Reopening Canada: COVID-19 pushing government services into digital age

As with many things, the arrival of COVID-19 forced a change to government services that had been slow in coming across Canada — the move to digital customer service. Since March, many services have been forced online with offices simply closed to protest workers and the public from coronavirus.

It’s true that the number of services available from our federal, provincial and municipal governments had been increasing year over year but it’s been an addition to in-person service at government offices. Compare that to Britain, which adopted a “digital by default” strategy almost a decade ago.

Launched by the Cameron government in 2012, the Brits were upfront in looking to move government services saying it would save the government money — as much as £1.8 million per year — and importantly for citizens, save them time.

Who really likes waiting in line at a government office for their number to be called? Yet too often that was the situation.

The Ford government in Ontario had been looking at the British example prior to COVID-19, noting lower costs per transaction as happier customers and employees. The slow move towards online services got a major boost from an unfortunate event.

Federally, Service Canada still hasn’t reopened its offices.

“In response to COVID-19, all in-person Service Canada Centres are closed until further notice,” the federal website reads.

Provincially, it really does depend on where you live but most centres are now open again, even if they are on reduced hours. Figures provided by the Ford government show 80% of the province’s 199 privately operated ServiceOntario locations are open while 95% of the 80 public centres are open.

Until recently, anyone looking to do the in-person portion of their driver’s licence test could only do so at a single location in downtown Toronto. As of June 22, Drive Test centres opened across the province, but road tests are still not offered except for commercial licence applications.

The privately run centres, licenced by the province, also require anyone entering to wear a mask, undergo a temperature check and answer health screening questions.

Still, they are pushing the online option for as many people and services as possible.

“We urge you not to visit a ServiceOntario centre unless absolutely necessary,” the website reads.

“To avoid in-person visits, we have extended the expiry date on a number of our products, and you can apply for the majority of our products online.”

It will still be a long time until we catch up to the Brits when it comes to offering online services. The government there has had a Government Digital Services Minister since 2011.

We still have large parts of the province and the country without strong, reliable high-speed internet service. Still, as much as government offices are reopening after the COVID-19 lockdown, they won’t be the same and in the future, there will be fewer of them.

The Municipal Side

Many municipal services have moved online, especially the ability to pay your taxes. One important service that has been on hold during COVID-19 is the issuance of marriage licences.

Tying the knot has been difficult during the pandemic.

It was big news on June 22 when the City of Toronto began issuing marriage licences, but with some new caveats. There was only one location, the North York Civic Centre, and you had to book an appointment and submit your application online three days in advance.

In Mississauga, marriage licences are available at the Provincial Offences Courthouse. An application must be filled out online by both partners and then printed out. Only one partner is allowed into the courthouse for the scheduled appointment.

The City of Ottawa hasn’t been issuing marriage licences during COVID and won’t until in-person services resume on July 6.

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