Digital Nation policy needs specifics

The Conservative government will soon launch a public consultation on the matter of a digital economy strategy to make Canada more competitive. But while the dialogue will be helpful, one industry observer warns policy papers lack necessary specifics to actually make things happen.


The motivation behind the discussion paper is to get Canadians talking about digital innovation as part of a government strategy to ultimately improve productivity and prosperity. Comments received by the government via Facebook, e-mail and snail mail will be fed to an advisory panel.


Industry Minister Tony Clement will work with Heritage Minister James Moore and Human Resources Minister Diane Finley to focus on improving digital content, and training for using and creating new technologies.


But John Reid, president and CEO of Ottawa-based CATA Alliance, said that while a policy paper is great for kick-starting a discussion, it cannot resolve specific issues like accountability, budget, net neutrality and rural broadband expansion.


“It’s one thing to set out a digital framework which is part of an innovation nation … but really the measurement of this is how the government can address each of those particular changes you need in the business climate,” said Reid.


CATA Alliance has long been a proponent of Canada as an innovation nation. Reid said the creation of a digital nation offers a good context for the consultation but a broader footprint is definitely needed. “Often our success really draws outside of the digital framework,” said Reid.


He’s referring to other necessary factors in the equation that, too, must be embraced, such as women in technology and aboriginal communities.


Marcel Cote, an economist and member of the expert panel on business innovation with the Council of Canadian Academies, agreed that the success of the consultation will be judged by what the government ultimately does with the feedback and policy paper.


“It’s not the paper itself,” said Coté. “It’s the awareness, it’s the discussion, it’s getting people to focus on trying to find an answer.”


Coté said Canada has a good labour force but its productivity, stemming from innovation, has historically been lower than that of the U.S. He said Canada also invests less in its IT sector compared to south of the border.


While there’s quite a bit of research and development that goes on in Canada, businesses don’t make the sort of innovative decisions that will boost productivity, said Coté. “The Canadian economy is a cosy market so we don’t need to be on the cutting edge,” he said.


But Coté does believe the consultation will raise much-needed awareness. “We have a major problem. This has been going on for 30, 40, 50 years, in fact,” he said.


Reid agrees that the public consultation is a good step, especially considering Canada has been losing its competitive status for some years now. “We are at a point where we have to decide to make some significant changes about how you approach the creation of wealth in Canada,” he said.


Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau