What Canada can learn from Obama

The Obama administration has been applauded by many in the technology sector for its strong commitment to changing the way the U.S. government thinks about IT. Now, many tech observers north of the border are wondering when Canada will follow suit and better prioritize technology issues at the cabinet level.

Last week, the U.S. introduced its first CIO, Vivek Kundra, who was given the mandate of changing the way the federal government uses technology. Shortly after being appointed, Kundra told reporters he planned to “revolutionize technology in the private sector” and create a Web site to “democratize” the federal government’s vast information database making it accessible in open formats.

The new CIO also stressed the importance of cloud computing and criticized the government’s dependence on large scale and expensive IT contracts. He also plans to examine the way the private sector adopts new technologies and bring those practices to the government.

“The public sector thought they were so special that they wouldn’t adopt consumer technologies,” said Kundra, who also noted that when he would connect his laptop to a local Starbucks Wi-Fi network then he “had more computing power in my hands at local coffee shop than average teacher or police officer.”

While Canada does have a similar Chief Information Officer branch in the Treasury Board Secretariat, the head of the branch has been vacated for several months. The CIO of Canada position is rumoured to be filled sometime this April.

But according to Michael Geist, research chair of Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa and notable blogger on electronic law, the problem for Canada right now is at the cabinet level.

“Other countries have tried to identify a specific minister in charge of innovation or technology,” he said. “The fact that we haven’t done so is causing us some measure of harm. We would do better by allocating some specific responsibilities at the cabinet level.”

Geist added that while current Industry Minister Tony Clement has shown considerable interest in technology-related issues, his office has such a broad mandate that it can’t dedicate the time that is truly necessary. For example, the Competition Bureau, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, foreign investment, and the automotive sector all currently fall under the Industry Minister’s mandate, he added.

“When former Industry Minister Jim Prentice introduced the copyright bill back in 2007, he was coming off the spectrum auction and new Investment Canada regulations,” Geist said. “Many people were very critical with where that legislation was headed, but it would be tough for anyone to engage on this issue coming off two other issues that would take up that much time.”

Bernard Courtois, president and CEO at the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), is hopeful that the Obama factor will influence the Canadian government to deal with these concerns.

“In Canada, we’re supposed to be strong in this stuff, so we would hope our government would look at an integrated strategy to use ICT to advance our society,” Courtois said.

“We’ve all heard the Finance Minister and the Industry Minister advise businesses that they have to use more technology to be productive, competitive and grow,” Courtois said. But the most important thing right now, he argued is the government itself should be practicing what they preach.

“We’re digging ourselves into a very deep deficit and we’ll want to dig ourselves out. It will be extremely logical to invest now in things that will make the government more efficient in the future.”

He added that Canada’s technology strategy during the recession will make a significant difference in how the country will potentially rebound and compete in the future global landscape.

Unfortunately, Geist said, the current economic challenges will probably be used as a scapegoat for avoiding this issue, rather than a catalyst to actually developing a long-term strategy for IT in the public and private sectors.

If the country is going to develop a true Canadian digital agenda, it’s either going to be the Industry Minister or another cabinet colleague who works to push these issues to the forefront. he added.

– With files from IDG News Wire, Network World (US)