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No lather over virtual soapboxes

Globe and Mail Update

POSTED AT 1:30 PM EDT  Wednesday, Jun 30, 2004

I've refrained from writing much about the role of the Internet in this week's Canadian federal election because it would have been almost the same as all the stories I'd written on previous elections: which is to say that our politicians haven't really learned to use the new technology.

Sure, some candidates had handsome websites and some parties had elaborate presentations with slick designs and good use of Flash. But that was part of the problem.

Whatever was good about the best websites represented nothing more than improved use of the World Wide Web as it was imagined circa 1998. There was very little interactivity, very little actual campaigning.

Hillwatch, a technology-oriented Ottawa lobby group, released a report judging the effectiveness of the candidates' and parties' site.

It roasted just about all of them.

While websites in the United States are used as "core strategic assets," Hillwatch said, Canadian sites "resemble electronic lawn signs — they inform but don't engage."

U.S. Senator Howard Dean's run for the nomination of the Democratic National Party in the spring was eventually judged a serious one only because he had a technologically savvy bunch of campaigners behind him. These people — most of them young, Internet-generation supporters — were organizing, mobilizing, raising funds, sharing campaign tools, running outreach programs and comparing notes using the medium. If it hadn't been for them, Mr. Dean's unlikely candidacy would not have developed an impressive war chest and he would be all but forgotten today; he went as far as he did almost exclusively by using new technology.

Mr. Dean's run at the presidential nomination failed in many ways, but succeeded brilliantly in one: He blazed a trail in using the medium effectively. It was the same lesson learned 44 years ago, when John F. Kennedy won the 1960 squeaker over Richard Nixon because he knew how to use a technology new to that time: Television.

This is odd, because all other indicators suggest Canadian politicians should be great users of the Internet. We are, after all, one of the most wired countries on earth, with fabulous broadband penetration, and we've committed ourselves (more or less) to wiring the entire country with high-speed access.

Even more interestingly, Canada has ranked first for four straight years in a survey of e-government conducted by the U.S. high-tech consultancy Accenture. The study rates the quality of service that governments in 22 countries offer their citizens.

Canada placed first in all categories of e-government "maturity," which Accenture calls service breadth, service depth and customer relationship management. "Canada's e-government program continues to set the standard for the rest of the world," concluded the study, called E-Government Leadership: High Performance, Maximum Value.

While most Net users around the world visit government websites purely to gather information, Accenture said, Canada's success is the result of its aggressive search for user interaction.

The Conference Board of Canada also gave high marks for Canadian e-government in a report released in the spring called Cashing in on Canadian Connectedness: The Move to Demonstrating Value.

In January, comScore Media Metrix Canada, an on-line marketing firm, released "clear evidence that our government is getting closer to its constituents" by using on-line services. "The Canadian government is definitely on the right path, and understands that the Internet is an important tool for reaching its constituents," comScore Media Metrix Canada president Brent Lowe-Bernie said.

So what are we to make of all this?

It must be the bureaucracy, not the politicians, who should get the credit for our e-government successes. Compare what the government departments do with what the politicians do, and it's no contest. Bureaucrats win every time.

It can be argued that in Canada, elections are held with little advance notice, meaning candidates have to scramble to get something on the Web, and then try to get results in the scant six weeks of the campaign. Americans, at least, have the luxury of knowing the exact date of their next election years in advance, and have ample time to prepare.

There's something valid in this argument, but it's based on a terrible assumption: that politicians, elected or just hopeful, aren't interested in talking to their constituents except during election campaigns.

I'd wager that any still-unelected politician who set up an aggressive and intelligent website today, in advance of the next federal election (almost inevitable within the next two years), will have a great head start on the competition.

It doesn't take much money. Just imagination and time.

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