Rugged geography. Sparse population. An economy in transition. Tight government budgets. No, it's not the Great Plains states, but rather four Canadian provinces on the Atlantic coastline. For years, the Maritime governments of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have struggled to keep their communities alive in the wake of the collapsing fishing industry.
As they govern a relatively small population scattered across thousands of miles of islands and inlets, the Atlantic provinces have had their hands full helping people and businesses prosper as they shift from the old economy of fishing to the New Economy of bits and bytes. Not surprisingly, keeping up with the rapidly advancing, digital world of electronic government hasn't been easy.
But since November 1997, e-business has been mouse-clicking away in this remote region. And it's not just flourishing within one province, but across all four, thanks to a unique partnership with the private sector. The initiative, known as Atlantic Canada On-Line (ACOL), is a regional service that allows business customers to perform a number of government transactions electronically, involving personal property records, vehicle information, driver abstracts, business registries, filings for court documents and more.
"The government was extremely interested in the partnership because the private sector would invest the capital."
-- Clyde Horner, Province of Nova Scotia's liaison to ACOL.
The entire upfront cost for developing, implementing, managing and marketing ACOL has been borne by a consortium of companies, led by Unisys Corp., which splits revenues generated by the new services with the provinces. That arrangement was a major selling point, according to Clyde Horner, Nova Scotia's government liaison to ACOL. "The government was extremely interested in the partnership because the private sector would invest the capital," he said. "It was a great idea, because the private sector had the resources to invest in building this infrastructure."
Unisys' $10 million investment in ACOL has produced an array of electronic services for the region's business community that are enviable not just for their online accessibility, but for the workflow, back-end management tools and customer support behind each application. First to go online was Nova Scotia's Personal Property Registry (PPR), a centralized computer service that allows organizations and individuals to record their financial interests in personal property, such as cars and boats.
Today, all four provinces are running PPR so that businesses can electronically register a piece of collateral on a loan. Users can access PPR through PCs and dial-up lines or over the Internet using a Web browser. Security, through user IDs and passwords, ensures safe transactions.
Typical of users is the law firm McInnes Cooper, which has offices in all four provinces. The firm uses the service as much as four to five hours daily to conduct searches and to register personal property for loan requests. "The system is a lot easier search-wise than the paper-based system," said Cathy Watts, a corporate clerk with McInnes Cooper. "Nova Scotia had 26 registry locations, which meant we had to hire outside searchers to help us. Now all the work is done from our office. It's a big timesaver."
To help both the firms that subscribe to the service and the governments that offer them, ACOL has a highly functional bill and financial-services component known as the Business Office. It's an aspect of electronic commerce that other applications often overlook, said Gary Kelly, Unisys' ACOL business manager. "We manage the money for transactions from multiple databases," he said. "It's what makes the back-office component superior to others."
The system's fee collection and disbursement services are a key aspect of this back-end operation. All financial activity, such as charges for searches and fees for transactions, are captured and recorded in an Oracle database. Clients can review and print their account statements at any time. For those folks with problems using the service, ACOL's Client Support Centre is only a toll-free phone call away.
ACOL's newest service is the Driver Abstract Insurance Service, which allows insurance brokers to check a driver's record when their auto insurance comes up for renewal. Currently operating in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the service has proven very popular with firms, such as Vaughne Insurance, a brokerage firm based in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
"There used to be a 24-hour turnaround time on any request for a driver's abstract, but now it takes less than 30 minutes," remarked Roland Frotten, a network administrator with the company. "As a result, we have cut the overall processing time for renewing insurance from five days to less than three."
Insurance firms, such as Vaughne, pay $15 per report -- the same amount they paid when the process was entirely manual -- so there are no direct cost savings. But as Frotten points out, his company can determine if there is a problem with the renewal more quickly and can bill faster, resulting in better cash flow.
It's hard to imagine four neighboring states anywhere in the United States banding together to leverage their common needs and developing a suite of e-government services in cooperation with a private-sector partner. Despite the difficulties involved in pulling off ACOL, it happened. "We started with the simple idea of providing electronic access so that the region's firms could do a better job of conducting their core business with government," explained Horner.
But it proved complicated to execute when the different government departments had their own vision of how the task should be done. "There's a reluctance to embrace a product or service you don't have total ownership of," added Horner. STATS
Personal Property Registry
1997: 19,827 recorded searches (all paper based)
1999: 131,131 electronic searches
Source: Province of Nova Scotia
If provincial differences made the early going rocky, then working with a private-sector partner was like pouring oil on water. But Unisys brought badly needed capital and expertise to the project, and once the project was under way, the partnership proved beneficial in other ways as well. "[Unisys] provided technical assistance in getting these products online and [brought] support for the clients to a level that was not anticipated," commented Horner.
To make sure the wheels didn't come off the project, each province appointed a representative at the deputy minister level to an advisory council, which meets to provide strategic guidance on such matters as the development, marketing, pricing and delivery of the provinces' information products and services.
In turn, each province has a full-time liaison who helps promote, market and coordinate ACOL applications to the business community. Services, such as the personal-property registry, were built from the ground up after painstaking business-process reengineering, rather than developed as automated versions of manual processes. New workflows were established so that clients could guide themselves through the process, rather than rely on government workers to do it for them. As a result, the provinces have been able to redeploy existing staff in positions where they are needed most.
Unisys' business gamble appears to be paying off, and that's helping the provinces as well, according to Horner. Revenues are up significantly under the new system, and businesses are rapidly adapting to the new way of transacting business with the government.
More importantly, the provinces now have an infrastructure for e-government and the experience of running critical business applications online. Adding new applications can be done at the discretion of each province, but the more that decide to join in, the lower the overall cost. "Each province still controls their own destiny as they move into e-government," explained Horner. "But we all know ACOL is a proven entity that can realize benefits when we leverage our information products for electronic access."
By Tod Newcombe, Features Editor