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Snow clings to the iron gates outside Parliament Hill, the day after the first significant snowfall in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The federal system that handles old age security payments will be as old as the seniors it serves by the time it is replaced near the end of the decade, but even now it illustrates the kinds of challenges facing officials trying to bring government services into the digital age.

The 56-year-old system is getting a $1.8-billion overhaul to be completed sometime after 2027, a project that illustrates the kinds of challenges facing officials when they try to bring government services into the digital age.

Newly released internal documents from Employment and Social Development Canada show the modernization project, and others like it, is challenged by antiquated equipment, as well as complicated rules for procurement and data use.

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The Canadian Press obtained the documents prepared for top officials in response to a request made through the Access to Information Act.

Officials acknowledged in presentations and briefing notes from earlier this year that the government isn’t “moving to digital as fast as Canadians want,” and “transformative change would require substantive rethinking of our rules framework.”

Getting the change right is considered crucial, because officials believe service satisfaction is linked to public trust in governments.

Any erosion in that trust could lead to fewer people wanting to use government services or even sharing their information in the first place.

The issue will land in the laps of the new social development minister and Treasury Board president, particularly as the Liberals promised new and better services for Canadians in their campaign platform this fall.

There is a sense from experts and stakeholders that providing services doesn’t get as much attention from politicians as it should, noting that investments in digital capacity can be the bedrock needed to deliver on promises of better, or speedier benefits.

For a minority government, one expert said, a long-term investment in the public service may not an easy sell.

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“There is a bit of a challenge and almost a built-in bias against investing in digital government, in particular in a more precarious minority government situation because these aren’t the kinds of things you’re going to benefit from immediately – this is a long game,” said Amanda Clarke, an assistant professor at Carleton University’s school of public policy who focuses on digital government initiatives.

Officials have been working for years on simplifying online services, sometimes through an approach that asks people to provide the information needed only once, before it is then shared easily across government bodies.

One example is the “birth bundle,” which allows parents to register the birth of their child, apply for a social insurance number, sign up for the Canada Child Benefit and open an education savings plan all at once.

But that kind of one-stop shopping experience has only emerged after “great effort” to navigate complex rules about information sharing for a specific end cannot always be scaled up, the documents say.

For instance, the documents show a review of 340 services across 11 departments found just under one-third are available online from end to end.

Treasury Board spokesman Martin Potvin said improving that ratio to create digital services for Canadians that is “easy to use, accessible, and citizen-focused” is central to the work underway.

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Andre Leduc, vice-president of government relations and policy with the Information Technology Association of Canada, said modernizing more of those services, like the update to old age security, is going to “take a painstaking amount of time” to avoid mistakes.

“It’s one thing to not pay your own employees – it’s completely different if you can’t pay Canadians for the programs that we’ve had in place for decades,” he said.

At the same time, moving too slow means the government could be left with outdated technology by the time the switchover happens.

Having a private company seeing an opportunity and becoming disruptive is another risk, he said.

The documents say that barriers the government faces to moving more quickly towards digital services include a “lack of ‘digital dexterity’ within the public service.”

Purchasing and funding cycles subject to “waterfall development” – a step-by-step approach that adds more time to project completion – are another challenge.

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So is a focus on “big-bang” projects instead of “agile, modular approaches that can be scaled,” the documents say.

Shifting towards more agile development, where a smaller project is tested first before scaling up and committing to it long-term, would be significantly different than how the government operates now, including how budgets and spending are set, Clarke said.

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