Guest Commentary

Reg Alcock, In Memoriam

The Internet

(Editor’s note: In 2003, then-Liberal Treasury Board President Reg Alcock was mandated to wire the Government of Canada to the internet. Cabinet promised “a new millennium” of electronic accountability. Alcock died of a heart attack in 2011, at 63. In his last interview, with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan on April 19, 2011, the former Winnipeg MP explained what went wrong).

We’re going through probably the most massive change in society that humankind has ever experienced, on one level. Digital information is leaky; you can’t box it in. Instead of embracing that, the Government of Canada fought it. It’s a human reaction to want to be in control.

The internet is a democratizing force. This is a power that actually increases the worth of individuals. I still think in the end it will produce a more democratic country. We’re not there yet.

The reaction of government was slow, awkward. They have not moved anywhere near the degree they have to. I often met with the Prime Minister; I’d say, ‘There’s a trend here that’s really important; it’s going to change the way we run things.’ There was no response. People’s eyes used to glaze over when I talked about it.

Information technology changes the balance of power. It changed the balance of power in society, and it changed the power balance in Ottawa – and Ottawa is all about power. So, it’s very threatening. What you can’t change, you desperately try to control. Eventually of course it gets ripped out of your fingers.

Of course the technology is inevitable. But it’s the reaction of people who are comfortable with the way things are that disturbs it. Cabinet sent out a news release that we’d have all government services online, in a single portal, within five years. I said, it’ll never happen, they’ll have to re-engineer too much. The next day a newspaper story said, ‘Prime Minister Makes Announcement; Alcock Says It’ll Never Happen’. It kind of redefined my career for a while.

Government still has not figured out a way to share meaningful information in a way that gets you a better informed populace. It’s not about telling people what to do; it means, ‘Here’s the information – you come to your own conclusions.’ Government isn’t good at that.

I think electronic referenda and internet democracy are inevitable. It will fundamentally change how we govern ourselves. It’ll come. It’ll jar government for a while. Of course people will try to control the information. Instead of embracing citizen involvement, they’ll try to manage it. And I think that’s a mistake.

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