Consultant blasts feds for lagging on digital strategy

A consultant who helped British Columbia implement a provincial digital strategy four years ago has nothing but contempt for Ottawa’s decision to start a public consultation now on creating a national digital economic strategy.

“I don’t know what the feds have been waiting for,” asked Eamon Hoey, senior partner of Hoey Associates, which advises CEOs on strategic planning.

Canadian wireless carriers only just launched 3.5G networks, he said, while many other countries are preparing to launch 4G LTE or mobile WiMax networks. British Columbia and Alberta have advanced plans to extend broadband to underserved areas in their provinces, he added.

“If [Industry minister Tony] Clement needs me or somebody else to chat with him to have one more goddamned report that’s going to sit on somebody’s shelf, that ain’t productive.”

“I don’t know why they’re coming to market at this time,” he said. “The mess has been created and it’s not retrievable.”

 “We’re so far behind the rest of the world it’s going to require a real overhaul.”

However, in an interview Clement dismissed Hoey’s attack.

“We have lost ground over the last 10-15 years, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “But if I thought things were irredeemable I wouldn’t be in politics.”

University of Ottawa Internet and e-commence law professor Michael Geist praised Clement for having “constant interest” in digital issues.

Still, in an interview he said the consultation is “long overdue.” Industry Canada held a one-day conference on the digital economy almost a year ago, he said. There was a “clear call” then for a national digital strategy.

In his speech announcing the consultation, Clement said it could take six to 18 months to develop a strategy.

 “That isn’t moving at Internet speed,” complained Geist. “That’s moving at government speed.”

In the interview Clement said Geist is entitled to his opinion.

Asked if Canadians shouldn’t think the government is just holding another talk on digital issues, Clement said “that’s not a correct characterization.

“In fact because of the work we did at the one-day summit last year we’ve moved very smartly ahead on some of the issues that were raised – for instance, anti-spam legislation, changes to make sure that our privacy laws are into the 21st century and changes to section 116 of the Income Tax which was acting as an impediment in its current form to foreign investment for ICT companies. So in fact there’s been a lot of good work done from that one-day summit. But I think it’s time for all of society – provincial governments, municipal governments, academia and business –to also be part of an overall societal strategy on the digital economy.”

On Monday, Clement, Heritage minister James Moore and Human Resources minister Diane Finley announced a two-month online public consultation to help the government create a digital economy strategy. A discussion paper outlines a number of issues Ottawa wants to hear opinions on from the private sector, provincial and municipal governments and ordinary Canadians. These include answering how to build a world-class broadband infrastructure, how to grow the information and communications technology industry, how to build a nation with digital skills and how to leverage Canadian-created digital content.

The resulting strategy will be applied to federal policies and programs, without stepping on provincial or municipal jurisdiction.

 “Canada can and should be a leader in the global digital economy,” said Clement in announcing the consultation. “Now is the time for the private sector to step up and contribute their ideas for a digital strategy and, when that strategy is in place, to implement the plan.”

In various ways Canada has fallen behind some countries such as South Korea and Sweden in leveraging digital technologies, although there is vigorous debate in how far behind we are. For several years experts – including cabinet ministers –have moaned about the country’s lack of productivity compared to other nations.

Canada is in the middle of the pack of member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in terms of how rapidly we adopt digital technologies, the strength of our industry, and the speed and price of our online infrastructure, Clement said in his speech.

“And frankly, that’s not good enough. Not when digital technologies are being embedded in leading-edge business processes, products and services — in everything from manufacturing cars to mining uranium, from extracting oil from the oil sands to performing neurosurgery. Not when other nations are aggressively promoting and adopting these technologies.

“Today, the average ICT investment per worker in Canada is only 62 percent of that in the United States. This lack of investment in digital technologies is contributing to a broader problem in Canada — lower labour productivity relative to our competitors. Something that is increasingly critical given our aging workforce.

“We need to do better, and we need your ideas on how best to encourage and promote the adoption of ICTs (information and communication technologies).”

An association that speaks for the Canadian IT industry welcomed news that the government wants to create a digital strategy.

“I really do applaud the government that a consultative process is really required to get the best input from all of these stakeholders.”

Tom Turchet, chairman of the Information Technology Association of Canada and vice-president for general business of IBM Canada, said ITAC has been working with governments and academics for at least three years on raising awareness that a digital strategy is key to growing the economy.

That includes a private meeting by 15 ITAC CEOs 12 months ago with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Clement about what the country needs to do.

Those there included the heads of Research In Motion, BCE Inc., OpenText, Telus Corp., SaskTel.

In the most recently-released international study, Canada again failed to crack the top 10 list of nations in the International Telecommunication Union’s annual telecom survey.

In 2008 Canada ranked 21st out of 159 countries with a score of 6.45. The U.S. ranked 18th. The top country was Sweden, with a score of 7.85. By comparison, in 2007 Canada ranked 18th and the U.S. was 17th. The score uses a formula based 11 factors ranging from the number of fixed telephone lines and wireless subscribers to the adult literacy rate.

On the other hand, Canada tied for 8th place in 2009 in what the ITU calls its Price Basket for wired and wireless telecom services. The basket sums the prices for fixed telephone, mobile cellular and fixed broadband services and expresses it as a per cent of gross national income per person.

 ITAC has been pushing Liberal and Conservative governments for the need for a digital strategy for at least a decade, said Turchet. One problem is that minority governments “have a short focus,” he said.

Asked whether ITAC is disappointed that the government is announcing a consultation and not a policy, Turchet said an industry strategy is complex. “We are going to need to look to academia for talent on this, private sector innovation and R&D, the government for leadership in using technology themselves.

“I really do applaud the government that a consultative process is really required to get the best input from all of these stakeholders.”

ITAC CEO Bernard Courtois added that there’s no agreement among these groups on how to attack the country’s lagging productivity. Hopefully the consultation will forge an agreement.

“We’ve only got a couple months to make up our minds,” he added.


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