Opening the E-Government File:
Governing In the 21st Century

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Notes for an Address by
Mel Cappe
Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet

to the
Crossing Boundaries National Conference
Ottawa, Ontario
March 30, 2001

Check Against Delivery


  • Good afternoon, it is a pleasure to be here today.
  • Let me start by offering some thanks. I want to thank Reg Alcock, Don Lenihan and Jean-Guy Fynn for organizing this conference and making it work. It strikes me that the organizers and the team behind them have done an excellent job.
  • This is an important conference because of the subject matter. However, I'm afraid to say, it's also the wrong audience. Don't take it personally though, it's a compliment.
  • After all, most of you are in this room because you understand the profound importance of technology and the transformation of government that is taking place because of technology.
  • You have a sense of what E-Government means and its potential benefits for Canada and Canadians. You're also deeply aware of the issues we have to navigate on the way to E-Government - issues like privacy and security, where the margin of error is very narrow. Any transformation as significant as this is going to be challenging, and we need to be able to face those challenges and solve those problems.
  • The real audience that we need to reach is out there among the people, both inside and outside government, who don't understand the potential of E-Government.
  • If anything, we need some guru - and I'm not it - to reach out to all Canadians and explain why E-Government is important to them.
  • Of course, key ministers and senior officials in the Government of Canada are already doing a lot to make these points. Minister Martin and Minister Robillard have done that at this conference.
  • As for me, I've been asked to focus on government structures and how they should change to meet the demands of E-Government.
  • My starting point is the question in the "Crossing Boundaries" paper, Is the departmental model a relic of the past? Well, I'm not going to confine myself to the narrowness of that question. I'd rather discuss E-Government more broadly.
  • As you sift through the paper that Reg Alcock and Don Lenihan have prepared, you'll see that the paper answers the question, Is the department a relic of the past?, with a firm, Yes!
  • But I disagree. It is a false dichotomy to say that you either have departments or networks. It is not a choice - we need both. The claim that we have watertight departmental boxes doesn't mesh with reality, and it hasn't for years.
  • I notice that in Paul Desjardins' description about living in one city; reporting to someone living in another, who in turn reported to someone elsewhere; and dealing with people all across the company; he still referred to working for a company. He still had a title. He still had a responsibility, and he still, in some ways, lived in a silo.
  • That didn't mean he was confined to it, but it meant he lived with it. And he worked to transform himself to get beyond it. And that's what I think we need to do in facing this challenge of living with a departmental model, for which there are many good reasons, and yet networking and using the network to get out and change the way we function. It's the way we function that is so important.
  • So, I believe that the departmental model can accommodate the changes we need to realize the potential of E-Government. In fact, it already is.
  • But the departmental model is not sufficient. We need to challenge the status quo and look at ways to bring network functionality into the departmental model.
  • So, I want to make three major points today.
  • First, the real challenge of E-Government is that we just don't know what is possible. We don't know where this transformation is leading. But we need to plan for this dramatic change. Afterall, the reason we plan is because we know we're going to end up somewhere else.
  • It also means we need flexible structures that can enable adaptation, no matter what direction E-Government takes us.
  • Second, the departmental model has that adaptive capacity. It meets our need to respect key governance principles such as clear accountability to Parliament and Canadians. And it has accommodated major growth in horizontal and collaborative action.
  • Third, E-Government is less about structures than it is about people. And if I have to emphasize one message, it is the profound significance and importance of people - the way we prepare them, the way we hire them, the way we train them, the way we as managers are trained and train ourselves, and the way we lead.
  • In fact, my core message today is that our success in realizing the potential of E-Government will depend far more on enabling the creativity of our people than on our organizational structures or even technologies.
  • For me, the "E" in E-Government stands for E-nabled government, a modern institution that delivers different and better programs and services to Canadians.

Aiming Beyond the Horizon - The Challenge of Defining E-Government

  • To figure out if the departmental model is out of sync with the demands of E-Government, you have to first look at what some of the basic challenges are.
  • When I was deputy minister at the Department of the Environment, Sheila Copps, then Minister, had come up with the idea of the Green Lane on the information highway.
  • This was a challenge to the department to get out ahead of the way. To recognize that what the public wanted from government was more than simply brochures, that there was a demand for putting scientific, technical and other information on-line - for putting helpful, useful information like weather services on-line.
  • And so we experimented, and we got a Webmaster and put many of our services on-line. We created a portal that allowed people from all different parts of the department to interact with their clientele. And this was in the early part of the '90s.
  • The Green Lane has evolved into a trailblazer on how to put government information on-line. It has grown as our understanding of what we can do on-line has evolved.
  • I encountered a different stage of the E-Government evolution at Human Resources Development Canada when we looked at our service delivery policy in 1998 and 1999.
  • By then, we knew that Canadians wanted to get services over the Internet but we also learned not to trust simplistic assumptions.
  • For example, we learned that Canadians of all ages, including a lot of seniors, want those Web services - people like my own mother, who we call E-Grandma because of her use of e-mail.
  • We also learned that electronic options complement other channels of service delivery like phone or in-person. They don't replace them and they don't replace the costs of providing them - at least not if your service delivery is really responsive to citizens' preferences.
  • There are a number of key lessons that I have drawn from those and other experiences.
  • One is that no one can really say they know what E-Government will mean for the future of government in Canada. We cannot predict the transformation that is possible.
  • That means we need to be flexible and focus on the kinds of outcomes that we want to achieve, while being open to adjusting direction quickly to take advantage of new ways of achieving those outcomes.
  • A second lesson is that E-Government for the Government of Canada is much more complex than some people think. For example, when I read about the ability to renew a driver's licence on-line, I see a pretty simple on-line service.
  • We've got to look at how to take that technology and apply it to more complex functions. For example, electronic tax filing or applying for benefit programs on-line are far more complex transactions.
  • In fact, most of our services have high information content attached to them. They are about complex information, not relatively simple services.
  • The challenge is to take the information-complex programs and services and put them on-line in a way that is going to improve public confidence and not undermine it.
  • A third lesson is that experimentation and innovation are important in the evolution to E-Government.
  • Finally, some would say that the government can learn from the private sector. And I accept that. We can learn what to do and what not to do. The private sector has not solved all problems. And as for whether the departmental model is a relic of the past, that question applies to the private sector as well.
  • For example, I have a cell phone account and a home telephone account, and the telephone company can't give me a single bill. The company is working on it. They're trying to do it, and eventually they will. But don't tell me that government is the only one that lives in a silo.
  • Last summer, I moved. I went to my local bank to change my address for my bank account but I could not change my Visa address at the bank, even though they're the ones who gave me the Visa card.
  • While the woman at the bank was very nice, she was limited by the technology. And she was limited by the technology for a reason. Because the technology required accountabilities within the different corporate silos in order to meet corporate objectives, and to have accountability. Just as in government, the departmental model exists to maintain accountability.
  • So we can learn from the private sector about what it does well. And we can learn from the private sector about what not to do.

The Resilience of the Departmental Model

  • Since Government of Canada policies, programs and services are often complex and since no one can really know where E-Government is going, there is a real premium on structures that can function well, despite uncertainty.
  • There are good reasons that the departmental model exists and will probably continue to exist for some time to come in this country.
  • As I have already mentioned, one primary reason is accountability.
  • Canadians expect the Public Service to be clearly accountable to Parliament through ministers. Canadians expect those ministers and the Prime Minister to be accountable to them as citizens. This is a cornerstone of our Westminster parliamentary democracy.
  • But as government becomes better at connecting to citizens, we run the risk of disintermediating members of Parliament. Members of Parliament need to find innovative ways to help bring government to the people and to help bring people to government in order to solve problems.
  • But does this mean we are stuck with an inflexible departmental model? Can we not create networks that get the job done better?
  • The departmental model cannot live in an inflexible and watertight compartment world. We must find ways of doing things in a horizontal and collaborative fashion and work beyond departmental boundaries. We're trying, we're learning, we've still got a long way to go.
  • But departments do collaborate to get the job done for citizens in a lot of ways that go unnoticed. And there's more collaboration all the time.
  • Five years ago, I led a task force on managing horizontal policy issues that looked at ways of getting people collaborating better to ensure that an array of perspectives are included in policy development.
  • We underlined the importance of cultural change and leadership for making interdepartmental co-operation and teamwork standard ways of working, and we underlined the importance of strengthening horizontal policy development capacities.
  • And it's happening. Today, all federal departments, other levels of government and other partners in our society and our economy are working together more than ever.
  • Information and communication technologies have become important in that process.
  • You've already heard about our Government On-Line work. So let me just remind everyone that the redesigned portal, which was launched by the Prime Minister and Grade six students this past January, was the result of a team effort that involved cross-departmental committees and working groups.
  • I also want to point out that we now routinely see collaboration across departmental lines and across governmental lines in policy and program work.
  • Look at the last few Speeches from the Throne. The government is moving on children's issues but it didn't create a children's department. The government is moving on skills without a department of skills. The government has made innovation a focal point for its agenda but didn't start an innovation department.
  • In many of these cases, this means more than collaboration within the Government of Canada.
  • It means collaboration with other levels of governments and the private sector, with the voluntary sector, and with individual Canadians - as part of strengthening a social fabric that we all have an interest in.
  • It also means a new level of accountability.
  • The First Ministers' commitments on early childhood development and health care of last year are good examples of what I mean. Two items made these commitments very much part of the new collaborative approach.
  • One is a commitment to accountability to Canadians using clear and comparable measures of achievement.
  • The other is the agreement to work closely together through intergovernmental vehicles and to work with outside organizations on specific issues.
  • Having said all that, I don't want to make it seem as though the status quo is adequate. More can still be done.
  • There are still silos that we must work to break down. Technology can help us in this regard. However, security remains a key concern when it comes to using technology to share information.
  • Privacy is also a critical impediment to the wholesale use of horizontal approaches. And the challenge is not just that government agencies are held to an extraordinarily high standard by the public - that's understandable - but that we haven't fully determined how to best meet that standard yet.
  • There is a natural tension between privacy and efficiency. The Privacy Commissioner has just given a speech saying that privacy trumps access. Privacy also trumps efficiency. But at some point there is a trade-off, and at some point you have to say it's more important to be efficient than to have a 100 percent certainty on privacy. And, therefore, linking of databases will be very important.
  • As Minister Robillard explained, we are working to address both privacy and security issues as part of our Government On-Line initiative.
  • Getting a grip on these kinds of issues will position us to move even deeper into more network-like approaches to addressing public policy, program and service delivery questions.
  • There has been a lot of discussion about how technology enables people to work together, regardless of locations or levels, and how it can help us widen the scope of input to citizens, communities, and others to improve policy-making.
  • Mr. Martin spoke about the death of distance. I want to leave you with a thought about "multi-directionality" - where information and ideas move in all directions and an almost infinite number of people are connected to each other instantaneously.
  • I don't want to throw more jargon into this debate, but I do want to say that I think it is critical that we think about using networks to get information out and to break down the barriers of departments, but not to avoid them.
  • In a networked environment, one of the major challenges for government will be to simultaneously manage partnerships and relationships, both internally across government and externally with other levels of government and across sectors.
  • Also, if we find ourselves with fewer hierarchical networks and a lot of individual input in the policy-making mix, then how do we sift for quality and how do we ensure that we involve a wide and balanced cross section of Canadians?
  • Go a step further. How do we ensure that members of Parliament are not disintermediated as the representatives of their constituents? And how do we meet the continuing need for accountability, given the reality of the Westminster parliamentary system?
  • But as important as these issues are, the real key to achieving the promise of E-Government is people. And that brings me to my final point today.

People are Central to Building E-Government

  • I have said in the past that E-Government is about having fonctionnaires sans frontières.
  • By that I mean people who can work effectively across departmental, program or other borders; who see issues in a broader, horizontal context; and who understand that information has value when it is shared and that teamwork and collaboration are key to innovation and productivity.
  • I mean people who can grasp the potential of E-Government and turn that potential into a reality that is consistent with our public sector values.
  • This is why people are at the heart of the Public Service renewal agenda.
  • We are focussing on recruitment, retention and learning, with emphasis on increasing the diversity of the Public Service and attracting bright, motivated young women and men.
  • We want young people to join the Public Service to get valuable experience, and we hope that many of them will want to stay for a career.
  • As Minister Robillard noted, ensuring we have the knowledge workers we need and ensuring that they have the tools, learning and infrastructure to deliver in an electronic world is key.
  • It is also why we are addressing the barriers to rejuvenating the Public Service - especially when it comes to making our people-management systems more flexible and simple. And it is why I am pushing leaders to do all they can within existing frameworks.
  • We are positioning the Government of Canada as a place where people can make a difference on the key issues that affect this country and our world - and here is where the human resources priorities and the E-Government agenda mesh particularly well.
  • Still, reaching the state we need for E-Government is more than just a question of having a more modern approach to human resources issues. It is really about the work of government and how that work takes place.
  • We are committed to building a working climate and working relationships that enable us to be open to lots of new ideas and to new ways of seeing and dealing with the issues.
  • We want to attract, keep and foster the kind of people who can work with the transformation of E-Government in Canada. They will be the ones who help us tap the power of new ideas, new partnerships and new technologies to link people, ideas and options.
  • Obviously, it's not all blue skies.
  • We operate in a world of resource limits. We ask hard questions. We want to hear about how we can get better results and how we can reinforce the values that are our enduring strength.
  • However, the situation is clear. E-Government is about transformation - not to some rigid blueprint but on the basis of wise and innovative choices.
  • In fact, E-Government will be defined by the choices we make and those choices must be based upon our strong foundation of public sector values.
  • E-Government is also about aiming beyond the horizon while paying attention to the basics right in front of us.


  • Let me wrap up.
  • I said in my introduction that our success in realizing the potential of E-Government will depend far more on enabling the creativity of our people than on our organizational structures or even technologies.
  • It's about training our people and giving them the tools and competencies to do their jobs and do them well.
  • So I'll leave you with a few final thoughts.
  • First, the E-Government world is more complex than just automating basic service transactions, as important as that process is. We are aiming for better outcomes in a climate of constant change but with some very real challenges when it comes to issues such as privacy and security.
  • As Reg Alcock, the Member of Parliament for Winnipeg South, has said, "Government has to innovate, not just automate." This truly captures the challenge that we face. The automation part is relatively simple, the innovation part is hard.
  • Second, the departmental model promises to be with us for some time to come because it meets the expectations of Canadians and parliamentarians on needs such as accountability. More than that, it has proven that it has the flexibility to accommodate more horizontal and collaborative approaches to address public policy questions.
  • Third, while there is more to do to move us in the direction of the more networked strategies, we are certain that, by strengthening and modernizing the Public Service, we will do a lot to create the climate we need for innovation.
  • To get where we need and want to go, we will need to value the culture and skills of collaboration that lead to improved results.
  • We will have to do more to encourage collaboration within government and with other sectors of society.
  • We will have to be continually alert to opportunities and encourage innovation.
  • And we will have to focus on people, the people of the Public Service, to get us there.
  • This can only mean better results for Canadians and for Canada, no matter what model is in place to get us there.
  • Thank you.