What happens if Government On-line goes offline?

Columns are born in mysterious ways. This one, for example, is about e-government (surprise), but its roots lie in a conversation about last month’s appalling terrorist attacks on the United States. That’s because we’re partly in the business of “just asking” – as in: “What if (fill in your calamity of choice)?”

In poking at the devastating attacks on New York and Washington, we found ourselves wondering just what would happen to government service delivery if – once we’re firmly in the age of Government On-Line – GOL went instantaneously, massively and unexpectedly off line, whether through accident or incident.

GOL is not just a better mouse trap, remember. It’s a new approach to dealing with mice. It’s supported by a number of key rationales: more effective service delivery, client choice, security and privacy, time savings, cost savings, person-year savings, overall efficiency and, of course, because we can.

It’s also widely understood that an integral part of GOL is, in fact, reinventing government service delivery and the infrastructure and systems that are set up to deliver it. Reinventing such an enormous infrastructure will have impacts on people and systems that we may not even have anticipated – yet. A good many of those impacts will very likely end up establishing the electronic systems as paramount, while other established methods of government service delivery go the way of the 8-track. Though many policy wonks and a few political types stress that the core reason for GOL is not to reduce financial or human resource expenditure, few deny that that could well be an ancillary bonus.

So what happens when we do succeed in revolutionizing service delivery, changing the systems and the very infrastructure, realizing the efficiencies and savings? As one participant reminded the Lac Carling Congress last spring, ultimately we’re supposed to be taking the “e” out of e-government. In that scenario, citizens will accept the new way of doing government business as the normal way to do government business. It only stands to reason that we will quickly become dependent on the new order and whatever infrastructure we put in place to make it possible. Out with the old and in with the new – which is fine, as long as it works.

But . . . what would happen if the new systems and the new infrastructure were suddenly not to function, for whatever reason? The consequences may not be all that disastrous early in the game, in 2004. There will inevitably be a transition period, when the old way of delivering government services – let’s just call it analog – co-exists with the new e-government. Indeed, as scores of astute policy advisers have pointed out, there will always be some requirement for the old analog ways, to serve the electronically disenfranchised (among others, including the stubborn). But that analog capacity to function will be sharply reduced if it doesn’t eventually become obsolete. Otherwise, what’s the sense in the new order? So this may be a very real conundrum to be faced in, say, 2024.

It can happen. In fact, just this past September a worm had the Government of New Brunswick, one of the more sophisticated e-governments in Canada, reportedly shut down for a full day. The folks who deliver services there must have been hauling out the old IBM Selectrics to keep things moving, but at least the old equipment and the systems they supported were still there.

Add to this that Murphy’s Law (among many others) dictates that any failure in e-government infrastructure or systems would likely coincide or even be inflicted by another crisis – fire, flood, flight or fancy. It could add up to quite a pickle. Crash! Bang! Boom! Zap! Silence!

Before anyone points out that such massive failure is what we are trying to prevent, that it would indeed be shocking and surprising, let’s just think about who figured that four simultaneously hijacked airplanes would . . . well, you know where we’re going.

That’s not to say that the extraordinary efforts that government IT and management consultants are undertaking for system security are anything other than absolutely crucial. Even a short conversation with the specialist folks at PWGSC, OCIPEP or CSIS leaves one confident that virtually every eventuality is being considered. But even the very best system has or will have its weaknesses.

A final note: Although we’re “just asking,” we’re also confident that government thinkers and systems planners are in fact planning for the eventuality of systems not being there. It’s the ultimate question for systems planners, after all; just what is the plan if there is no longer a system – a place to plan to have a plan?

Perhaps the answer is part of the plan.