Technology is doing nothing to bridge the ever-present communications gap between Members of Parliament and Ottawa’s public service, a study suggests.
Moreover, many MPs aren’t seeking out Web-based applications capable of forging valuable links between members’ computers and government
departments, as well as riding offices and Hill offices, according to the study’s author.
The study, entitled How Technology is Changing the Relationship Between Members of Parliament and Public Servants, was commissioned by the Institute of Public Administration in Canada (IPAC) and authored by Jonathan Malloy, an assistant professor of political science at Carleton University.
According to the study, nearly half of the MPs surveyed interacted once a week or less with public servants. That’s less than five per cent of their working time, Malloy points out.
For the time they do interact, MPs rely on low-tech methods, such as phone conversations or personal meetings. Respondents say they rarely send e-mail messages to government employees or make use of other current technologies, Malloy said.
He added that “”MPs’ computer networks are separated from bureaucrats by security firewalls and other barriers, so that they are rarely any better connected than the rest of us.
“”Both groups are working hard to make the best use of the Internet and related tools, with a bewildering array of studies, pilot projects and experiments,”” Malloy said. “”But they’re in separate silos.””
The apparent disconnect between Parliament and public servants could be linked to the high-tech deficit among MPs. An array of electronic resources made available to members through the Library of Parliament, the House of Commons, Parliament and private contractors are not being used by members, Malloy observed.
A number of government IT centres with chief information officers are there to support MPs who require technological solutions, but members “”only vaguely know that these groups are out there,”” he added.
In all fairness, MPs run small offices and have hectic schedules, “”so it’s hard for them to know what’s out there, or even have the time to take advantage of all (the appropriate IT training and online resources) that are available,”” Malloy acknowledged.
It’s also worth noting that some MPs feel Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) such as e-mail and the Internet are “”too cold and impersonal”” when trying to forge relationships with government colleagues, according to one member who responded to the study’s survey.
“”We’re losing the ability to look each other in the eye,”” wrote the respondent, one of 28 backbench MPs who were randomly interviewed on their communication preferences.
An overwhelming number of respondents said they prefer personal meetings or phones when trying to forge and maintain ties with public service colleagues.
Nonetheless, there are implications to having a low-tech approach to conducting other aspects of business. Aside from possibly having MPs that are less resourceful than they could be, these federal politicians also forgo the chance to be more efficient in their jobs, Malloy suggested.
More and more MPs are gradually resorting to online databases. In this case, a constituent who calls in with a request gets entered into an online database. There may be ways to link each database up with corresponding departments so “”the information can be passed around and the MP can act as a technological link (or point-person),”” Malloy said.
“”But right now, MPs have their own separate databases that run from their offices and when they want to get in touch with government they usually just pick up the phone and send a fax. So it’s generally low-tech.””
It would be a different story, however, if all MPs were working on online solutions. It would mean everything would move faster, and MPs would be able to better collaborate with departments, says Malloy.
Alliance MP Ted White, member for North Vancouver, is part of a small group of Parliamentarians who voluntarily seek out online solutions. According to the estimates of Louis Bard, chief information officer of the House of Commons, White is among a dozen MPs who do so.
“”My office system is set up so that I have a central database on a server in (my riding office),”” explains White, who has long been a proponent of using IT on the Hill. “”And there are mirror images of that database on my laptop computer and on my Ottawa computer. Ten times a day, my server updates the laptop and Ottawa database with everything that’s been going on.””
White adds: “”I’m probably one of the only MPs who are so switched on to this idea. But if (others) can do their job using the older approach, I wouldn’t criticize that.””
The study results are similar to another study conducted last year by the Centre for Collaborative Government, which said that 58 per cent of Canadian MPs have their own official Web sites but that only a quarter of them use interactive tools like feedback forms.