You've got mail: Feds test new e-notification service to save cash, time

OTTAWA — A group of digital disruptors inside the federal government is testing a way to send tens of millions of e-notifications each month to save workers — and taxpayers — time and money.

Known as Notify, the system is built on open-source code from a similar service in the United Kingdom and is meant to let departments easily and cheaply send emails or text messages.

The federal government group that designed Notify, the Canadian Digital Service, found it could send 10,000 emails in 15 minutes.

That pace would amount to 29.5 million emails a month and would cost about $4,000, the organization says.

Pushed government-wide, the service would replace assorted notification systems built from scratch for individual departments.

The idea is to make it easier for Canadians to keep tabs on their applications for federal services, for instance, or appeals of benefit decisions — eliminating the need to dial into government call centres and potentially wait on hold just for updates.

The email alerts are also intended to reduce costs associated with mailing letters or sending out newsletters, and allow call centres to focus on the more complicated requests from Canadians who aren't easily reached digitally.

The three-year-old Canadian Digital Service has been working with departments that deliver federal services and found they each had similar issues in connecting electronically with Canadians, said Ross Ferguson, the agency's director of platforms.

"We saw a common need come up a number of times," he said Wednesday.

"These services would be enhanced by more timely notifications being sent out to the users of those services, but then each time we wanted to incorporate that into these new products that we were developing with them, we were seeing a need to set up those notifications anew, every time."

He said the advantage to using Notify, which the U.K. has used to send hundreds of millions notifications over the past few years, is that there is "no setup cost, there's no procurement, there's no monthly fee."

He said the system also has "checks and balances to make sure that what's being sent should be sent out."

The work is part of an overall effort by federal officials to digitize government services, which has been a tough task. Officials are up against aging technology that cannot quickly be replaced, as well as procurement practices that lengthen the time it takes to simplify operations.

A recent government review of 340 services across 11 departments found just under one-third are available online from end to end.

In a blog post published Tuesday, Canadian Digital Service said offering email updates through Notify amounts to the "the bare minimum of what people expect from any online service they use," and that following up can help "provide a sense of confidence and reassurance."

Ferguson said the organization is looking to get feedback from the first tranche of service departments that take part in Notify to learn exactly how much they save in time and money by using the one-size-fits-all service, but also why some of them have avoided doing this before.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2019.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press