Government offline

By Jeffrey Roy

The link between recent power outages and e-government is obvious enough: No electricity, no Internet and therefore not much government online. Nonetheless, while officials in the Prime Minister’s Office scurried in candlelight to release a hand-written note (with spelling resembling an e-mail), and as ministers struggled with misinformation and the premier was stranded in the suburbs, we learned a good deal more about Canada’s public sector.

First, it would appear that in a pinch, municipal public servants matter more than their provincial and federal counterparts. In the City of Ottawa, two-thirds of all local government employees were deemed essential and mobilized into action. By comparison, 40,000 federal employees were told to stay home, along with non-emergency provincial workers (ill-timed for those already on vacation!). The first lesson, then: Resources and respect should be redistributed between the public sector’s three levels.

Several media commentaries went further, undoubtedly taking matters too far, by asking how the country can function with so many public servants on the sidelines. Others then pondered whether recent surges in hiring across the federal government, particularly in Ottawa and Gatineau, are truly warranted. Of course, in fairness, as with any large organization, many functions can idle for hours or days before costs are revealed, as governments face both immediate services and longer term challenges.

Yet, the shutdown of government deserves a bit more critical attention and reflection. One legitimate issue, particularly in the context of e-governance, is whether such a significant proportion of the Government of Canada must reside and work in the National Capital Region. In the past such questions were almost purely political: today they should reflect strategy, safety and security as well.

In an age in which we hear so much about virtual networks and flexible organizations it would seem that the federal government has some way to go. Before the power went off, perhaps even pondering such a catastrophe, a cognitive light bulb in the Paul Martin camp went off – The PMO Travelling Road Show, from coast to coast, coming soon to a city near you.

Yet, while easy to dismiss as political gimmickry, the notion that the public sector equivalent of a CEO can be mobile, working hands-on with staff and clients across the country, makes more sense today than when Canada’s Capital painstakingly moved from town to town in the 19th century. If the idea were bolstered by a truly strategic vision to decentralize senior executives, middle managers, resources and authority to regional offices across the country, something important would transpire.

The political dimensions of such a shift are important given growing regional divides and the gaping distance between Ottawa and just about everywhere else in the country. Strategically too, any effort to become more citizen-centric demands a complete overhaul of the antiquated and centralized organization – a system where ambition at the top means perpetual residency in the Ottawa region, and innovation elsewhere means circumventing distant processes and pressures from inside Canada’s version of the beltway.

The security lens further raises the stakes, however. Whether the recently formed Office of Emergency Preparedness and Critical Infrastructure should be housed in downtown Ottawa is a matter worthy of political debate. Whether there are further dangers in centralizing large segments of the CIO Branch and the senior cadre of IT management in the same neighbourhood might also be discussed.

Finally, while the public sector must realign itself from within, it is equally clear that the past three years have rendered even more fluid the boundaries between industry and state. One revealing national poll online, in the days following the power failure, demonstrated two-thirds support for government control over hydro infrastructure, versus less than one-third for private sector control. The argument that it is not privatization that has failed, but rather how privatization has proceeded (or not) may have some technical merit, but politically what matters more is a growing sense that critical utilities ultimately require democratic accountabilities.

The stakes for e-government are huge if the Internet is to truly emerge as the information highway for both economy and community. What’s required is not outright government control, but rather more open and transparent public-private partnerships where corporate responsibility and political accountability will be ever more intertwined. E-democracy, for instance, will never be mainstream without zero tolerance for failure and complete confidence by the public.

Some from industry may choose not to partake. So be it. As other companies and entrepreneurs will rise to the challenge: however, political leaders must first be there to issue one.

Jeffrey Roy ( [email protected]). is an Associate Professor of Public Sector Governance and Management at the University of Ottawa.

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