Canadians will soon be able to access and apply for more federal government services online, from passports to payments, says Canada’s premier citizen services minister.
Terry Beech says he’s also open to innovation and using new technology like artificial intelligence to improve the way the government delivers services to Canadians.
“I think fundamentally it’s my job to wake up every day thinking about how we’re improving the customer service experience for Canadians,” Beech said in an interview with Breaking:.
Beech’s appointment to the newly created post comes as the government has been criticized in the headlines and by the opposition in recent months over problems delivering basic services to Canadians.
News reports have featured images of long lines and people camping out to apply for passports. In the House of Commons, Conservative MPs have repeatedly spoken about a “broken” government, saying lines have grown longer, delays longer and services slower.
Details to polish
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created the new post of citizen services minister and handed it over to Beech, a former tech entrepreneur, many of the details remain to be worked out.
While the Employment and Social Development Department (ESDC) is designated in an order in council to “provide support” and will be informed by Service Canada, Beech acknowledges that it does not yet know which services it will oversee and which services may remain. under the umbrella of other government departments.
“Exactly where the footprint begins and ends and those blurred lines about what we might do or what we should be doing or what we might do in the future, all of that remains to be defined,” Beech explained. “I don’t have a mandate letter yet.”
Among the programs Beech hopes to oversee is the new national dental program.
A priority for Beech will be to make federal government services to Canadians “digital first” and “digital by design.”
“I’m sure there will be some people who will be concerned when we first talk about digital,” Beech said. “Digital first doesn’t mean we won’t have in-person options or options over the phone. But for those people who are more comfortable being served digitally, making those options available.”
One area where big changes are being worked on is passports, Beech said. Last year’s backlog, which peaked at 316,000 applications, made officials learn more about how to improve passport services, he said.
“There’s a new intake system that’s going to be more efficient, it’s called Tempo,” Beech said. “We have new printers for the new passports. They are five times faster than legacy systems.”
The way Canadians apply for those passports will also change, he said.
“If you think about the passport lines at passport offices or Service Canada offices, in the very near future here, you won’t actually have to go to a passport office,” he explained. “And if you choose to go to a passport office, the lines there will be significantly reduced because people who prefer to do business with the Canadian government online will be able to do so.”
Legacy Infrastructure Upgrade
Some of the government services, such as Old Age Insurance (OEA) payments, have not been updated in years, he said.
“There’s a lot of legacy infrastructure,” Beech explained. “Like OAS, for example. OAS, the system, is over 50 years old. I think there’s a little joke in the department that OAS is almost old enough to qualify for OAS. It’s a legacy system. It’s running on a very old language. , COBOL.”
The COBOL computer programming language was first developed in 1959.
“There’s a mainframe that runs all of this, it’s still fundamentally a paper-based service,” Beech said. “In fact, there’s so much paper, I’ve been advised… that all paper should be stored in the basement because it’s too heavy to store on any of the upper floors.”
Beech said that when Trudeau asked him to take the job, he mentioned that there would be a digital component. As part of the ministry’s shakeup, oversight of the Canadian Digital Service, which has been working quietly behind the scenes to develop things like government apps, will transfer from the Treasury Board to ESDC.
“I have a technology background, I have a customer service background and I’m an entrepreneur,” Beech said. “So the fact that I’m the guy with the new ministry gives me this business opportunity. But with the Canadian Digital Service, this gives us a great opportunity to see what we can learn from their experience and figure out how we can integrate that.” experience in the customer service experience for Canadians”.
Beech also wants to make the delivery of government services more accountable and transparent. For example, making data on service standards and call times public.
“If you Google a restaurant, you can see when the peak hours are,” Beech explained, citing an example of a call to the Canada Revenue Agency. “Well, why can’t we just provide the data on what the average wait time is right now? So you know before you call… if you call on a Thursday afternoon, that’s our lowest time.”
‘We should be problem solvers’
Beech is also interested in exploring ways that artificial intelligence can improve the delivery of government services.
“There’s no question that when we talk about the customer service experience, when we talk about data utilization and being able to be flexible and innovative and deliver services that keep up with things that we’re seeing in the private sector, that we have to think about those things,” Beech said. “And I’m certainly excited to consider those opportunities.”
In the end, Beech said his goal is to make the delivery of federal government services faster, more secure, and more user-friendly.
“The Canadian government provides services to Canadians at every stage of their lives, and we really should be there to be of service,” he said. “We shouldn’t be a pain in your ass, right? … We should be a solution-oriented customer service provider entity that Canadians are proud of and excited to interact with.”
“We should be problem solvers.”