The History of Government On-Line
Between 1999 and 2006 the Government of Canada undertook a specific project to rationalize and consolidate its Internet presence, it electronic service delivery, and its electronic administrative efficiency. This book reports on the highlights of that project, and attempts to assess its outcome and impact from various perspectives. As a person who actually helped set some of the standards for this project, I found this book fascinating because it gives a comprehensive overview of the kind that most participants in the day-to-day project never acquired. Some of the chapters refer to electronic government in Ontario, but I will focus on the federal studies because that is the area I am familiar with.
Borins introduces the book, articulates the conceptual framework for the study, contributes research on a number of the specific topics covered, and writes the concluding chapter. As he explains it, Government On-Line (GOL) is actually the outgrowth of administrative reforms that pre-date the Internet. In reviewing the various chapters for the conclusion, he agrees that many of the project goals were accomplished. However, not all the lessons learned are being effectively applied, so there continues to be room for improvement.
Brown gives a history of the implementation of GOL, from which I learned for the first time that The Institute for Citizen-Centred Service (ICCS), an organization often credited with pushing Canadian governments towards better service to the public, was in fact sponsored and incubated by these same governments. Brown also participated in the research and writing for more specific topics in the book, including the chapter on the human element in the "digital leadership" that conceptualized GOL and kept it on track.
Kernaghan chapters in the book examine the various interfaces between politics and administration that GOL had to accommodate and manage. As world-class consultant Paul Strassmann keeps reminding all managers, computers and networks are just so much plastic, metal and glass unless they are deployed and used to give value-added to the governance process - but too many public officials and public servants appear determined to resist this trend by what ever means available! As Kernaghan says, there really is no excuse for this reticence except the hope of somehow reversing the process.
Comparison With Other Countries
Thompson reviews two case studies from the United States that show the dilemmas of applying Systems Analysis to politics and public policy. The Republicans won the second Presidential election for Bush by using the very best of Knowledge Management techniques to get their vote out. They were agile and flexible. By contrast, the Democrats used "industrial organization" techniques, and couldn't keep up with the day-to-day changes in campaign needs. The other case study is Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's initiative to integrate a high-tech approach to warfare, much as MacNamara had done a generation earlier. The problem with Rumsfeld's approach is that it hasn't brought either peace or victory in Iraq, and a new Democrat-dominated Congress is on a collision course with both the warfare technology and the entire war policy.
The chapter by Perri 6 on England concludes that despite the reputed "professionalism" of the public service, there is little enthusiasm and even less implementation for effective e-Governance or Knowledge Management of the kind in either Canada or the United States. There are website by parties and governments, but they are devoted primarily to disseminating information. There is also considerable "back office" informatics infrastructure, but the purpose of almost all of this is social control of the English public, either in the positive sense (encouraging people to do the right thing), or negative (discouraging people from doing the wrong thing). Most of the public in England has not bought into the proposition that the Internet provides very much of value to them.
The chapter on Knowledge Management (KM) in Canadian Government by Bontis is indicative of the lessons learned in both England and the United States. The American influence pushes Canada toward high-tech systems in both the military and government in general. The is an attitude of technophoria, and it has its supporters in all Canadian governments. The British influence anchors Canada in traditional hierarchy, with the attitude of preserving priviledge. The result of this admixture is a focus on technical solutions rather than an emphasis on service delivery or public engagement. One person who knows this only too well is Niall Sinclair, whose book STEALTH KM recounts his experiences in trying to introduce a serious commitment to Knowledge Management in the federal department of Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC). Despite all the rhetoric of his superiors at the time, Sinclair reports that authentic change never saw the light of day. The pragmatic strategy that Sinclair claims will actually work is neither over-commitment to technology nor resistance to change, but rather stealth implementation of KM, wherever and whenever an opportunity arises, whereupon Integrated Service Delivery will subsequently give a "whole government approach" as the public demands continuous service improvements. Most of what interviewees told Bontis is premised on political correctness, but it doesn't bear much relationship to actual performance. An example will suffice: the knowledge accumulated and the lessons learned from the GOL office were boxed and shelved rather than made accessible for on-going reference - apparently one of the most persistent practices in Canadian government is to "re-invent the wheel" with each new program and/or administration that comes along.
This is a valuable book for the overview it takes and the history it relates. However, the assessment of GOL is quite timid - the project's vision was blinkered, the planning was shortsighted, and and implementation was mediocre, but we don't learn very much about any of that from this book.