A national organization of senior elected and public service officials Thursday announced a six-month e-democracy pilot project to look at how Web-based technologies can help legislators better serve their constituents and facilitate new ways for citizens to interact with government.
The Crossing Boundaries National Council (CBNC), a non-profit national forum comprised of 45 representatives from municipal, provincial and federal levels of government and the aboriginal community, was created about three years ago out of a project called Crossing Boundaries to examine how information and communication technology (ICT) is changing government, democracy and the economy.
The project, which runs from January to June 2005, was spurred by a report released last April from a working group of CBNC called the Democratic Renewal Working Group. ICT was identified as one of the ways to address democratic renewal through tools for consultation, dialogue and deliberation and voting. Moreover, a separate 2003 survey of 300 MPs by Crossing Boundaries found that while many MPs are using ICT in their day-to-day business, they are not using it to their full potential.
“The surprising and disconcerting thing about (the survey) at the time was how few actually were using Web sites and even how many didn’t have Web sites,” said Don Lenihan, the Council’s chief executive officer. “I’m not surprised to find out that not a lot of them weren’t using them personally but even in terms of their staff that there wasn’t a lot of use of it.”
For the project, the working group is collaborating with the Council’s Private Sector Committee, which is supporting the pilot and is comprised of six technology companies. These include Bell Canada, Microsoft Canada and CGI, which are working together to provide technology tools and training to four elected officials, starting with Doreen Hamilton member of legislative assembly (MLA) Regina Wascana Plains, Saskatchewan and Jody Carr, MLA Ormocto Gagetown, New Brunswick. The other two have yet to be selected for the project. Financial details of the project were not available at press time.
The findings of the report will be presented at the Council’s mid-2005 meeting based on the Private Sector Committee’s interviews with the politicians, their staff and some constituents who have used the tools to determine if they’ve been effective.
Carr said the Council studied the top 12 politician Web sites in the country and found that while many of the sites were using various components of ICT, none of the sites were using all of the components together.
“This pilot is providing that comprehensive approach using a variety of tools to better serve our constituents,” said Carr, who has been a Crossing Boundaries member for over one year.
Tools include an interactive Web site, which is being hosted by Bell partner Charon Systems, with an e-consultation component, scheduling tool and case management tool based on aMicrosoft SharePoint.
CGI, which is the project manager, is basing the platform for the online dialogue on an e-consultation tool developed by its partner Ascentum.
“We came about this from the prospective of democratic renewal,” said Michael Gennis, director of innovation at CGI. “These technologies are not new but it”s interesting to note how few MPs or MLAs don’t have an effective Web presence.
“It’s less about the Web site but more about how the Web site is actually laid out. It”s done from the perspective of engaging citizens.”
Mark Seaman, national director of public affairs at Microsoft Canada, which has been involved with Crossing Boundaries since the Council’s inception, said the project was a logical fit for Microsoft given its technological experience and relationship with Bell and CGI as partners.
“The investment for us to be putting into this in terms of dollars, software and people, it’s a great project,” said Seaman. “It involves the three levels of government and it’s about using technologies to improve the efficiencies of government.”
The bilingual Web site includes the MLA’s biography, a section for posting community events, a section for citizens to e-mail their elected official about questions or concerns, a monthly e-newsletter and an e-consultation section. The latter will be used to host online discussions amongst citizens on a variety of topics in a town hall-type format. The first one will be begin in a couple of weeks and the topic will be ways to help stop the decline in voter turnout “ an issue that Carr hopes technology will help increase voter turnout amongst young people.
“Rather than having the traditional public meetings, we will now use this forum to hopefully make it easier for some people to participate,” said Carr. He added he will also be holding a regular weekly online dialogue like a chat room where citizens can participate.
Carr said the case management tool will help him better serve his constituents in that he can immediately check the status of their issue and report back to them more quickly and easily from his wireless laptop in the New Brunswick legislature, which was recently equipped with wireless connectivity.
“This will enhance access for constituents and give constituents another option,” said Carr, adding that he will still continue newsletters that go directly to the houses and public meetings. “Now the difference is I will also be offering that online so people can do it directly from their house so we can have a dialogue on any issue that they want to discuss and we can do it interactively.”
However Lenihan said the Council has got to be realistic about its expectations for this technology in the short term.
“All the people getting online faster and faster and more and more of them there’s still a long way to go before people will feel very comfortable or naturally about going to a politician’s Web site to connect with other people on a discussion or to look to see if a politician is leading one,” he said.