Government tech innovation slows

If SMEs are to be given a fighting chance government needs to stay in tech.Govt_Tech_cover%3D216X235.jpg

By James Bowen
From SCAN's Print Edition

In 1992, GTEC was formed to recognize technology innovation in government. It also provided a forum to take a “skunkworks” project into the arena of standardization consistent with technology architectural frameworks. Over the last 15 years, technology adoption in government has changed, moving away from innovative technology to mature technology. Hicham Adra, senior VP of systems integration at IT consulting firm CGI, notes that the federal government has been under pressure to change its technology requirements for years, beginning with a move to do more with less back in the ’80s. Today, many pressures arise from an aging civil service and a population in need of user-friendly tech applications that provide security and privacy while being approachable. Also, as more and more people gather increasing amounts of information from the Internet, there are higher expectations of technology in government from an increasingly tech-literate society. These pressures have brought about more standards, better data quality and the ability to integrate diverse data sets. They’ve has also created more channels between citizens and government, and more streamlining of software applications and simpler interfaces.

Such changes aren’t entirely new. In1989, the Government of New Brunswick launched Canada’s first “one-stop shop” for online access to government services using component-based architecture, a technology that supports single window to multi-level E-government services. Today, the program provides some 120 different electronic services on behalf of 11 government departments and conducts about 13 million transactions annually.

Looking forward, Mr. Adra sees potential for three main paths for technology in government. He points to banks, which use data to anticipate customer needs, and suggests that governments could use a similar approach to anticipate the requirements of citizens. He also suggests that the public sector could adapt business software to handle routine affairs, allowing government to focus on larger issues. Furthermore, external web services could be added to the toolset of government, allowing third-party, web-based tools to fluidly provide applications that change over time, as needed.

Andrew Moffat sits on the board of OCRI, CATAlliance, the Ottawa Software Cluster, and is a charter member of TiE-Ottawa. He recalls the profound effect that GTEC had in its first decade, when awards led to project funding and the promotion of government personnel, and subsequently influenced the direction of technology adoption in the federal government.

Committed to promoting private sector technology to government as much as it is to showcasing the best uses of tech in government, GTEC began when industry “recognized that many of these innovative contributions would not be acknowledged or appreciated unless it could do something to make Canadians aware of how proud they should be of the work being done on their behalf,” says Moffat.

The federal government’s now defunct Unsolicited Proposals (USP) program, like GTEC, also spurred the adoption of innovative technology by allowing small companies to approach government with Canadian-made innovations. The UP program was used to shape technology along lines that government R&D personnel thought would meet the needs of government in the future. Mr. Moffat notes that small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) are now finding it increasingly difficult for Canadian innovative technology because new, innovative technology is more costly than mature tech and lacks the corporate backing ─ service, support, potential for upgrades ─ found with established technology.

The end of USPs meant a decline in direct dealings with small technology companies. But one result of the migration to more mature tech is a drop in the government’s innovative technology quotient.

Jacques Lyrette, former president of the Communications Research Centre and ex-VP at the National Research Council also sees this general decline in innovative technology in the government and a further erosion of the role of government as a driver of innovation through R&D or procurement activities. Mr. Lyrette asserts that a key role of government is to be the first-user of, and a showcase for, innovative technology produced by Canadian companies.

In the early ’90s, the federal government’s R&D programs looked at future trends, anticipated its technology needs and worked with industry to ensure that those needs would be met in a timely fashion. But this changed in the mid-’90s when the move towards commercialization of government research and the need for government labs to generate income drove the feds to take a shorter term view of technology.

The government needs to fund longer term R&D in order to develop technology that universities and/or industry are not interested in pursuing, says Mr. Lyrette. But it must also provide direction, he asserts, by encouraging R&D collaboration between universities, small business and government labs, while also making it as clear as possible what its future technology needs might be. He is concerned by the fact that the technology transfer requirements of smaller companies are not well understood within the government. SMEs have neither the money, the staff nor the time to deal with the current tech transfer procedures used by university or government labs, notes Mr. Lyrette. He adds that government must fund R&D not based on a fiscal year but with a commitment to several years. If SMEs are to be given a fighting chance, “government needs to stay in tech,” he asserts.

Such a commitment should include participation in European and American technology projects. The European Framework program, has spent €17.5 billion developing SME technology in almost every conceivable field, including biotechnology, IT, nanotechnology, aeronautics and food safety. This is just one model of a publicly-funded program under which Canadian companies could develop valuable technology at a reasonable cost and, at the same time, get a foot in the door of international markets.

Government could also take on the role of providing computing infrastructure SMEs need to develop solutions. From life sciences to aerospace to communications, technology is expensive to develop, and the computing power required could be part of an “infrastructure program” provided to Canadian companies for nominal or zero cost.

Mr. Lyrette suggests that some of the issues facing SMEs could be partly solved by fine-tuning the Industrial Regional Benefits (IRB) program. Currently, the program rewards foreign companies with an IRB credit of $5 for each $1 spent on R@D carried out by Canadian universities. Given to an SME, however, the same project would see the contractor receive only $1 for each dollar invested. If the playing field were leveled – if projects given to universities and SMEs both delivered the same amount of IRB credits – SMEs would benefit tremendously.

Another dimension of the issue is that technology is not an end in itself. What is done with it and how processes and businesses adapt to it are just as important. If we separate within the concept of tech innovation the actual technology from the vision and processes being implemented through technology, we have another perspective on the issue. Kevin d'Entremont, executive director of GTEC Week, recalls the early days when putting websites in place was the big issue. This really meant focusing on technology and adoption was simple with a limited impact beyond a single cell or silo in the government. Later it was about actually doing something, such as a transaction. But now governments have realized that their visions and processes can be modified by technology. They are experimenting with bigger and more complex tech-supported goals using enterprise wide concepts. This means that implementation is more complex involving cross jurisdictions, identity management, and ubiquitous services. Mr. d’Entremont agrees that the government has moved from innovative technology to more mature technology. He also finds that project management is more complex with more stakeholders having influence, more debate, and more critics.

Mike Appleton, managing director of DAMA Consulting Services, says that to fully use the technology it already has the government needs to focus on getting its processes in order. One instance he cites is procurement. Abundant are stories of procurement processes pushing up technology project costs, occasionally even to the point where the projects have collapsed. Like Mr. Lyrette, Mr. Appleton believes that government needs to support Canadian technology by serving as a test bed, providing reliable data on the value of new technology, particularly in such areas as security, privacy and simulation for training.

While the immediate focus might be sorting out the processes by which government does business and funding of technology by the public sector isn’t what it once was, there is little point in waiting for government to get its act together. Time would be better spent thinking ahead. Anticipating the needs of governments for the technologies of the future should begin now.

James Bowen PhD, PMP, CMC is an Ottawa technology entrepreneur and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Management.

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