Don’t stop thinking about the Web site: Tom Flanagan’s take on technology

By: Sandford BorinsTom Flanagan, an eminent political scientist and long-time adviser to Stephen Harper, has just published Harper's Team, a fascinating insider account of the Conservative Party's election strategy and tactics. In it, he pays considerable attention to the role of information technology in campaigning.Flanagan admits that the Conservative's Constituency Information Management System (CIMS) was so far over budget that Stephen Harper referred to it as “the Conservative Party's own gun registry.” Flanagan recognizes the effectiveness of the Liberal party's research unit at finding attack material online, such as Stephen Harper's speech in his previous life as policy wonk referring to Canada as “a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term.” Flanagan also discusses how the Conservatives added to their arsenal the BlackBerry in the 2004 campaign and blogs in 2005-2006.Looking to the future Flanagan speculates about using the Internet for targeted advertising and developing a campaign information system to allocate the party's financial resources and volunteers to constituencies where they would make the most impact. He concludes the book with ten commandments for Conservative campaigning, the ninth of which is that “we must continue to be at the forefront in adapting new technologies to politics.”What happens when IT-savvy politicians win power and form the Government? The essence of the answer is that, with apologies to Fleetwood Mac, they don't stop thinking about the Web site. Thus, it was not surprising that soon after taking office the Conservatives did a major revamping of the Canada site, transforming its emphasis from service delivery to the program and accomplishments of Canada's New Government. In a subtle public sector version of pop-up advertising, the New Government recently posted links to the Speech from the Throne on service pages such as weather forecasts. And given the party's experience with CIMS, it was entirely predictable that the government would move to terminate IT contracts regarding the gun registry.Not so long ago, public servants complained about ministers who were ignorant about IT and whose eyes glazed over when the topic arose. Now we have IT-savvy ministers who are pushing the envelope in terms of the Government's use of IT for communicating its policy message. Ministers are also aware of the pitfalls of large IT projects and thus take a skeptical approach to launching new ones and want to monitor those in the pipeline very closely.I've heard considerable complaining among public servants that the changes to the Canada site and the omnipresent links to government priorities represent an unseemly politicization of government communications. Flanagan, correctly, makes the point that IT is continuously evolving; similarly, conventions between politicians and public servants regarding government Web sites are evolving. If politicians push the envelope too far towards political content, then it is the responsibility of the senior public service to push back. In Ontario, I understand that Cabinet Secretary Tony Dean occasionally has done that. The challenge for federal Cabinet Secretary Kevin Lynch and CIO Ken Cochrane is to remain vigilant and, if necessary, to draw the line.

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