On April 6, 2020, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) portal opened, allowing Canadians impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic to apply for emergency benefits. As of June 2020, over 18 million CERB applications have been processed and millions of Canadians have received crucial emergency income support. CERB’s success shows that it is possible for the federal government to quickly adapt, mobilize, and distribute funding in a user-friendly way. With Service Canada centres closed and the need for Canadians to access financing and information (such as critical medical information) at an all-time high, COVID-19 has forced some government programs and services to become more nimble and digital-first. Programs such as CERB have been described as a bureaucratic miracle due to the speed at which they were developed under duress and the ease at which programs were made accessible to those needing to access them.
COVID-19 has accelerated government digitalization
While proactive steps have been taken in recent years—including the launch of a digital academy to train public servants and a commitment to a comprehensive set of Digital Standards—Canada ranks just 28th in the UN’s most recent digital government evaluation report, a far cry from the digital success the country saw at the start of the century, and even earlier this decade. While Canada’s digital government score has not fallen, it has been leapfrogged by its global peers in aspects such as scope and quality of online services, status of telecommunication infrastructure, and human capacity.
As seen in our scan, COVID-19 created the imperative for Canada, along with many other countries, to respond rapidly by taking public services digital. This is a result of Canadians being encouraged to stay home and in-person government services channels closing, as demand for services increased sharply due to the economic crisis. Public sector agencies such as Service Canada have embraced digital service delivery. In response to 318 in-person location closures and call-centre backlogs, the department’s website now features an online intake tool, which includes a request form for an employee to call you back and a virtual assistant chatbot that can answer COVID-19-related requests. Even court hearings have gone digital, as 300 courtrooms in Ontario have been outfitted for virtual trials. In addition to adapting existing public services, the government has introduced new COVID-19 digital services, such as a symptom self-assessment app and a wage subsidy calculator. As former Chief Information Officer of Canada Alex Benay writes, COVID-19 has unleashed a new norm of the “digital-first” government that he’s long pressed for.
Digitalization is beneficial to both citizens and the government. Studies from Accenture, Deloitte, and the OECD demonstrate reduced costs and time savings, higher levels of data security and transparency, and increased accessibility to key services. However to be successful, governments must ensure its programs and services are accessible to those it seeks to serve, and public servants are able to understand and efficiently design, deliver, and guide users through digital service channels.