Op-ed: Government consultation more imagined than real

July 26, 2010

by Marita Moll

For some time, Canadians from all sectors have been concerned about the lack of a national digital strategy. Numerous international studies have shown that our digital infrastructure and policy environment is lagging behind that of other developed nations. This stalls our economy and negatively affects productivity. Finally, on May 10, Canadians were invited to participate in a six week online consultation. Through a special website, participants could post ideas and position papers and/or vote for ideas they supported – creating a bit of competitive energy among a somewhat limited audience already comfortable with this kind of process.

The participation window has just closed on Industry Canada’s “Consultation on the Digital Economy.” In the end, more than 2000 people registered on the site including organizations, associations, industries, small businesses and private citizens. Challenging the preemption of group discussion on such an important national issue, some researchers and educators even held their own face to face meeting and submitted a consensus report mirroring the process they believed should have been followed in the first place. All activity was and still is visible on the website. It was an interesting exercise and probably will provide some grist for the policy mill but, as one observer wryly noted, “this is hardly representative”.

The website does refer to other events like the June 2009 Forum on the Digital Economy, a one-day conference which consisted mostly of opinions offered by invited speakers, and continuing discussions with large stakeholders, all of which are to be considered in the eventual strategy. It would be nice to know how these processes fit together and how that input is being evaluated. There is no chair or named group of experts directing the process. There are no deadlines, no planned interim reports, no details about further activities. For a major national issue, the whole exercise has an unfortunate ad-hoc feeling to it.

Yet a properly conceived consultation process that is given time and resources to do its work can, indeed, provide long-term directions for a rapidly changing policy landscape. One such consultation occurred in 1970 when the then Department of Communications put together a “telecommission” to study changes in communications. The process included a series of seminars that went beyond the obvious questions of “how?” and “how much?” that usually dominate discussions on technology change. Consideration was given to the social impacts of changes in communications and the more complex “why?” and “what for?” issues were addressed. The landmark final report, Instant World grew out of 40 individual studies produced during the process. Far ahead of its time, this report predicted the impending convergence of computers and telecommunications.

An online event may form part of the public process, but is clearly no substitute for an extensive consultation which needs to reflect the concerns of all Canadians – even those of people who are not yet living online. However, judging by Industry Canada’s next foray into public consultation, government –citizen communication is becoming more and more illusive.

On June 11, Industry Minister Tony Clement announced the launch of a public consultation on foreign investment restrictions in the telecommunications sector. The consultation paper “Opening Canada's Doors to Foreign Investment in Telecommunications: Options for Reform” frames the issue squarely in terms of competition. The associated website instructs interested parties to e-mail submissions to the department by July 30. Submissions will not be publicly posted until the end of the process. In other words, there are no planned public discussions, no matter how truncated, on this topic. Why such a closed door process was set up when a perfectly good online consultation model was available at the same time and in the same department is a mystery.

Whatever the proposed advantages of opening the telecom sector to more foreign ownership, there are issues beyond competition at play. The area of national security needs to be addressed. Large Internet Service Providers have, by virtue of their unique capacity to filter malicious content, become a first line of defense in the event of a cyber attack on essential infrastructure. Even ISPs are concerned about this unofficial national security gatekeeper role. Should there not be some discussion about the compromise inherent in placing companies owned and controlled in a foreign jurisdiction in such a strategic role? Canadians must at least be given an opportunity to openly discuss this kind of compromise. Such decisions, once taken, are unlikely to be undone.

The appropriation of the word “consultation” by the federal government to mean little more than “we’ll take your e-mail” ought to be on our radar somewhere.