Q&A: Andrew Thomson

Andrew Thomson, Minister responsible for information technology in Saskatchewan, took part in the Lac Carling Congress this spring. After a presentation to a panel on politicians and electronic service delivery, he took time out to speak with Alex Binkley of CIO Government Review. Following are excerpts from their conversation:

Q: Where is Saskatchewan in terms of adopting IT for the provision of services to the public? A: We decided we had to take a multi-layered approach to IT. First of all, we believed it was important to us to have a large amount of infrastructure buildout. We not only wanted to deal with government services; we wanted to make sure people all over the province had access to it. As a result, we have built one of the largest broadband networks in the country today. We have about 74 per cent of provincial communities covered, connecting up the libraries, municipal governments, hospitals and schools. Our target is to move to 84 per cent by the end of our term. In real terms that means about 46 per cent of the population has residential or business access. So this was an important first step; we thought it was important to make sure the level of services was provided uniformly as we built them on. This was a big initiative and it took about three years to do. Now there are 366 communities and about 800 schools on it.

Q: Did this begin in your current mandate or the previous one? A: With the previous one. This was a joint initiative of SaskTel and the provincial government. The next phase of this is to move into a wireless broadband. We are looking at a $70-million program to do that, which will mean for the first time in many cases people will have high-speed Internet at the farm gate. This will be a tremendous benefit. One of the biggest groups pushing for broadband buildout were rural manufacturers.

Q: What is the level of co-operation among the Prairie provinces in terms of the common features the three governments face? A: In some areas there is a lot of co-operation. But you find in many ways that there is often more similarity with the situation in Atlantic Canada, especially some of the things going on in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia where there are similar demographic sets of issues. Alberta’s wealth changes the dynamics, because Alberta can afford to make mistakes that Saskatchewan and Manitoba can’t. There are as many people living in Calgary as there are in Saskatchewan. The health file is one where you are seeing a lot of co-operation across the country. The governments have decided that rather than everyone chasing after one electronic health record for their province, we need to pull together the best models from across the country in terms of everything from health care management to drug plans to records for physicians.

Q: How integrated are the departments of the Saskatchewan government in light of the Auditor General’s observation that most federal departments cannot communicate along themselves electronically? A: I think we struggle like most other governments. Departments in the past have been built like big silos, and trying to get them to talk among each other and share information is very hard. Part of this is like a Gordian knot. One of the biggest pieces is figuring out how do you keep up the privacy laws while at the same time you are dealing with the access issues. This has been a challenge for us in dealing with health records and how you share information back and forth between departments.

Q: How do you maintain political accountability for ensuring these IT changes work? A: I have seen bureaucracies add things on as programs go forward. So what starts as a very simple and clear idea as to, say, paying your taxes online all of a sudden has a whole range of options attached to it. They want you to do everything on the same system. Part of what we need to do as government goes through transformation is be very specific about the projects we are tackling and make sure those are done. Rather than have a revolutionary approach, I think we can deal with IT transformation incrementally. Government should build on its successes.

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