Surely you can do better? – Online application form is barrier to participation

As a potential citizen of this fine country, Canada, I’m weighing in on a problem with government department communications. I would have let the department responsible for raising my hackles, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), know how problematic their system is, but that is part of the problem – there is no way to get help or explain what’s wrong. So I am ranting here. A heads-up: this post contains exclamations and swearwords due to frustration, irritation and exasperation!

Backstory – Bill C-24 and Bill C-6

Canada’s population consists almost entirely of immigrants, and it has one of the highest per-capita immigration rates in the world and the lowest population density, so immigrants are important. And therefore the coming of new workers to Canada, and their integration into the Canadian economy and societies, are critical to the country whose population has shown a visible increase in average age since 2006. You’d think the government would make things easy for applicants. They do not. Even for someone like me, with all my experience with software and operating systems, and my tools and tricks to bypass or convert whatever I want, it was HUGELY FRUSTRATING to try to take the ultimate step in the immigration process, which is to apply for citizenship. I shudder to think how difficult it must be for someone with fewer skills and resources. The earlier stages of this process, to get Work Permits and Permanent Residence status, were recognizably tricky as well, but at the time we employed a firm of immigration lawyers in Canada to wind their way through the red tape. But not everyone has the money for that.

Requirements for citizenship

To get citizenship you need two things: 1) to have spent a certain  number of days in the country, 2) to complete the application form. Considering how difficult they make it, I believe that the bureaucrats of the Liberal government, despite everything the party leaders say to the contrary, want to discourage and slow down the process, and only allow people in who are hell-bent on doing it. To anyone less determined, and able, the form and the process of completing it become barriers to participation and inclusion.

Bill C-24 – Increase the required no. of days in the country

It all started with Bill C-24, which became an Act to amend the Citizenship Act as it was during the tenure of the previous government of Stephen Harper. Bill C-24 was assented to on 9 June 2014. It says that to apply for Canadian citizenship, you had to be physically present in Canada for four years (1,460 days) or 1,460 days in the six years after getting permanent resident status, and 183 days per year for four of those six years. (Previously, permanent residents must have lived inside Canada for three years.)

Bill C-6 – Decrease the required no. of days in the country

Because of general outrage about the details of Act C-24, Bill C-6 to amend Act C-24 was tabled in the House of Commons on 25 February 2016, about two years after Bill C-24 was enacted. This Act changed eligibility back to 1,095 days (or three years) over the five years prior to submitting an application for citizenship. Nice. Unfortunately, it was only enacted on 19 June 2017 – more than a year after it was tabled. Until then, the previous ruling of 1,460 in four years after permanent residence, stayed in place.

In fact, the application form and physical presence calculator were only changed on the CIC (Citizenship & Immigration Canada) website in October 2017.

Here’s the notice of change on the CIC website. October 11 of which year did this happen? Don’t the website designers know you always have to indicate the exact date on the web? You can’t leave users to infer it.

Process of applying for citizenship online

When I again put in an application for citizenship in January 2018, it was returned with a note saying the application form is out of date. I had to reapply, and started to complete the new application form…and there the wheels came off. When you are on the site and you want to download the form, the following message appears, telling you to wait – and wait – and wait.

Aaaargggh! This is the error message. No, CIC, no. Waiting does not help. Nothing happens. Besides, people who provide government communication services to an entire population, should always work on the assumption that the majority of users have old software, old systems, old computers and limited Internet access. Yes, young people may have no such problems but you have to plan for the lowest or most limited common denominator, not vice versa. And you have to plan to accommodate or include redundancy. You can’t simply make an earlier version of a document unreadable.

It reminds me of the computer error message about making real tea in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy:

Hi There! This is Eddie your shipboard computer just alerting you to the fact that the NutriMatic Machine has now tapped into my logic circuits to ask me why the human prefers boiled leaves to anything we have to offer him. And wow, it’s a biggy! Gonna take a little time to work out! Share and enjoy!”

Locked into Adobe Acrobat Reader DC

“Upgrading to” Adobe Reader” means getting Adobe Acrobat Reader DC (AARDC), which I do not want or use because it does not have the functions I need. So I tried opening the document on my Windows PC, running earlier versions of Adobe Reader – no luck. Nevermind, I thought, after throwing my toys out of the cot, so I downloaded it to my Mac, complete with its bl**dy “installer” which now sits on my system like some kind of Mark of Voldemort.

I then found out that the use of Adobe Acrobat Reader DC applies to all the pdf-format documents you have to download from the CIC, including the document checklist and the instruction guide. Moreover, no other software can open the saved document, just Adobe Acrobat Reader DC. And not just any Adobe Reader – this exact version 2018.009.20050. I know because I also tried the previous free version of Adobe Reader, which did not work either. Nor does any other pdf reader or converter work, including Preview, Quark Express and Nuance Pdf Converter. As a last ditch attempt, I thought, let’s just print the thing out and fill it in by hand, or else print it, scan it, convert it to another pdf format and then complete it electronically. That didn’t work either. It just printed blank pages with that error message!

Only version 2018.009.20050 works, nothing else and no earlier versions or other pdf readers.

Help function doesn’t help

When I realized that all the documents I try to download, save or print-and-convert produce this error message, I tried to use the “get help” option. I realized there was the off-chance that I was being an idiot and didn’t know my software from my shoelaces. There was no friendly WordPress “Happiness Engineer” available for an online chat. There wasn’t even a call desk operator from Eastwood City in the Philippines, the call centre capital of the world. How I missed having a human to talk to.

The linked text to the “get help” instruction was pretty useless, providing these blindingly obvious steps:

  • “Find the link of the file you want to save (you may need to go back to the previous page to find it)
  • Press the Control (ctrl) key and click on the link
  • When the option menu appears, choose “Download link to disk” or “Download linked file”.
  • Choose the location on your computer where you would like to store the file. Your computer will start the download once you have selected a location.”

Yes, yes, been there – done that. The download of the linked file is still just a dummy with the error message on it. You cannot read the document without Adobe Acrobat Reader DC and Adobe Acrobat Reader DC offers no save, send or convert options other than to itself, Adobe Acrobat.

When you therefore select “This answer was not helpful”, the comment window that comes up is not big enough to paste the actual error message – only 300 characters allowed. So what’s the point? I responded “no” every time I got a dud document, but nothing has changed.

So this was my experience over two days, people. It was not good. Not good at all.

And all this is in aid of….what?

In any case, how different is the new form (Oct. 2012) versus the old one (Oct. 2017)? It requires the same information except for some wording that changed because of the Act C-6 and – surprisingly – a new requirement to list the companies where you worked since becoming a permanent resident, and your work contacts’ names, phone numbers and emails. Seriously? In this day and age? With people barely staying in one place for more than two years?

Also, it is now an interactive pdf with a “help” function with a dropdown menu in every section. If they had made the instruction guide universally readable, the help function in the document itself would not have been necessary. The form is well laid out and allows for more characters per fill-in block than old versions, but that’s as far as it goes.

I suspect that this new format would make no difference to the speed or accuracy of case or database administration at the CIC, or to the requirement for security and encryption of the form itself, because in the end you have to send them a hard copy, in the post, with printouts and photos attached! That being the case, the CIC might as well have provided an Excel spreadsheet as an application form. It’s an odd case of design overkill in what is essentially a process by humans, prone to human error.

Conclusion

This was a pain in the patootie. I suppose I could’ve turned Luddite and walked over to the CIC office in Vancouver and got a printout and filled in by hand. But what if I couldn’t just leg it over there?

Shame on you CIC. I hope you have not made some kind of back-hander deal with Adobe for directing thousands of users to their pdf reader and into their software systems.

Many of the functions in the free version cannot be used, presumably you have to upgrade, subscribe or register with Adobe to do so. The CIC has created a loophole-free system for users to either use the one free version of a particular program to apply for citizenship – or not do so at all. Believe me, as soon as this document has been processed by the CIC that piece of software is going to be uninstalled off my Mac and PC.

Shame too for going so blatantly against the principles of Canadian government, which is to treat everyone fairly and equally. Surely you can do better?

Flowchart of example of one user’s experience of the installation of Adobe Acrobat Reader DC (AARDC), and the download and completion of the form for application of citizenship. The groans of impatience and frustration are not illustrated.
Above: Flowchart of example of one user’s experience of the installation of Adobe Acrobat Reader DC (AARDC), and the download and completion of the form for application of citizenship. The groans of impatience and frustration are not illustrated.


Summary

For a summary of the problems with this process and the application forms, and all the inherent bad ideas, go here.  The w3.org guidelines for pdfs are also on this page.


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