Why is integrated service delivery, leveraged by technology, so hard to do? It's not a problem with the IT - any CIO will tell you that. Rather, the trouble lies in the political challenge of rewiring a range of public-sector programs delivered by different levels of government - often with different qualification requirements - for citizens. Adding to the complexity is the fact that an increasing number of these services are delivered on behalf of government by a network of private and nonprofit organizations around a common mission, such as reducing poverty, improving education or helping teens find jobs.

In 2004, Stephen Goldsmith and William D. Eggers detailed this trend in Governing by Network. Now, two more writers have examined the government-by-network model and have come up with some better-formed best practices that were just emerging in 2004.

Integrating Service Delivery Across Levels of Government: Case Studies of Canada and Other Countries, by Jeffrey Roy and John Langford, points out that the network model for service delivery has evolved because traditional hierarchical government has failed to figure out how individual agencies can interconnect and deliver services that successfully deal with the complex social and economic challenges facing societies.

Networked service delivery also "avoids the inefficiencies inherent in earlier efforts to reorganize government agencies into single large units. Instead it focuses on engaging existing agencies in joint problem solving without wasting time on reorganization or re-establishment of formal authorities," explain Roy and Langford.

Oh, Canada

When it comes to best practices, Canadians have been integrating service delivery longer than most governments, and they do it quite well, according to the authors. Starting in the mid-1990s with Government On-Line, which evolved into Service Canada by 2005, the Canadian system provides a true, one-stop point of access for Canadians "for a wide range of federal programs and services."

Service Canada is not a threadbare operation. It has a staff of 20,000 working in 600 locations around the country. In addition to online service delivery, it has a hotline that provides "immediate assistance or redirection to any public inquiry on any matter of federal jurisdiction." Each of Canada's 10 provinces also offer similar integrated service programs modeled after Service Canada.

The authors looked at four other countries and found varying degrees of success with the integrated service delivery model. In a desire to simplify government administration across all levels of the public sector, Belgium has focused on creating standards for identity management and interoperability. The UK is experimenting with integrated service delivery involving Scotland and one of its counties. Denmark is working on a developing a sound service architecture for online delivery across layers of government, while Australia has Centrelink, which provides a range of direct federal-to-local partnerships.

Political Equation

In researching Canada's experience with a networked service delivery model, Roy and Langford realized that federated governments face a real challenge when building a collaborative network for delivering services across layers of government. While professional administrators in Canada's federal and provincial governments have forged a high degree of interdependence, that level of coordination alone cannot pull it off. Strong political leadership is necessary to ensure success.

"Greater political engagement will allow the eventual formation of new and more collaborative political mechanisms that are necessary in order to underpin the formation of shared and more seamless governance models capable of deepening the alignment and integration of services across levels of government." But the authors admit that the answer is easier said than done. It's no simple task to collaborate politically while innovating administratively to create a tech-driven, collaborative network for service delivery.

Follow the Strategies

To increase the chances for the successful integration of service delivery systems, Roy and Langford recommend the following strategies:

  • create a collaborative network-based government framework that transcends jurisdictional silos;
  • engage citizens in design and delivery;
  • create a common technology infrastructure that uses a service architecture to emphasize open standards and interoperable information systems; and
  • agree on a common identity management framework.
Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor