GOL takes a hit

The fact that the Auditor General has recently reported is hardly news in itself. What remains obscure for many is the focus of her first chapter, the first ever audit of the federal initiative Government On-line (GOL). The section fairly glows in comparison to reviews of federal sponsorships and executive jets, but a more objective read yields a decidedly mixed assessment: While some progress has been made, both the impacts and sustainability of GOL are cast in doubt.

The Auditor General (AG) underscores the near absence of an overall framework for planning and evaluation to gauge both current and future investments directed at a new digital infrastructure — and strategies for using it. By 2006, nearly $900 million will have been earmarked in new funding for GOL, and by any reasonable expectation the work will only have just begun. Most departments, however, have yet to seriously plan for what GOL means for them in terms of costs and savings, let alone opportunities for horizontal collaboration.

Here the federal government’s minimalist approach to reporting results is insufficient. Although annual reports of the GOL initiative are publicly available, they constitute little more than a set of descriptive stories of what is under way. In contrast, other countries, such as Britain and Australia, have sought more rigorous evaluations benchmarking their performance against other countries. Australia has also tried to measure both the social and economic costs and benefits stemming from online innovation.

With respect to sustainability, the AG’s report points out that not only is the Secure Channel project behind schedule (not surprisingly since, in fairness, only airports are built on time and budget in Canada), but its role and utility in underpinning a government-wide service transformation remains unproven and unfunded. Parliament too remains out of the loop, and the AG rightly points to the absence of serious political discussion about the future governance of GOL in terms of structural costs, shared accountability and desired results.

Indeed, the AG’s questions dovetail with some key recommendations of the government’s own GOL Advisory Board, an external group of prominent experts which advised in late 2003 that a strong commitment by senior leaders would be required to realize the potential of e-government As such, the group advised that the Prime Minister assume responsibility directly as the catalyst for realizing a more seamless, innovative and digital public sector. Under Paul Martin, however, the new government appears headed — at least initially — in the opposite direction. GOL found no place in the recent Throne Speech, and, more significantly, much of the apparatus for GOL initiatives is leaving Treasury Board for Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC). Tainted by recent scandal and in the midst of a form of perpetual reorganization, PWGSC would seem to offer little in the way of stronger leadership, heightened profile and more integrative capacities.

GOL’s home will largely determine both its present scope and future reach. Indeed, there has always been something a bit odd about GOL as a service transformation vehicle coexisting with the culture of financial control and compliance that defines Treasury Board. While the argument for such a placement is government-wide scope in strategy and spending, the offsetting reality is the absence of an exclusive Cabinet-level spokesperson to champion a widening e-government agenda that is as much cultural and political as financial and technological.

Perhaps, then, the e-government agenda is not widening but narrowing, at least insofar as e-government is defined by GOL. With rising health care costs and shrinking surpluses, and a shift from the glory days of the Internet to the present day bolstering of homeland security (and crisis management), the long-term potential of digital technology faces the short-term constraints of polling and politics.

In fact, it may be telling that the AG points to online tax returns as the most notable success of e-government despite its lack of formal connection to the government-wide GOL initiative. Managed by Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, a semi-autonomous agency with wider managerial and operational freedoms than typical line departments, a new system of citizen-centric governance is being deployed — meeting and spurring demand, saving money and achieving results.

Central leadership and decentralized innovation comprise the requisite governance balance for a positive digital transformation. In the present political climate, e-government’s fortunes seem perilously dependent on the latter. Bolder change must wait another day.

Jeffrey Roy (roy@management.uottawa.ca) is an Associate Professor of Management & Governance at the University of Ottawa.

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