Brave New Government: GOL in 10 to 20 years

Wonderful or otherwise, the e-future will clearly have a great effect on the way governments serve citizens. What are the challenges governments will need to overcome in the next 10 or 20 years to provide online government? What will it look like, and how will it affect the relation-ship between Canadians and their governments? Lac Carling Governments’ Review asked a prominent federal government thinker and policy maker to gaze into the crystal ball.

Michael Turner is Assistant Deputy Minister, Government Telecommunications and Informatics Services at Public Works and Government Services Canada. Turner takes the long view, noting that 10 years ago no one was even talking about the Web, the Internet and providing government services online.”

“To look 10 years further down the road, it is very difficult to make accurate predictions, but I expect we will see a lot more use of the Internet by normal citizens in their everyday business dealings with not only the commercial sector but government as well. People will simply accept as the norm that they should be able to access services they want at any time, to be able to deal with government 24 hours a day and to be able to do it in their living room or sitting somewhere in a parking lot on their hand-held device.

Elementary, my dear Watson

“In 10 or 15 years I expect that there will be broadband fibre or wireless to every house. Every house that now has television or telephone will always have ‘always on’ Internet access. The technology will become so commonplace and easy for people to use that we will not even think of it as technology, just as we do not think of getting in the car to drive to the supermarket as technology.”

The analogy is a useful one and fits well with established behavioural patterns: As we understand something, it becomes much more acceptable. Electronic technologies in particular are likely to be highly ubiquitous, according to Turner.

“People who are now in danger of being technologically disenfranchised, who currently are not on the Net, will be very much part of the mainstream online world in a few years. They will have access through their appliances in their home. A normal part of the functioning of a television set or telephone will be on-line Internet access, so the Internet will not be a special service or something you pay extra for. We will stop thinking about it as computing. You will be watching a sports event on the box in your living room and remember to renew your driver’s license. Click, click, click and it will be done.”

For government, a major element in the acceptance and extension of Internet technologies is the element of trust. Turner believes the technology itself can help build that trust. Stressing that these are his personal views, he says “If we do this right, citizens will actually want to have an individual electronic identity in the future, a smart card or token to let the world know that it is really them on the other end of the line.

“We are currently using and deploying technologies aimed at citizen authentication and identification, and there are huge privacy issues that governments must be very careful to address as we roll out such applications or services to the public. But if we do this carefully, in 10 or 15 years we should build up a level of confidence in people to accept that having a personal electronic identity is not a government invasion of privacy, but rather the right way to protect personal privacy.”

Turner also expects an explosion over the next 10 or 15 years in the use of technologies for direct citizen participation in the political side of government. “Many civil society organizations are already advancing on direct participation, using the Internet to organize themselves, and we are going to see more and more demand for citizens to be able to participate in government decision processes.

“Recent surveys conducted into what services Canadians want electronically found some interesting results. Though the quintessential Canadian first preference was the ability to pay taxes online, numbers two and three were the ability to express an opinion to political leaders and the ability to participate in a policy discussion or debate.”

At least one organization within the Government of Canada has developed a proposal to allow citizen participation and feedback on a more structured basis on issues of the day, but it has not proceeded, largely because the necessary internal infrastructure is not in place.

“If we ask the views of people on the top 10 issues in the news or facing Parliament,” Turner notes, “governments need to be able to do something with the resulting answers. We will have to have the mechanisms in place to gather, analyse, categorize and classify information and reaction, then pass it on to political representatives, the policy machinery and other appropriate audiences.

“The asking part we can deal with, but until we can structure the mechanisms to use the information, opinions and expression of citizens and know where to direct them effectively, I doubt that those responsible will be ready to open the floodgates. We are also not completely there yet in the systems for authentication and certification of identity that become key to greater electronic citizen participation. This would be particularly important for direct participation that has a requirement of a legal or statutory nature, such as voting, where an individual must actually be identified as being entitled to vote, and vote only once.”

There is a difference between indirect and direct electronic political participation, Turner says. “For expressing an opinion or other similar functions, the individual may not need or wish to be identified in order to ensure free expression of views. For this type of function perhaps only blind certification is required to avoid multiple participation. A public key infrastructure (PKI), environment would permit this now.

“As part of the Secure Channel project, we will be rolling out full, large-scale PKI for use with citizens and businesses in Canada. Applications such as filing taxes, record of employment, employment insurance, online passport and others will use large scale PKI for the first time. Over the coming decade I expect that there will be a more extensive rollout of public sector PKI in Canada than anywhere else in the world and, while there will be the inevitable technological challenges, I do not see any ‘show-stoppers.’

“This is really the lead-up to the permission management mode we will need in the future. Personally, I hope it can also help to create the level of trust necessary for people to accept that an electronic identification is in fact a good thing and will help protect their privacy.

“In 10 years’ time, I anticipate that we will see a more structured approach to gathering citizen input in a running opinion poll, for public feedback to the policy and political process for leaders at all levels of government. Such continual pulse-taking will become an accepted part of the day-to-day governing process.

“A citizen may be watching a news show on television and at the same time expressing their opinion to their Member of Parliament. In that same timeframe perhaps we will be moving closer to strategic use of the same technology for direct democracy applications, lawful referenda or even voting online.

“The difference between opinion polling and direct democracy will inevitably raise difficult constitutional issues related to our very system of representative democracy and responsible government.

It’s certainly not for me to decide how those we elect will want

to manage these issues, but the technology will be there to permit us, if we wish, to rethink representative and direct government. Certainly we must anticipate the debate taking place.”

Credit where credit is due -government players and observers alike have come to understand that one of the key issues – especially for politicians and policy makers – is demonstrating accountability and value associated with the identity of various levels of government. Citizens don’t need or want to know which government is delivering a service as long that service works – but when things go wrong, they want to know who is responsible and accountable.

That, says Turner, makes intergovernmental relationships that much more important. “We are already starting to see the ability to use the technology to make the administrative, political and constitutional arrangements of government transparent. Programs can be presented without being attached to a given jurisdiction. We can do that now, to present services in an intuitive fashion that makes jurisdictional identification go away for the user.

“Still, services can be presented to citizens in a transparent fashion without complex government redefinition or reorganization. The framework we have within government is decided constitutionally by our system of Cabinet government and accountability to Parliament, and we need to respect this reality. Jurisdictional rivalries have existed for a long time and our challenge in the public service at whatever jurisdiction is to put aside old rivalries and work within the statutory and political frameworks using the technologies to provide the optimum service to citizens.”

Could technology and its ability for facile direct connection and interchange drive changes in politics and ideology serve as the platform for constitutional revolution? That’s a topic for yet another crystal ball.