Canada to Explore Government Service Delivery with Alexa and Other Methods

Accessing government services can sometimes be a tiring ordeal, whether it be the paperwork, long lines or inaccessible office hours. But there could be some respite coming.

Canada’s federal government is exploring ways to bring their services to the public in new digital ways, whether it be virtual assistants, third-party applications or other means. Alex Benay is Canada’s chief information officer and he visited Seattle last week with his team to chat with major tech companies to explore new ecosystems of delivery for governmental services.

Benay and his team visited with the Paul Allen AI Institute, Microsoft, Amazon and other teams, all with one overall goal.

“It’s about how we deliver government of Canada services to where people reside, and increasingly that’s online,” he explained. “A company like Amazon is one of the global leaders. They changed the consumer/consumption relationship. We wanted to know what their approaches were.”

The trip to what is arguably North America’s foremost tech hub outside of Silicon Valley was more of a research mission than anything else, but it was all in an effort to see what can be done to expand the government’s services.

“We wanted to know the level of effort required for some of our developers to work with Alexa, Google Home or any other platform,” says Benay. “How do we start shifting our workforce to think about delivering government services on those platforms in a way that is amenable to the public sector?”

Studies have shown that one in two U.S. homes will have a smart home assistant by 2022. That might not be Canada, but the stats are comparable. Benay says he has specific goals to meet when it comes to bringing government data and services into new digital environments. One of the main goals is to start a conversation around data residency and sovereignty.

amazon echo
“Alexa, renew my driver’s license please.”

If a third-party were to begin taking in personal information from a Canadian citizen in order to fulfill governmental service requests, that data has to be protected. The question is about what happens when that data is aggregated, and who really owns it. The question has been asked before—most recently around “the right to be forgotten.

“It revolves around good governance of data,” says Benay. “We must protect the rights of citizens. Our job is to take a position of safety first. We’re not going to be crazy about putting citizens data on these services until we’re one million per cent sure everything is in check.”

There’s a lot of ways that the government can improve on what their digital ecosystem of information looks like. But gathering and distributing government information through digital means is nothing new. If someone is immigrating to Canada and has the means, they typically hire an immigration lawyer and access digital rights. The Weather Network and many other companies gather their data from Weather Canada. Tax services like Intuit or TurboTax also use digitally and publicly available government information.

The task is now to improve that current suite of offerings and be “more in line with what citizens expect from their digital services,” according to Benay.

“The challenge is how do you do this in a digital environment where you can do 100 times more than what we currently do, but do it in a way that is respectful of privacy and security?”

The different ways of how the government can expand their digital services are almost endless and cover tons of different topics and requests. Benay provided a few, from giving Expedia the possibility to renew passports to providing government-issued weather warnings or alerts through in-car navigation systems. Smart fridges could even warn users of mandated food recalls.

“If we’re not looking right now into how we change our service culture approach, the world will be used to getting all of their services—hydro bills or whatever else—from these omnichannel approaches and we’ll still be asking people to come to the counter,” says Benay. “It’s not a tech issue but a government issue. It’s harder in the public sector. It’s a different set of rules, but it doesn’t mean we cant do it.”

Benay and his team are still in the early stages of these kinds of advances, but it’s important to keep everything in the open. He lets the public know exactly what he is up to and how his team is interacting with other companies or organizations and knows that they shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel.

Integrating government services into new digital channels has been done successfully. Benay points to Mississippi’s Alexa skill—shown below—that can let users know when their hunting or driving licenses expire, offer numbers for government offices, and even toss out fun state facts.

All of the information Alexa offers to Mississippi residents who ask is already open and publicly accessible anyways, so the challenge is to move beyond that and see what services Canadians would want that involves the sharing of private information. Input from the public as well as other private companies is crucial.

“We are at an age where there’s an opportunity to change the dynamics and relationship between government and citizens because of digital advances,” says Benay. “We also have to be very careful to not forge ahead in a disruptive way. We’re not the expert in these fields. We’re actively funding people to know more than us, so we should learn from these people and companies.”

Chatbots and virtual assistants are still new not only to Canada but the world. Alexa just came to Canada at the end of 2017 while almost every company is beginning to integrate some form of chatbot. The exciting thing to know is that the government of Canada is exploring new ways to bring digital services to the country while also trying to be completely transparent.