e-Canada: Will that be electronic — or energy?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently declared Canada to be an “energy superpower.” So much, then, for shifting our economic fortunes to knowledge and services – perhaps it’s merely enough to rely on Alberta’s endowment of oil and gas, with just a bit of forestry and minerals thrown in from the rest of the country…

An unfair portrayal of Mr. Harper’s remarks? Surely, however, it raises the question of whether current political leadership in Ottawa sees e-government – as in electronic government – a worthy goal, or whether energy may instead be the new “e” word of choice.

The case for digital complacency is weak, and it is not helpful that the absence of a digital champion in cabinet seems to be something of a permanent condition at the federal level. Relations between government and industry appear as rocky as ever: a case in point, ITAC continues to lament misguided federal procurement reforms. Plus ca change…

The perils of complacency are starkly displayed by the federally appointed Telecommunications Policy Review Panel in its final report, released earlier this year. The industry-friendly group points out that Canada has fallen from 2nd to 6th in broadband penetration within the OECD over the past two years. And, they add, given the aggressive efforts of other countries to foster ubiquitous coverage, further slippage is not unlikely.

The report further points to Canada’s lagging performance in fibre optic networks and the development of ultra-high speed Internet access, expected to underpin the next generation of web-based applications. In the realm of wireless, the panel asks whether Canada is “really in the game,” second last in the OECD in wireless penetration with distance widening between ourselves and the United States, much of Asia and, especially, Europe.

How has the new Conservative government responded to the report’s findings? Industry Minister Maxime Bernier has acknowledged the panel’s efforts and in particular, the emphasis on market-based solutions for regulating (or deregulating as the case may be) the telecommunications sector. It is a safe bet that the CRTC will not be looking to gain power any time soon.

Yet the government has been silent on many other aspects of the report, including the panel’s call for renewed strategic leadership on the part of the public sector. The report calls for the formation of a national ICT strategy, for example, backed by a blue ribbon advisory council (as the Scandinavian countries have done) and a new National ICT Adoption Centre to coordinate research, policies and programs across the country. The federal government is further called on to act as a model ICT user within its own confines, to spark usage and innovation elsewhere.

Canada may thus find itself at a digital crossroads. One avenue is betting on market forces to spur ICT adoption and e-commerce, with government’s role primarily focused on nurturing such forces (and ensuring that the public sector acts in the least disruptive manner possible). The alternative is to look to government to be a catalyst for leadership and change.

The market route aligns nicely with the emphasis on energy and natural resources: Just cut taxes, stand back and let it happen. With the U.S. thirst for oil and gas unlikely to ease any time soon, short term prospects are hardly bleak. But non-renewable resources are, well, non-renewable, a point Alberta’s government understands: Watch for the next Premier there to renew efforts to expand digital infrastructure and innovation as a means toward greater economic diversity and long term prosperity.

The reality is that no country, especially a small one with a mere 30 million people, can afford to choose between market and state. Political ideology is a red herring. Jurisdictions across Europe and Asia intent on remaining ahead of the pack are carefully aligning the actions and investments of the public and private sectors, as well as the efforts of all levels of government.

Indeed, here is where the Conservatives can foster a new style of federal leadership, less ordaining and more supportive of local and provincial initiative. As the most recent Lac Carling meetings attests, municipalities are primed for a leading role: They are best placed to reconcile territorial proximity and digital connectivity, not only in the realm of service delivery but also democratic engagement.

The federal role called for by the telecommunications panel is not a return to the Connecting Canadians agenda of the 1990s (one on which the federal government continues to coast). A more federated style of leadership is called for – action nonetheless predicated on recognition that digital leadership is required at all. 069143

Jeffrey Roy (roy@dal.ca) is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration, Faculty of Management, at Dalhousie University.

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