E-commerce picture not much better: report

Although much progress has been made, the Canadian government needs to address certain risks quickly if it is to meet its target of making electronic commerce its preferred way of doing business.

So said Denis Desautels, Auditor General of Canada, in his report Electronic Commerce: Conducting Government Business Via the Internet.

The audit report focused on the government’s use of the Internet for internal and external purposes, and concluded that advances have been made in three crucial areas: its public-key infrastructure (PKI) project as a measure for secure e-commerce; the legal framework to support conducting business electronically’ and the establishment of common technology infrastructures for interoperability across different offices.

Despite this headway, Desautels noted several risks that could undermine the government’s PKI project.

“Progress in designing business processes to make use of the Internet and developing the related computer applications is lagging behind the progress of the infrastructure project,” he wrote in the report. “Many issues [also need] to be resolved before adequate common infrastructures exist to support the delivery of services across multiple departments and agencies.”

According to Nancy Cheng, principal in the audit operations branch of the Office of the Auditor General in Ottawa, in order for government to reach its stated goal to be a “model user of the Information Highway by the year 2000,” there has to be a common framework.

“When you talk about doing business on a more broad basis electronically, you have to be able to talk to one another, and this whole notion of interoperability becomes important.

“If the federal government can indeed move forward and be a model user, and that certification policy becomes the norm, others may choose to adopt it,” Cheng said. “This would make it much easier for…any [federal] department to communicate information with any province, for example.”

More focus has to be placed on which businesses would most benefit from using PKI technology to conduct commerce on the Internet, she continued.

“It’s the perennial problem of how information technology provides a solution, and now you are trying to find out what the problem is. There hasn’t been nearly enough thinking about how we are going to use the Internet to do business.”

PKI should extend beyond simple messaging within the government, Cheng said. “Businesses and citizens out there are also eager to make use of the Internet…and we have to start thinking about all those kinds of applications as well.”

There has also been very little strategic planning, she continued.

“At the start there was an inventory — they called it a strategy paper, but basically it was an accumulation of the different things that are going on and which department or committee is overseeing it. But it was really more of a status update, as opposed to a future direction. The strategy has never been updated, and to this date there is no future direction.”

Michel C