TO: Aaron Snow, CEO, Canadian Digital Service

FROM: Sarah Anderson

DATE: September 14, 2020

RE: “Ask Once” Data Policy

Question

Should the Canadian government adopt an “Ask Once” policy, such that citizens would only need to provide a piece of information to the government once time?

Benefits

  1. Improves user experience: The policy would significantly decrease citizen time and finances spent on providing the government with information. It would also increase ease of access to government services, and overall satisfaction with government.
  2. Increases government efficiency: Having a unified database of up-to-date citizen information would streamline service delivery processes — for example, time spent on validating or correcting outdated information would fall dramatically.
  3. De-siloes data: Depending on data sensitivity rules, the policy could also facilitate cross-departmental information access. Not only would this limit the need for slow data request processes, it would also open opportunities for broader quantitative policy analysis (i.e. assessing the effects of policy beyond the scope of the administrating agency).
  4. Sets foundation for Government as a Platform (GaaP): Implementing the “Ask Once” policy would introduce the government to the user-centric norms and practices that are central to GaaP. It would also start to build the technical infrastructure required for a true GaaP system.

Drawbacks

  1. High implementation effort: Setting design principles, gathering stakeholder input, and creating regulations for the “Ask Once” policy requires significant effort across several implementation initiatives, including: privacy regulations and enforcement structures, data classification standards, data exchange infrastructure, frontend modernization, and public awareness. This will likely present major coordination challenges. For example, agencies are most likely to align on the “lowest common denominator” data classification standards. Although this would lower the cost and effort to restructure data, it would also limit the benefits of cross-governmental standardized data that could be reaped.
  2. High implementation costs: More stringent data classification standards, along with a new data exchange infrastructure, may require significant investment in technology and talent. For example, an agency with disaggregated and unstructured data would need to invest heavily in data cleaning.
  3. Privacy risks: The centralized data structure needed for the “Ask Once” policy makes citizen data more vulnerable than the current decentralized model does. Hackers, fraudsters, family members, and even government agencies would only need one access point in order to view the entirety of a citizen’s information, not just functional information specific to the agency whose data is being accessed. Cybersecurity staff, regulations, enforcement structures, and technology are essential to preventing privacy violations — all of which represent incremental investment. Furthermore, public awareness campaigns would be needed to reassure citizens and ensure compliance with the new policy.

Recommendation

The Canadian government should adopt an “Ask Once” policy. The main drawbacks entail significant upfront investments in data infrastructure and policy design. For implementation to be successful, strong stakeholder alignment on data standards and privacy regulations / enforcement is non-negotiable. However, the initial investment will be paid off by long-term increases in internal efficiency and streamlined service delivery. If the right foundation is set, future benefits to both citizens and the government are highly attractive, and present opportunities for more GaaP developments down the road.

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