A separate article in this issue examines the recent advice received by the government of Ontario from its expert advisory panel on the thorny matter of managing large-scale, transformative IT projects. Like most governments around the world, Ontario has struggled with the formation and management of such projects – as well as the implications for working with the private sector.
The advisory panel’s work dealt mainly with the province’s internal competencies for managing IT and how its own governance systems might be improved. In a review of their report, my colleagues and I also seek to widen the lens – in part to more fully encompass industry’s involvement. Our perspective draws from many of the lessons gathered from case studies prepared for and presented at the 2005 Lac Carling Congress.
Yet, it is also worth asking one additional question – namely, what role for the citizenry in the design and deployment of large IT initiatives? The term ‘”public-private partnership” implies a (hopefully) positive mixing of public interest pursuits and private returns. In doing so, the former is best determined by democratically elected governments and their professional managers. Is this enough?
From the perspective of industry and government (both separately and together), a clear lesson of IT management in this e-government era is the need to involve stakeholders early, often and on an ongoing basis. People must become engaged across all organizational levels, particularly people likely to be using the new system or process in their work environments. Increasingly in government, the objective of such efforts is said to be more citizen-centric in focusing resources and delivering services.
All too often, however, the citizen is out of the loop in planning and project design. Or rather, they are often there – but represented by surveys and focus groups underscoring the sorts of outcomes deemed most essential (rather unsurprising and general themes such as convenience, quickness, friendliness etc.). Once new systems are under way, citizen dissatisfaction quickly turns into a source of contention for both project managers and political leaders.
A better way is to seek a more direct public role by those who are, after all, both users of public sector services and voters (not exactly shareholders in the private sector sense, but stakeholders with a vested interest in both investments and outcomes). The state of Texas, for example, deploys a 15-member citizen’s governing board (established by the state legislature) in devising service levels and fee structures for an online delivery apparatus co-managed with the private sector. Such shared mechanisms are becoming more common as governments seek to widen the public understanding and buy-in surrounding risky and resource-intensive e-government schemes.
In Ontario, then, it is a strange irony that a government so committed to the themes of democratic renewal and citizen engagement would undertake such a traditional, expert-based review process. As pointed out elsewhere in this issue, one result of this approach is a public that remains utterly unaware that any such initiative happened at all (except perhaps for insomniacs routinely perusing government press releases at 3 a.m. for the latest happenings).
The findings of the panel are not unimportant – nor are the responses put forth by the government. Nonetheless, while some retooling of government processes may result from this undertaking, there is little sense of a broader public space having been accorded to one of the central set of tasks faced by governments in our time.
It is easy for managers and politicians alike to shun such sentiments; they can argue that the average person on the street can hardly be expected to care about, let alone become involved in, the intricacies of IT planning. In this view, the public’s role is that of consumer, albeit from government providers, and it’s the result that matters. Such a view has hardly proved sufficient, however – largely due to the simple fact that, in government, the means matters at least as much as the results.
We cannot simply distinguish between e-government as a service delivery strategy on the one hand (treating the public as customers) and a democratic engagement strategy that acknowledges the citizen’s role in policy on the other hand. They are intricately linked, and maintaining this false distinction is a path of technocratic management and top-down planning that – paradoxically – will make government agencies less well suited to fully engage their own employees in better decision-making and more participatory governance.
Take e-health as one example of interest: Will the government of Ontario (and all governments) rely solely on internal experts and outside specialists to devise a blueprint to spend billions on a matter of enormous importance and huge political risk – or instead, can it pursue its own mantra of democratic renewal in devising new ways to engage the public in helping to frame risks, weigh options and plan accordingly?
Jeffrey Roy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa.