Q&A: John Manley

Veteran Ottawa MP John Manley was federal Minister of Industry for seven years in the 1990s. In that capacity, he was an early leader of the federal government’s e-government program. Manley recently spoke with Robert Parkins, editor of CIO Governments’ Review, on his days as a champion of e-government and his thinking on more current issues. Excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q. It was a big time in the world of e-government when you were Minister of Industry – especially early on, with the Information Superhighway, Schoolnet and other initiatives. How did it happen that Industry Canada seized the file in the early days?

A. You have to remember my background. I had summer jobs in the early 1970s and the late ’60s where I used computer programming. I operated an IBM 36050 one summer in the ’70s, and I really liked the technology. Then when I started practising law I became the technology person. When PCs came out and I said I needed one, the law firm said lawyers don’t need computers, and I had to buy it myself. I got two IBM XTs, for $1,800 apiece.

So when I arrived at Industry Canada at the beginning of November 1993, the first thing I said was: This is a nice office; where’s the computer? And they said: We’ll get you one; it’s wonderful – we have a minister who wants a computer. Unfortunately, I had to say the same thing at Finance in 2002, but that’s another story.

And there were two other things. Number one – they had a little experiment going with I believe 12 schools. And secondly, the U.S. had just established the Advisory Panel on the Information Superhighway. So we did two things. One: I said I like the Schoolnet thing. This has been a smokestack department – all about the auto sector and the steel industry and pulp and paper and all this stuff. Computers being linked to connect schools – really good stuff, I like it, let’s do more of that. And secondly, the U.S. has established this advisory committee; why don’t we do the same?

Now we had responsibility for telecommunications policy, as part of the Kim Campbell reorganization, so that was the little piece of bureaucratic real estate that we stood on. And I got consent from PMO to establish an advisory council. And David Johnston, then the principal of McGill University, agreed to chair it. And we got, I think to this day, a really exceptional group of people to agree to go on this. They produced their report before the U.S. reported, and it was a seminal piece of work; I heard about it from all over.

Q. What else was going on besides Schoolnet at the time?

A. We were putting the pieces together. It wasn’t even called Schoolnet at the beginning. We used program review, which came along in 1994. All of the changes came into effect as a result of the 1995 budget, in February. In that budget, Industry Canada lost about 50 per cent of its budget and we were faced with, really, total re-engineering. I think we did it, if I can say so, and it’s to the credit of my bureaucrats – Harry Swain and then Kevin Lynch – that we stopped doing stuff. What we decided we would do was advance the Connecting Canadians agenda. And a big piece of that from the departmental point of view was Strategis, which became the prototype for e-government. It was a response to program review – how do we get all this information out?

Q. How do you measure e-government – how do you tell how well you’re doing? When you get to the point where you’re spending several hundred million dollars on electronic initiatives in government, you want to know how you’re doing.

A. It’s impossible for government to evaluate itself on this. It truly requires outside analysis. Obviously we’ve taken some pleasure out of the Accenture annual report on e-government – their rating us at the top – but meantime I think it’s important that we have ongoing reviews of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and that we try to get . . . some of the benefit of having economies of scale. I don’t think the government’s done that very well. That’s just my instinct on it – like the Auditor General.

Q. Interjurisdictionally, some have been trying to think through the next steps in the evolution of the e-government agenda. How does that happen? A lot of the electronic service delivery facilities are in provincial jurisdictions, or in some cases municipal. Do we need some sort of arrangement – a federal-provincial council, for example?

A. Well, we have had ministers’ meetings. When I was Minister of Industry, we had some fed-prov ministerials – Ministers responsible for Information Technology. Not a lot of them, but we had some. . . . This is now in a development phase, and I think it’s going to plateau at some point, and governments will know that they have to do this. It’ll be part of doing business as government; the electronic component is going to be there. It’s that way in business right now.

Q. On digital democracy, there have been some experiments gong on – what do you see happening? Do you see people sitting in their living rooms and voting for Supreme Court justices? What does digital democracy look like down the line?

A. I think it starts with special services for the disabled and the elderly, to enable them to exercise their democratic rights from their residence. I think that will be the justification, rather than on a mass scale. I think that will enable some prototyping to be done, to make sure that you’ve got adequate security and everything.

Q. Usually when this is discussed it’s as a zero sum game – either you’re all going to be online or you’re all going to be in a booth.

A. No, that’s not necessary. We had a round table on this at Davos one year, where they have what they call the IGWEL – the Informal Group of World Economic Leaders. On a Sunday morning they usually bring in some private sector guys; Bill Gates was there and John Chambers and Steve Chase and all these billionaire guys from high tech before it crashed. And we had a discussion about this. And a lot of the political leaders from different countries said: Having the vox populi actually come together at schools and churches and go to a polling station and put their ballot in a box is an important element of social interaction in a democracy, and we should not abandon it without giving it careful thought. In other words, it wasn’t a security issue. It had more to do with: They are roots here, democratic roots. In ancient Athens, they came together in the agora to debate things. And if we don’t come together to vote, we lose the sense of common purpose in exercising democratic rights. And that could cost us at a time when we want to reinforce democracy.

Q. The other aspect of digital democracy is the effect on the relationship between the elected and the elector – MPs and their constituencies. You must be finding a little bit of that already; you yourself have been into e-mail for a long time. Do you e-mail back and forth with constituents?

A. I do, but generally speaking they don’t have my private e-mail. This is actually quite an issue for Members of Parliament. We don’t have any more staff than we had when everything came in by mail, but people can zap us these e-mails by the tonne . . . People expect responses other than that we received your e-mail. Somebody has to read it, and think about it, and formulate a reply, and give it to me, and I have to agree or disagree, and so on.

Q. On the digital divide: This is a big issue in all these initiatives. There’s Sioux Lookout, and then there’s Toronto, and there’s a whole lot of difference in Internet access. After you, Brian Tobin had that much ballyhooed broadband initiative that didn’t quite get there. But wasn’t he on the right track? Because you have to deal with the digital divide.

A. Yes, you have to. The trick is: What do you have to do in order to supplement what the private sector will do anyway. If you’re dumb enough, you can spend tons of public money so the private sector can just go in and ride on top of it. And I think that’s really what stalled it in the budget. There was a lot of doubt about where Industry Canada had it right or was this something that the private sector should do. And Finance’s view was that this was something the private sector was going to do.

Q. Finally – are Canadians really ready for an age of full-blown electronic service delivery? Or is it going to be a kicking and screaming thing over several decades?

A. I think they’re ready for it. Look at the speed at which we adopted debit cards and ATMs, and we’re leading the world in broadband access – Canadians like that stuff. I don’t know why, but that seems to be part of our national character. Now you’re going to always have people who prefer to do it the old way. I consider it to be a calamity if I have to go into as bank. I do all of my bills on the Internet. Every once in a while I have to phone the bank for some reason, but it’s a rarity. But 15 years ago, I lined up at the bank every payday.

Q. And are politicians ready for it? Maybe politicians aren’t as ready as the public.

A. The issue for politicians is contact with their electors. It’s increasingly becoming apparent that if you learn to use the technology intelligently, you can have a political impact. Look at Howard Dean. He blew up – but not because of his use of technology. He got in the thing as a credible candidate because of his use of technology. So to be a successful politician, especially in a country like Canada, where the local electorate isn’t that big, by comparison with the United States for example, the key is contact.

You have to be entrepreneurial. The most successful Members of Parliament are entrepreneurs. You’re running a small business. You’ve got a couple of staff, you’ve got a product to sell, which is your own name and your credibility and your ability to help your constituents. You want to keep the brand supported. And you’ve got to think of ways to do it.

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