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Canadian government services to become ‘digital first’

Canadians will soon be able to access and apply for more federal government services online — from passports to payments, says Canada’s first minister of citizens’ services.

Terry Beech says he’s also open to innovation and using new technologies 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 CBC News.

Beech’s appointment to the newly created position comes as the government has been hammered in headlines and by the opposition in recent months over problems delivering basic services to Canadians.

News reports have featured images of long lineups and people camping out to apply for passports. In the House of Commons, Conservative MPs have repeatedly talked about a “broken” government, saying lineups have been getting longer, backlogs bigger and services slower.

Details to be ironed out

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created the new position of citizens’ services minister, and handed it to Beech, a former tech entrepreneur, many of the details have yet to be ironed out.

While the Department of Employment and Social Development (ESDC) is designated in an order in council to “provide support” and Service Canada will report to him, Beech acknowledges that he does not yet know just what services he will oversee and which services may remain under the umbrella of other government departments.

“Exactly where the footprint starts and finishes and those fuzzy lines around what we could do or what we should be doing or what we might do in the future, all that is 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 couple with two young children, one being held and one being led by the hand, are shown as they walk outdoors.
Terry Beech and his family arrive for a cabinet swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

One 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 that get concerned when we talk about digital first,” Beech said. “Digital first does not mean that we won’t have in-person options or options over the telephone. But for those people that are more comfortable being served digitally, making those options available.”

One area where big changes are in the works is passports, said Beech. The backlog last year, which hit 316,000 applications at its peak, resulted in officials learning 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’re five times faster than the legacy systems.”

How Canadians apply for those passports will also be changing, he said.

“If you think about passport lineups at passport offices or Service Canada offices, in the very near future here, you’re not going to actually have to go to a passport office,” he explained. “And if you do choose to go to a passport office, the lines there will be significantly reduced because people who prefer to transact with the government of Canada online will have the ability to do so.”

Updating legacy infrastructure

Some of the government’s services, like Old Age Security (OAS) payments, haven’t been updated in years, he said.

“There’s a bunch of legacy infrastructure,” Beech explained. “Like OAS, for example. OAS, the system, is over 50 years old. I think there’s a small joke in the department that OAS is almost old enough to qualify for OAS. It’s a legacy system. It’s running off a very old language, COBOL.”

The COBOL computer programming language was first developed in 1959.

“There’s a mainframe that’s running all this, it is still fundamentally a paper-based service,” said Beech. “In fact, there is so much paper, I’ve been advised … that all the paper has to be stored in the basement because it’s too heavy to be stored on any of the floors above it.”

Service Canada office in Fort McMurray.
Citizens’ Services Minister Terry Beech wants to make more Canadian government services available online. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Beech said when Trudeau asked him to take the job, he mentioned that there would be a digital component. As part of the ministry shuffle, the supervision of the Canadian Digital Service, which has quietly been working behind the scenes to develop things like government apps, will be transferred from Treasury Board to ESDC.

“I have a background in tech, I have a background in customer service and I’m an entrepreneur,” said Beech. “So the fact that I’m the guy with the new ministry gives me this entrepreneurial opportunity. But with the Canadian Digital Service, this gives us a tremendous opportunity to see what we can learn from their expertise and figure out how we can integrate that expertise into the customer service experience for Canadians.”

Beech also wants the delivery of government services to be more accountable and more transparent. For example, making data on service standards and call times public.

“If you Google a restaurant, you can see when the peak times are,” Beech explained, citing an example of a call to the Canada Revenue Agency. “Well, why can’t we provide the data on what the average wait time is 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 may be able to improve the delivery of government services.

“There is no doubt that when we talk about the customer service experience, when we talk about the utilization of data and being able to be flexible and innovative and to provide services that keep up with things that we’re seeing in the private sector, that we need to be thinking about those things,” said Beech. “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 government of Canada provides services to Canadians at every stage of their life, and really we should be there to be helpful,” he said. “We shouldn’t be a pain in your butt, right? … We should be a solution-oriented customer-service-providing entity that Canadians are proud of and excited to interact with.”

“We should be problem solvers.”

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