Tell us once, we got you. Tell us twice… well, there’s no need.
As public servants, we have a unique view of the Government of Canada (GC). We see the GC as the numerous departments and agencies it is made up of. We live in a world where introductions start with naming the department/agency we work for, where acronyms rule, and where somehow among hundreds of thousands of employees across Canada, everyone still knows everyone. Turns out, when you get an email asking you for the BF date, it’s actually not about your date plans with your boyfriend, it stands for “bring forward” date, as in a reminder or notice. Who knew?
Canadians, on the other hand, don’t quite have the same view. The GC to most Canadians, is one big entity; someone they contact when they file their taxes, or when they need information on Canadian policies. It’s not really about who, in which department/agency does what, it’s about how they can get the services they need from their government easily. That’s just what Teresa D’Andrea, Executive Director for Digital Enablement at the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) and Pirth Singh, Director General of Digital Design at Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) are working towards (a mouthful, no wonder we like to use acronyms). A concept called “Tell Us Once.”
Don’t have to tell me twice
“From the perspective of Canadians, there’s no need to understand the complexities of how government functions.”
The idea behind Tell Us Once is simple, it’s about providing citizens with one central place to login and find what they need: “one window to access government services,” as Teresa puts it. This also means that if you share information with the government, you’ll only have to share it once, and the government will take care of the rest, by ensuring the departments/agencies that need that information have it (with your permission, of course). Pirth elaborates: “this whole concept of Tell Us Once has really taken an outside-in view. From the perspective of Canadians, there’s no need to understand the complexities of how government functions.” It’s one of those things we learned in school and perhaps admittedly forgot over the years—which is fine—because as an adult, the thing you really come back to is how to share necessary information with the government as you reach certain milestones in life, and ensuring that this information gets to where it needs to go.
Come together, right now
“The focus should be the public good, not the self. Having inclusivity and listening to people are the prerequisites to having a shared vision.”
Teresa and Pirth came together on the Tell Us Once project because they realized they were working on similar things from different lenses. “Whereas we have a good understanding from a user’s/citizen’s perspective, Pirth and his team had an understanding of what it means from a business perspective,” Teresa explains. Citizens and businesses share information with the government alike, so it’s making sure from both sides that the process is streamlined and simplified. Both Teresa and Pirth agree that a successful collaboration comes from having a shared vision and checking your own ego at the door. “The focus should be the public good, not the self. Having inclusivity and listening to people are the prerequisites to having a shared vision,” Pirth says. The other thing Teresa highlights is the importance of understanding how much time your partners have to dedicate to the project, and doing your part to make it easier for them to participate. “You have to find people that really want to move things forward and have the power to do so,” Teresa tells me. “At the end of the day what’s really important is to find and create a coalition of the willing.”
Times of trouble
“It’s on us to be empathetic and to be respectful of people’s time and energy. We have to make the process as seamless as possible.”
COVID-19 has undoubtedly pushed forward the need for Tell Us Once. Pre-COVID, paper processes were relied on, as people stood in lines at service centers to give information. It was the comfort zone. But with in-person services diminishing, and more people and businesses reaching out to the government for support during the pandemic, it’s exactly the push needed to start doing things differently. “When you take that away completely, you no longer have it as a crutch. That’s when innovation comes in,” Teresa exclaims. It’s beneficial to both the individual and business, and the government to have information shared over secured networks, “people can trust that their information is protected, and it’s much easier for them to get the service that they want,” Pirth says. Teresa shares something that really struck her during the pandemic: the realization that people come to government to access services typically in a time of crisis. “Whether it’s a personal crisis, losing your loved one, losing your job, or a global crisis, people are dealing with a whole myriad of emotions and stress on their own side,” she says. Having to then figure out what forms you need to fill out, what services are available to you, and how to apply to them is just added stress. “It’s on us to be empathetic and to be respectful of people’s time and energy. We have to make the process as seamless as possible,” she adds.
The digital revolution
According to Teresa, digital government is about “improving how we work to improve how we help our citizens.” She equates being digital to a complete rethinking of our mindsets, as we go through a kind of revolution of technology, “it’s not just about replacing paper processes with electronic processes.” Rather than viewing everything through a policy lens first, it’s about looking from the user’s perspective before anything else. To elaborate on this sentiment, Teresa shares a metaphor: “Let’s say I’m building a board game. If I’m writing the rules and I have no idea how the game is played, I can just make up whatever rules I want. I need to be able to watch the people playing the game to see if the rules work, or if it’s causing the players to get stuck. Then I change my rules to accommodate that. It’s a huge shift in how we operate.” Pirth echoes this sentiment by sharing his belief that we have to look at the bigger picture of digital, and how it’s going to play a role in delivering all government objectives and policies, “the future of digital is digital on steroids,” he says.
“It’s one thing to talk about going digital, it’s another to actually go out and do it right. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way, but that’s okay. It’s a learning experience for everyone.”
To conclude, Pirth talks about how this collaboration is putting the idea of ‘integrated enterprise’ into practice, “I think that with effective integration, you can influence a lot of new thoughts and new ways of doing things. And it really helps that there is a team of like-minded players contributing to that.” Teresa adds, “it’s one thing to talk about going digital, it’s another to actually go out and do it right. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way, but that’s okay. It’s a learning experience for everyone.” I’ll cheers to that. After all, big change doesn’t happen overnight. We have to show ourselves patience and understanding as we move forward and tackle new challenges. We have to remind ourselves: we are on our way.
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