Best Practices

Why the Government of Canada should enact ‘Tell Us Once’ legislation

The single most powerful step Canada could take to accelerate and realize their ambition of a world-leading Digital Government would be to enact “Tell Us Once” legislation.

The concept is very simple – Tell one government agency an information update, eg. your change of postal address, and have all agencies receive and action that update.

It would mandate by law the outcome citizens wants from their Digital Government, a simplified user experience that eliminates all unnecessary bureaucracy, without over-prescribing the technical means to achieve it.

It would mandate by law that government agencies implement best practices that are truly user-centric, acting in concert with other agencies to share data in a way they may not have thought to do so previously, to deliver this outcome for citizens.

This is important because the reality is that despite the mantra of user-centricity proclaimed by the Agile service design teams popular today, actually they cannot escape the level of thinking that causes the root issue of the hassles users dislike most.

They design services to be delivered only by their organization, whether that be a level of government like Provincial or departmentally like Social Security. The end result is that they duplicate an island of information, for example the citizens postal address, and therefore updating that information requires each and every different agency to be alerted individually, via a multitude of different methods from online through paper forms.

In short there is no “memory” of citizens information universally across all of government. Tell Us Once mandates that memory by law.

Tell Us Once and X-Road

Tell Us Once, also called ‘Once Only’, is an approach pioneered in Europe by the likes of Estonia, a policy where having provided your data to one government agency, you’ll never be asked for it again from another, defined explicitly through legislation.

The EU has published research reports and explanatory videos to encourage widespread take up. As New Yorker magazine highlights describing Estonia as the Digital Republic:

“They do so through the “once only” policy, which dictates that no single piece of information should be entered twice. Instead of having to “prepare” a loan application, applicants have their data—income, debt, savings—pulled from elsewhere in the system. There’s nothing to fill out in doctors’ waiting rooms, because physicians can access their patients’ medical histories.”

As explained in this previous blog Estonia achieve this capability by marrying the legislation with the their ‘X-Road’ system, a national middleware backbone that connects every user to every government application.

Technology and Architecture for Tell Us Once

Canada is very fortunate in that they have already begun laying the foundational capabilities for implementing such a system, that can serve as a blueprint for rolling it out nationally:

  • SSI Ecosystems – Both British Columbia and Alberta are pioneering the implementation of ‘Self-Sovereign Identity’ as the keystone foundation. These case studies explain how the building block foundation is one of sharing identity credentials. This establishes a trusted connection between each application, based on a shared agreement of who the user is and their authentication method.
  • The CDXP – The Canadian Digital Exchange Platform is then intended to provide the central API gateway for exchanging information between all government systems, building on these trusted identity connections. This highlights the key point about abstracting the legislation from the implementation method. The CDXP is setting out to achieve the same end result as Estonia’s X-Road but via using different technologies.

The BC and Alberta case studies are particularly helpful as the explain important dynamics as well as the technology – In Alberta they’ve formed the ‘ACE’ consortium, a collaboration of local organizations who identify which processes they work together to fulfill, identifying the key use cases to begin building credential sharing around, an essential success factor for growing the initial momentum.

British Columbia offers an exemplar for utilizing SSI and the Blockchain to tackle a specific Digital Government scenario, in this case reducing paperwork bureaucracy for small businesses. Critically they also have enacted the legislation required to underpin the technology framework for Identity-enabled digital services, demonstrating the core action recommended by this article.


Through the CDXP Canada is putting one half of the solution into action – To complete the puzzle and massively accelerate a unified Digital Government experience now they also need the legislation.

Critically this would act as an accelerant for the whole Canadian digital economy, a rising tide floats all boats effect. For example Open Banking is achieved through the same foundation of identity credential sharing, and ultimately customers want the same experience from all the organizations they deal with. Ie. change your postal address and update all organizations who hold that data – Government, banks and many others.

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