New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord, whose province is a leader in the development of e-government in Canada, took part in the Lac Carling Congress in late May. Lord joined federal MP Reg Alcock and Jack Layton of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in a panel discussion on high technology, government and the public sector. Later, he met Robert Parkins, managing editor of CIO Governments’ Review, for a discussion on a wide range of e-government issues. Following are excerpts from their conversations.
Q. New Brunswick stands quite high in this country in what you might call the e-gov sweepstakes. Why is that – why New Brunswick?
A. I think there’s been real leadership in New Brunswick. I think our size works to our advantage – because we are smaller, we can move faster and we can make better decisions. And it’s because we have a focus. We see this as part of our growth strategy. You can look at our prosperity plan, where one of the four pillars is about embracing innovation. And also in our platform in 1999, one of the five priorities was changing the way the government works, to make it more open and responsive. So therefore electronic service delivery and all that is important to us.
I also think we have to give credit where credit is due, in that there was some work done before I got there, going back to the ’80s and ’90s. We took what was good and built on that. What wasn’t so good – we changed it, we added more focus to it and a more comprehensive strategy that wasn’t there before.
Q. What’s your view of the effect of e-government on the day-to-day life of an MP or an MLA? The emergence of e-mail, for example.
A. There’s no doubt that the Internet and new technology are changing the way that elected officials do their work. But I’m sure it was the same when the telephone came along and people started getting calls. It’s part of the evolution. I read my e-mails, usually on the same day or the day after. I don’t respond to all of them directly myself; I give direction. . .
Q. Are there many crank calls, so to speak, in those
A. We get some. But most of the questions are, for instance, people writing about someone celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and they want a certificate. Or I’ll get someone sending me an e-mail on Kyoto, telling me what their position on Kyoto is. Or we’ll get someone asking questions with regard to health care. We get people sending us e-mail saying we’re doing a very good job, and we get people sending us e-mail saying we’re not doing such a good job. But it’s only a tool, with the telephone, with snail mail, with other tools. It can’t become the end, it’s only a means to an end. And the end is to be able to communicate more easily with the electorate.
Q. You’re what Doug Coupland called Generation X. How does that play out in cabinet, where there are people who are not Generation X by a long shot?
A. Actually, we have people in my caucus who I believe were born even before the baby boomers. . . But it’s important to cover the spectrum. We have people who were elected for the first time who were 23 years old; we have people who were elected for the first time at 64 years old. When we talk about technology, as long as we can show the benefits to the citizen, and how it can add value to what we do as a government, they embrace it…
There’s no doubt that I’m different from other premiers in the sense that I grew up with computers. There was a computer at home when I was a young teenager, and it’s been part of my life ever since. And I look at my children – they’re six and eight – and they work and play with computers; it’s part of their lives.
Q. On the financing of IT: How do lenders look at what you’re doing in New Brunswick?
A. We have of course made some investments in our e-infrastructure; it’s a choice that governments have to make. Our investors obviously look at the over-all debt of the province and our financial situation, and on that front New Brunswick is doing quite well. We have the best credit rating of any province east of Ontario; we’ve had three balanced budgets in a row. But we’ve had to make choices; when we make investments in this infrastructure, we’re not investing somewhere else. We have to be able to demonstrate to the voters and the public that there is value in this investment – that this helps democracy, helps education, helps health care, all those aspects of life in New Brunswick.
We’ve also partnered with private- sector investors to be able to take what we have and market it. CGI invested $3 million in Service New Brunswick for the right to market what we do with it. The royalties that we collect from that will be reinvested in improving and expanding the service delivery that we provide online.
Q. Speaking of education – how are you doing with the Last Mile?
A. We have two broadband fibre-optic networks throughout the province, although they don’t reach every home. And we have Internet to every school. We put a three-year plan in place, which started a year and a half ago, to connect every school to high speed Internet. . . There’s no doubt, though, that with residential users, that last 20 per cent – that Last Mile – is costly, and we have to look at ways to see how we’re going to connect everybody over time.
Q. On the federal-provincial front, the federal government had a government online goal of 2004 which became 2005. Brian Tobin had a billion-dollar initiative which didn’t work out as planned. Did any of that affect New Brunswick?
A. I had had good conversations with Mr. Tobin when he was federal Industry Minister, where I was promoting New Brunswick as a place to lead the way, because there’s a real desire in New Brunswick. We have the infrastructure, we have the willingness to embrace this new technology, and we can see the benefits. So there was good communication. Since Mr. Tobin left, I’ve had some conversations with Minister Rock about going further down that path. The federal government is looking for partners, and I think New Brunswick continues to be attractive on these issues.
So – sure, it’s had an impact; we were hoping to move faster on some of the things we’re doing, but we’ll take the time that is required to get things done. We’re moving ahead with our ENB strategy, which is focused on the three pillars of e-business, e-government and e-learning. I’ve asked private sector people, government and academia to give me some recommendations on how we move forward, and also to look at the key infrastructure that is needed to support these pillars.
But the one thing that I ask everyone who works on these things is to show me that it makes sense. We need a cost benefit, we need value for the dollars that we invest, because they’re not our dollars. The dollars belong to the taxpayer. So there has to be a clear advantage to the province, and to the citizens, for us to invest this money.
Q. Another issue: Internet penetration rates around the country show a 20-point difference between Ottawa and Montreal; Ottawa was 65 per cent and Montreal 46 per cent. Is that partly a francophone issue? Is there a francophone issue in all this? And if so, are there implications for New Brunswick in particular and to a lesser extent Ontario and Manitoba?
A. I don’t have the research and numbers to make a clear assumption on that, but I do know that it’s important to make sure that everyone in our province, regardless of whether they’re French or English, has access to the Internet and can access services and products from the government. It’s crucial for us.
One thing that we are doing to bridge the gap is investing in our schools. We also have 232 Access Centres where we provide access for those who do not have computers in their homes. In the three years since I took office we’ve increased the funding for the Access Centres to provide more staff and be sure they’re open longer. That’s another way to bridge the gap.
My hope is that over time technology will become less expensive and more affordable, and those who don’t have it now will have it later. And it may not even be a PC at home. It could even mean networks through television – not in the sense of programming, but using television as a monitor – that’s coming. You won’t necessarily have to have a hard drive at home.
Q. Some say that people, and politicians, aren’t really ready for e-government. What’s your view of that argument?
A. I believe people are more ready than you think. I’m not suggesting that everybody wants to do everything online; quite the contrary. I think what’s important – our role as a government – is to provide choices. And if you look at the acceptance of online banking in Canada – I don’t recall the last time I stood in a line at a bank. The same thing for my wife. We do things online in so many other ways. I think people are looking for those options on how they can access services and products and get involved in different ways.
Perhaps it’s too much focus on technology and not enough on innovation: How do we do old things in new ways? How do we improve on how we do things? I think we can use technology for that. But technology cannot be the end; it’s only a means to an end. It’s only a tool, and there are other tools. The computer’s not the answer to all our problems – not at all. But it’s a tool that can help us solve problems, and simplify processes, and reduce bureaucracy and improve access. That tool can be used with other tools – for instance, the telephone can be used with offices.
But more and more people have computers at home, more and more use the Internet to shop, to get information, to conduct transactions, to do things. I think the public is ready. I don’t think the public accepts that this would be the only way to interact with government – I’m certainly not in favour of that – but it’s one way to interact with government. In New Brunswick, 40 per cent of the transactions with Service New Brunswick are electronic transactions. So more and more people are using it.
Q. That kind of analysis makes the question of the digital divide less formidable, because it’s saying that not everything that happens electronically happens with a PC in your house.
A. The digital divide does concern us. We’re looking at ways to ensure that everyone has access to technology, or at least can learn to use technology. But we can’t assume that everybody wants technology. My mother, for example, is a great person who reads a lot, but she has no desire to transact through the computer, for a variety of reasons. I believe it has to be a main vehicle for transactions – but not the main vehicle.
The digital divide is serious if people can’t use computers, don’t have access, don’t know what computers are, don’t know what the Internet is – that’s serious. That’s why we’re committed not just to having our schools connected, which they are now, but connected at high speed. And we’re looking at other ways we can use technology in our schools to increase learning. I want to make sure the emphasis is not on technology but on learning. How do we use this technology to increase the experience of learning, to allow the child to learn even more – faster. That has to be the objective. . .
To me, the digital divide is not about citizens and government, it’s about citizens among themselves. . . I don’t think government is the solution to everything. Technology should not only be in the hands of government. Like any other means of communication, it’s powerful when it’s in the hands of citizens – individuals. We have to empower people, not just governments.
Robert Parkins is the managing editor of CIO Governments’ Review magazine and can be reached at [email protected]