Ken Cochrane was on the stump the other day, detailing once again just what it is they do over at the Chief Information Officer Branch (CIOB), in the federal government’s Treasury Board Secretariat.
Cochrane, Chief Information Officer for the government and a long-time heavyweight in the management of public sector cyberstuff, was his usual straightforward self as he told the Canadian Information Processing Society about the challenges of herding the cats who populate 100-odd departments and agencies.
It was a one-hour tour de force that made a good deal of sense of the management maze that lies behind e-government as practiced by the feds.
But it also underscored the real challenge facing Cochrane and his colleagues at all orders of government.
That would be community.
Make no mistake: Cochrane was nothing if not expansive in explaining the management framework in which he and his team work. His is a story of complex policy and program areas like information management, information technology, security, privacy, access to information and service, to use the framework he employed for his rapt audience of CIPS members. He tells that story well, in some detail as these presentations go.
In one sense, he was even acutely sensitive to the “c” word (again, that would be community). He necessarily interacts with communities of all description in exercising his mandate, and his remarks were filled with references to them: One of his horizontal goals is community development, the CIOB is a community enabler, community engagement is “the biggest issue” for his team…you get the picture.
Except that none of those communities is the community at the other end of the line, so to speak.
The community at the other end of the line is made up of the Canadians who use electronic service delivery for its myriad services – everything from simple information to filing taxes. And they don’t appear to loom large in e-government management-speak.
They’re not entirely absent, to be sure. Cochrane’s model makes explicit reference to his service mandate, which he correctly notes is filled for most users via the internet. But it’s general, one challenge among many rather than the raison d’etre of the whole operation.
So what might help? Well, a little of “the vision thing,” as it’s been known for the past 15 years or so, would go a long way. E-government these days isn’t much given to the kind of language that the likes of Macdonald, Laurier and Diefenbaker, among lots of other Tier 1 orators, seem now to have generated almost as a matter of routine.
That’s odd, in a sense, because the federal Government On-Line initiative was wrapped in relatively far-sighted language when it arrived in 1999. Over the years, however, GOL developed a pragmatic focus on polishing up operations; the demanding construction of a government web presence that was interactive as well as informational cost it much of that original packaging. By way of f’rinstance: Technology managers are much given to reminding colleagues and staff of “the real world.” In the real world, they say, a fisherman doesn’t really want to get a fishing licence – he just wants to fish. And they’re right, of course. Still, there’s a wrinkle; that kind of logic may succeed in its prime purpose – keeping IT staff from dancing to the particular tunes of, say, programmers – but at the price of a relentless focus on the immediate, the pragmatic, the here and now. Do that a million times or more and you’re likely to wind up in an operational frame of mind yourself.
As just one small example of the possibilities, there was a prime – but missed – opportunity last year to do a little attention-getting communications around GOL, on the event of its formal expiry. Whether by accident, design or omission, however, the end result of GOL on the web is a modest page, at http://www.gol-ged.gc.ca/index_e.asp, which unsurprisingly reports on a “mission accomplished.” The truly curious can drill down into a few cheerleading elaborations on that mission, but they hardly amount to an exercise in top-of-mind “visioning.”
It’s not easy, to be sure. Even managers who acknowledge the requirement for a little of “the vision thing” in e-government are in fact captured by what seem to be more immediate problems. At one level, they’ve got the usual demands of ministers’ offices, competitive programs, funding issues and on and on. And on the broader stage, they’re faced with the challenges of a holus-bolus rethinking of what they’re doing in the first place – a rethinking increasingly described in nearly apocalyptic language by more and more critics.
But essential, all the same.