If you spend much time at the place where policy and programs are wrapped in pixels, you’ll be familiar with what’s sometimes dubbed “the commons.”
The notion of the commons casts e-government as a kind of town hall, except that the town could be as big as the world and the meeting never ends. Instead, it engages the citizenry in a more or less permanent discussion about what is to be done, whether by the neighborhood, the city, the province, the nation or, one supposes, the planet, once it’s armed with all those $100 laptops touted by the likes of Nicholas Negroponte at MIT.
For some apostles of e-government in this country, technology turns the consultation programs that have sprouted among governments at all levels into perfect precursors of the commons. Suddenly, chat rooms, web cams and, now, Web 2.0 can make a routine virtue out of the simple act of listening to Canadians – a practice that is at least informally entrenched everywhere.
One of the drivers of this vision is the idea that Canadians are ultra keen to talk to their governments about issues of the day – public policy chestnuts like tax policy, foreign affairs, economic strategies and justice, among countless others.
And many of them surely are. But, as CanWest News Service was recently reminded, by the returns from an Access To Information request, Canadians want to talk about lots of other things too.
Like: Assassinated president John F. Kennedy. “John F. Kennedy Sr. was healed and hidden and will step from hiding to become the beast, a.k.a. Antichrist.”
Like: Aliens from outer space. “They didn’t tell us anything about aliens in Canada. That the truth isn’t out there, that aliens are real.”
Like: Divine intervention. “God’s perfect plan to let evil take control and then replay his Moses/pharaoh showdown worldwide.”
To be sure, Canwest’s request for a glimpse of feedback on the federal government’s Canada site uncovered lots of valid concerns about valid issues. Some were less than lofty, however:
“Why is it when I watch the Weather Channel here in Prince George, BC, I get the map at the beginning that shows Kelowna and other Okanagan locations?”
Or: “How is it that Radio Shack has my address and telephone number and knows that I bought a TV cable from them back in 1997, and yet the federal government is still asking me where I was born and on what date. Do you guys do this by hand?”
All this is a long way from the spirit that – technically, at least – informs most governments in their approach to communication and consultation with citizens. The feds are typical: “In a democracy, listening to the public, researching, evaluating and addressing the needs of citizens is critical to the work of government. The government must learn as much as possible about public needs and expectations to respond to them effectively. The dialogue between citizens and their government must be continuous, open, inclusive, relevant, clear, secure and reliable. Communication is a two-way process.”
Not much there, you will admit, about the presidential undead.
It all amounts to a reminder, for CIOs and other deep thinkers on the electronic connections between Canadians and their governments, of just how long and tricky this road really is. Yes, there are lots of knotty problems out there; privacy and security in particular are taxing both e-strategists and their programmers. Beyond simple service delivery, however, lurk a large handful of issues, including the plain fact that, given half a chance, Canadians will talk about what they want to talk about. Which may not be the intricacies of foreign policy.
By way of footnote: This conundrum is also a good distance from the roots of personal computing as sketched by San Francisco writer John Markoff in the entertaining history What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. Markoff makes much of the LSD and the left-wing politics in which some of the earliest players immersed themselves 40-odd years ago. But he is equally clear about the public-minded spirit that drove much of their early, tentative, experimental work – an approach that saw technology as a means of developing and maintaining communities. It’s a good – if under-edited – read for the contextually minded.
Robert Parkins is editorial director of Canadian Government Executive.