Merchant, the director general of e-services for Canadian Heritage, spoke to a group of attendees at this year’s Information Highways e-content conference in Toronto about how the department has been able to develop a strategy that meshes with the broader Government On-Line GOL mandate and the lessons learned along the way.
The strategy for Canadian Heritage has involved the creation of several touchstone Web sites for Canadian citizens as well as the development — despite some resistance — of an e-consultations portal, which is currently in its pilot stage. The portal has been developed to allow Canadians to find and engage in public consultations, and provides information on public consultation activities within federal departments and agencies. Launched in February, Merchant said that the very notion of the portal had various governmental types scared, and has turned the idea into a “”lightning rod that became a catalyst for change.””
Merchant, who formerly worked for the government in the area of soil sciences, came to Canadian Heritage two years ago with a fresh perspective on e-content and GOL. A self-described non-technical person, Merchant knew how to use e-mail and little else when he came to the job, but had a keen interest in understanding how the Internet could be used for the government.
“”I had these images of dollars falling from trees and politicians giving out piles of money to people to work on projects,”” Merchant said. “”Instead, I came into this position from not a technical background and was given hardly any money because Canadian Heritage does not have large, transactional programs like the Canada Customs Revenue Authority or other departments.””
Merchant quickly realized that for Canadian Heritage, the key was not to immediately attempt to build up transaction-heavy sites, but to focus on making it easier for Canadians to interact with the government by engaging them.
“”Before you can get to the transaction stage, you have to engage people and figure out what we want as a country,”” Merchant said. “”We want to link Canadians to their history and bring together diverse voices.””
Merchant’s vision for the department’s online success is three pronged: access, engage and participate. He likened it to the process of attending a play. In the access stage, you find out what time the play starts and where it is. In the engagement stage, you attend the play, and in the final stage you could actually become a part of the action and participate in what’s going on.
“”We want to focus on a relationship with citizens by connecting and interacting with them — we are not simply in the informatics