts, there’s no way to submit the original form. Bureaucratic processes need to keep pace with consumer innovations such as digital signatures, ubiquitous photography, two-factor authentication of passwords on mobile, etc.
  4. Look at how bureaucratic processes can be streamlined when married with assisted, navigational tools such as chatbots. Botler.ai, a Montreal startup, helps immigration applicants navigate the process of applying for immigration. This model is well suited to any process with a wide number of possible outcomes conditional on many factors such as background, documentation, and questionnaire response.
Chatbots are starting to be applied to complex processes such as immigration.

There is an abundance of low-hanging fruit in the orchard of digital government, and we must identify opportunities to produce quick wins at the national scale that not only benefit, but delight, citizens.

Imagine tomorrow

While we’re tackling today’s problems, we also need to keep our rapidly changing future in mind. Consider, for example, the town of Newmarket. It has an ambitious digital strategy, and is a proponent of smart cities technology. But the town’s concerns are more mundane, dealing with things like parking space:

  • The shopkeepers believe there is insufficient parking in the downtown core, and are clamoring for a parking structure.
  • On the other hand, city planners, thinking about the impact of self-driving cars, worry that such investments will become unnecessary when cars can park themselves, or with the changing mix of public transport options that will emerge in coming years

As a result, they’re looking at whether applications that show citizens available parking can resolve the issue — making parking easier, and tackling shopkeepers’ objections with hard data.

This is a common dilemma when trying to anticipate the future.

In the late 1800s, the largest cities in the world were overwhelmed with horse manure. 50,000 horses in London, and 100,000 in New York, littered the streets with millions of pounds of manure, urine, and carcasses. In 1894, The Times of London predicted that “in 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.” At the world’s first international urban planning conference in New York, participants were unable to agree on any kind of solution.

Of course, by 1912, horses had been replaced by cars, and the problem vanished; historians refer to this as The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.

In an era of unprecedented digital advancement, where vanishingly cheap technology and a connected population are the norm, we must not lose sight of the future. We have to remember how technology might fundamentally alter policies, or make current concerns meaningless.

FWD50 is forum for finding this balance of pragmatism and possibility. We’ll distinguish between perennial problems and temporary issues, based on first principles of the society we want to maintain and improve.

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