The desire by governments to harness the power of the Internet to provide services and gather feedback from their citizens will greatly change the nature of democracy, a new Canadian study states. The Centre for Collaborative Government (CCG) has released Finding our Digital Voice: Governing in the Information Age, which finds that Canadians are looking to have a more active and engaged role in government. "There is no real evidence that citizens want to wrest decision-making away from the politicians. Rather, they want to be confident that their representatives truly represent their views and that their voices are being heard," the Ottawa-based research body states in its report. "In the past, Canadians (and citizens in other developed democracies) were more willing to accept a paternalistic relationship with their governments. That is changing. Today, most citizens recognize that governments are there to serve them." CCG director Donald Lenihan says technology will alter how the governors and the governed communicate. Currently, most governments are content to simply post information online, but Lenihan expects that will change soon. He cites the example of one web site that has great potential for expanding its offerings. "The Strategis web site on Industry Canada is a key source of information for the business community and it gets several million hits a year," Lenihan tells Network Letter. "As it becomes more interactive, people will get on there and they’ll just start talking to each other and they’ll start talking to public servants and they’ll start asking questions and public servants will start answering and a conversation will evolve. That conversation could evolve in a lot of different ways. It could evolve in a way that essentially becomes a policy development process in a relationship between the department and its stakeholders that leaves Parliament out. That would be bad. It could evolve in a way that draws Parliament in, that is responsible to Parliament, that is transparent and open and that’s productive and strengthens representative democracy. That would be good." Some tentative steps are being taken in other jurisdictions. In mid-April, White House chief of staff Andrew Card Jr. answered questions for 30 minutes on the Ask The White House forum at www.whitehouse.gov. Further appearances are expected from Mark Forman, the associate director of information technology and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget, and from Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christie Whitman. Accenture praises CanadaAnother international report says Canada is the furthest ahead in the provision of e-government. While the American government is active in connecting with its residents, it placed third in a recent examination of electronic government. Conducted by consulting firm Accenture and released earlier this month, the fourth edition of eGovernment Leadership: Engaging the Customer also indicates that Canada is the furthest ahead in the provision of e-government. "Among the companies we surveyed, Canada is the clear leader and has increased the gap over its two closest challengers, Singapore and the United States," the study states. "It was the first government to place its citizens and businesses at the core of its strategy. It focused on target groups and matched appropriate services to those groups." The Accenture study finds there are five distinct plateaus a country must hit in its drive for e-government maturity. First is an online presence, whereby data is published online but few services are available. This is followed by basic capability, with a central plan being created and a legislative framework being developed. The system then develops security and certification standards around the infrastructure. Countries such as Portugal, Mexico and South Africa are at this level. The third stage is service availability, featuring basic portals and moves to provide as many services available as quickly as possible. Japan, Norway and Italy are among the nations at this level. Mature delivery is defined as having transactional portals and a clear authority, such as a CIO or central authority. Ireland, Australia and Hong Kong are among the countries at this phase. Canada is the only country moving toward the highest level – service transformation. Under this system, e-government is not a separate initiative but part of a wider service transformation. Improved customer service delivery is the goal. "In 2001, Canada made quite a big jump, progressing rapidly through the service availability stage and making first steps on the way to the mature delivery plateau," Accenture says. "Now, Canada is pulling ahead again, the only country having made the first steps toward service transformation. Canada shows signs that it has ingrained leading-edge practices, specifically, involving customers in service development and identifying and focusing on high-value services." The federal government spent $200 million on its Government On-Line (GOL) project in the past fiscal year. The current value of the initiative is set at $880 million through 2005. According to Accenture, it is money well spent. "Seventy-seven per cent of Canadians think that the Internet will improve how they receive services from the government of Canada; 73% believe that putting services and information online is a good use of tax dollars; 78% believe that GOL makes the government more innovative and 77% believe that GOL will improve how Canadians interact with government," the study explains. Keeping politicians informed on the e-government file is the greater challenge, the CCG maintains. This underlines the findings of an earlier study by the research body (NL, Dec. 2/02). Lenihan thinks Cabinet ministers are up to speed on the issue. It is the backbenchers and opposition MPs who need help. "Most of them are woefully unaware of the evolution that’s going on and certainly not very involved in the transformation of the relationship and citizens that it will bring," Lenihan says. "It’s not too late to change that but I think they’re probably the least prepared and the least aware. I think the public service is in varying degrees aware of it. It’s increasingly aware of it because it uses the technology in a sophisticated way and it sees the next generation of technology coming down the road." The CCG advocates the establishment of a non-partisan committee made up of elected officials from the federal, provincial and municipal spheres that would draw up a new governance charter. The charter, though not legally binding, would state the vision, values and goals of e-government. The CCG report is in favour of setting up the Chief Information Officer as a separate office, reporting to the responsible authority. That power should be the deputy prime minister at the federal level, the premier at the provincial/territorial level, and the mayor at the local level. The study cautions that roadblocks do exist on the road to e-government. One of the primary ones is the digital divide, which prevents citizens without Internet access from obtaining all the services the government offers. Maintaining the proper balance between information as a public resource and the respect for personal privacy will be a challenge. Since knowledge is part of the resource, questions could be raised about intellectual property rights. Many of the points raised in the CCG report will be discussed at a conference in Ottawa in early May. Among those scheduled to take part in the forum are Treasury Board CIO Michelle d’Auray, who is in charge of GOL; MPs Peter MacKay and Paul Martin; NDP leader Jack Layton; and David Zussman, president of the Public Policy Forum.