Canada embarks on major Web 2.0 initiative

The Federal government’s decision to create a comprehensive system for future online collaboration and social networking projects is growing proof that Canada acknowledges the explosive potential of Web 2.0, industry experts say.

“This definitely signals a long term commitment on the part of the government to move forward on Web 2.0,” according to Michelle Warren, analyst for Info-Tech Research Group based in London, Ont.

She said governments are usually cautious in adopting new technology, and Canada hasn’t been an exception.

The term Web 2.0 is used to refer to online collaboration and user-generated content and the tools that enable these – such as blogs and wikis. Government 2.0 refers to the application of these tools by government agencies.

Warren said the Canadian government has held back in implementing Web 2.0 tools mainly because of security and privacy concerns.

“Ontario even famously pulled back on allowing Facebook in government offices because it has the potential of distracting employee,” the analyst said.

An indication that there may be a change of heart and strategy came recently when the Feds called on Open Text Corp. to provide technology for future Web 2.0 initiatives in government.

Waterloo, Ont.-based Open Text develops enterprise content management (ECM) and project collaboration software.

Late last year the company announced integration of Web 2.0 capabilities into its product offerings, notably its RedDot Web content management suite.

Although many Canadian provinces and jurisdictions already employ a variety of Web 2.0 tools to reach out to the public as well as enable online collaboration for staff, a more encompassing system has yet to be developed.

There’s speculation the deal with Open Text could change all this.

The contract with Federal government requires Open Text to deliver a variety of data storage and management software products that will form the foundation of the country’s “government 2.0 strategy”.

Open Text did not reveal the dollar amount involved in seven-year contract.

It said the project involves systems that can provide social networking capabilities for a maximum of 250,000, and will cover 58 government departments across the country.

Open Text’s original ECM contract work with the government began in 1997, according to Dan Larocque, executive director, Canadian public sector, for Open Text.

The new contract announced yesterday will involve rollout of software products based on the company’s eDocs technology.

Although Larocque would not talk about the government’s specific plans, he said the software products can be used for wikis, blogs, online conferencing and other social networking and collaborative services.

A senior Ontario government official, however, believes that the genie could be out of the bottle.

“There’s a general sense that if we don’t move in this direction the public will force us there anyway,” said Karl Cunningham, head of Ontario’s e-Government Branch.

The province is already using a variety of Web 2.0 tools. Facebook may be out, but the Premier’s blog is definitely in.

Tagging is used in many youth-oriented sites. Provincial researchers and policy development workers collaborate via wikis and RSS is used to update and share information on Web sites used by provincial employees and partner organizations.

The Ontario Ministry of Agricultural Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) has a podcast that that has become very popular with the province’s farming community, said Cunningham.

And in case you missed it, he said, Premier Dalton McGuinty keeps a video blog and posts it regularly on YouTube.

“We live in an era where billions of people are connected and are actively participating in innovation, wealth creation and social development in ways we once only dreamed of. And the speed at which this is happening is staggering,” noted Cunningham

He said if the Ontario government is slow in adopting these technologies, it is because privacy and security issues weigh heavily on its agenda.

Before deploying new services, the government also needs to determine if it will indeed serve a need or would be relevant to target audience.

“We’re in a phase where we are researching, identifying risks and opportunities, trying new technology and observing how other organizations use Web 2.0.”

A recently released government study on new technologies and public communication concludes Web 2.0 apps could be a way authorities could stay in tune with citizens.

When asked how government agencies should use Web 2.0 apps, more than 78 per cent of the respondents answered “to communicate with young Canadians.”

Seventy-six per cent believed the technology should be used to provide fast and up-to-date information on programs and services; 66 per cent of respondents indicated the need to reach rural areas and remote groups; 65 per cent cited efficient delivery of programs and services and; 62 per cent specified getting feedback from the public.

Other suggestions from respondents were:

  • Web sites where government experts can answer questions – more than 72 per cent
  • A Web site where Canadians present their views to the government – 59 per cent
  • Online audio tours of natural and historical sites – 50 per cent
  • Web casts of programs and service – 49 per cent
  • Blogs written by government experts – 42 per cent

When asked about their top concerns regarding government use of Web 2.0 applications only 14 per cent cited privacy and security; 14 per cent mentioned content reliability; six per cent said hackers and; three per cent cited cost.

A recent report by financial advisory firm Deloitte and Touche LLP pinpoints four key areas where governments can achieve some critical Web 2.0 payback.

Improved policy outcomes

“Communities and individual citizens alike are mobilizing like never before, challenging their elected officials to be more transparent and responsive to their policy demands,” according to Paul Macmillan, Public Sector Industry leader , Deloitte Canada and one of the report’s authors.

Online collaboration tools can help the government become more inclusive and responsive to individual citizens in the process of developing policy, he said.

For example, New Zealand legislators use collaborative online tools to evolve public policy.

The country’s national police set up a wiki to solicit public input on the New Zealand Police Act before it was sent to parliament. The tool helped allowed citizens “to help edit” a piece of pending legislation.

Wikis, blogs and other Internet-based collaboration tools can also be used to communicate information during emergency situations such as the SARS outbreak.

Online conferencing and broadcasting technologies can be exploited for hosted online discussions on issues such as: climate change policies, federal and provincial budgets, or upcoming elections.

More effective use of government information

Public sector organizations collect, store and manage huge amount of data covering areas such as: health records, crime statistics, education and the economy. Unfortunately this information is stored in numerous separate systems.

Emerging Web 2.0 technologies allow government data to be “mashed up” by independent parties.

By combining disparate sources of information into consolidated applications, users can have easier access to data and have it delivered to them in the context that is relevant to their need.

The Ministry of Transportation in British Columbia, for example combined Map Quest data with real-time traffic data to provide timely advisories to motorists.

By providing third parties access to some structured and unstructured data, governments can enable these organizations to create information services that the authorities themselves do not provide.

Streamline internal operations

Information silos that consume massive amounts of resources often restrict information flow.

Sharing information within and across various agencies can drive higher quality and more timely outcomes.

For example, Intellipedia, a wiki developed by the U.S. intelligence community, permits employees across a number of security agencies to engage in open discussions on topics concerning them.

In April last year, the North Star Implementation Task Group, a team of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) employees, developed an action plan for knowledge management which includes the examination of Web 2.0 technologies to enable online collaboration in government.

Their work has resulted in the creation of the NRCan Resource Wiki.

Annual government budget processes typically consume substantial resources and time before anything could be implemented. Online collaboration between budget officers and program managers can cut much of the work, according to Macmillan.

Policy analysts could also use wikis to develop and update policy briefing notes and ensure input comes from a wider group of people.

Attracting top talent

Governments around the world are challenged to obtain and retain top quality employees.

Today’s high school and university students will become tomorrow’s leaders, and the best way to reach out to these talented individuals is through the Internet-based technology they use, said the Deloitte report.

It urges governments to establish environments that challenge and engage the so-called Generation Y.

The report also suggests that governments look at and emulate innovative recruitment programs in companies such Google.

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