Q&A:  Frank McKenna

Former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna electrified delegates at the Lac Carling 2003 congress this year with a keynote address that touched on issues ranging from the origins of Service New Brunswick to Canada’s image on the world stage. He chatted later with Robert Parkins, managing editor of CIO Governments’ Review. Excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q. New Brunswick is widely recognized as a leader in e-government circles in this country. How do you account for its achievements? Put another way, why New Brunswick?

A. There was just a serendipitous set of circumstances, really – a need to transform our economy, a telephone company – NBTel – which was very technologically advanced and was a visionary partner, and within government, a large majority and big ambitions. We wanted to transform New Brunswick. We knew the old ways of doing things wouldn’t work, so we had to seize on knowledge as the tool of empowerment.

Q. In a sense, you were part of the knowledge economy before it was even a buzz word.

A. Well, I don’t want to suggest that we were prescient about that, but it was clear to us that the economy we had wasn’t going to work. Therefore we had to bet on something else. And I was a long and early believer that the application of knowledge to products and services gives a huge competitive advantage.

Q. Now that we’re in the age of e-government, it must change the way elected representatives operate – with e-mail, for example.

A. It’s like every other tool that’s supposed to be an instrument of liberation – it speeds your life up. It’s just constant. Whereas before members of Parliament might have some down time when they were in the House, now their Blackberries are bringing messages in constantly. When you go on the road, it’s your laptop, or your Blackberry, or your cell phone. What it means is more real time activity. Members have to be on their toes, because people expect quick answers, quick turnarounds. It used to be just exchanging letters might take weeks. That doesn’t happen any more.

Q. It’s a little like speed-up, on the assembly lines of the 1930s.

A. It is. When you talk about the requirements of leadership these days, leaders can’t take days to decide their positions. Everything’s fast.

Q. Because it’s going to be on the evening news. And if you’re not there, the other guy’s there.

A. Right. If you’re playing golf and there’s a crisis, you’d better get the next plane home.

Q. On another front, you must have reflected somewhat on another side of the e-government issue – the digital divide.

A. We were determined that we were not going to allow for a digital divide. The CAP program was a great asset, and our computer purchase program, the graduation requirement, making sure that we had computers in schools – all of these were ways to overcome the digital divide. We did not want part of our population left behind. And even the call centres – we have tens of thousands of people working in call centres, in jobs that are pretty good – not all great, perhaps, but some of them terrific. But they all require the use of computers. And so all of these people are more computer literate, and their families are more computer literate, and guess what – you’re moving further up the value added chain all the time.

Q. So are people really ready for all this? Are politicians?

A. It’s happening whether they are or not. Different sectors are moving at different rates of speed. Some sectors of the economy are entirely digital. Some aren’t – including health care, surprisingly, where 50 per cent of patients’ records will not be in electronic format for the next six or seven years. That’s astounding. On the other hand, in the courier services, the second a package is delivered, an on-board device records exactly the location of that package for track and trace purposes. And you’ve got complete record keeping right across the board. So every sector moves differently. A lot of it depends on competitive forces. Where there’s shielding from competition, such as with monopoly providers like health care, you tend to move very, very slowly. Government is in the middle.

Q. Today’s technology makes it possible to level the silos in government, but on the other hand, privacy and information officials are concerned about that kind of levelling. What kind of tradeoff is needed between levelling silos and ensuring privacy and security?

A. I think it depends on the functionality or purpose. I don’t think we should be religious about this, saying that information can only rest in one silo and never go to another. We can protect privacy across silos. If you’re going to take the information from an application from somebody in industry, and feed it to CCRA to help them sue for taxes – that’s an invasion of privacy and a wrong use of information. But if you’re taking the information that somebody’s giving to the Department of Health, and using it for income assistance, in order to make sure that that person is getting access to the full spectrum of services available, that strikes me as an appropriate use of information.

Q. What about measurement of e-government?

A. You need lots of focus groups and surveys. I’m from the school that says you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Therefore you have to measure everything. There’s no use saying something’s better if you can’t prove it. In the businesses that I’m involved in – and I’m involved in dozens of them – everything is isolated and quantified, and you’ve got to be able to defend your number and your metric. And we’ve got key performance indicators across a wide variety of metrics, and it’s the only way you know when you’re making progress. I don’t think the public sector should be immune from key performance indicators.

Q. ESD is one end of the spectrum of e-government, with digital democracy at the other. But digital democracy has been something of a weak sister. It’s got strong visionary potential, but it’s easier to write a program to do transactions than it is to move on digital democracy. Are we going to see some progress here?

A. I think so. As technology becomes widespread, and people’s familiarity with it increases, applications will extend into digital democracy. You can count on it. You see it already on television; there’s a poll about every two minutes on one of the major channels: Do you think Saddam Hussein is alive or dead? They run online polls constantly. Stupid questions, but they’re just constant. So in that sense, digital democracy is already being introduced, at the commercial level. And at the level of government – yes, it’s absolutely gong to be a fact of life.

Q. How do you pay for e-government?

A. You could make a case that we should have e-government just as a better way of delivering services. Truthfully, e-government could be paid for by dismantling traditional service delivery mechanisms and taking those savings and putting them in to over-the-counter and other multiple channel mechanisms. There’s really no reason you need to have a revenue office and a fish licence office side by side. It just makes so much sense to me to have Government of Canada, municipal, provincial – have one office where you just walk in for one-stop shopping; you do it all. And the savings from that are so dramatic that you can afford to add multiple channels to it – telephone call centres, online services and so on.

Robert Parkins ( rparkins@itworldcanada.com) is managing editor of CIO Governments’ Review.