Tag Archives: british columbia

Canadian Governments: How to waste millions online ($30M and counting)

Back from DC and Toronto I’m feeling recharged and reinvigorated. The Gov 2.0 expo was fantastic, it was great to meet colleagues from around the world in person. The FCM AGM was equally exciting with a great turnout for our session on Government 2.0 and lots of engagement from the attendees.

So, now that I’m in a good mood, it’s only natural that I’m suddenly burning up about some awesomely poor decisions being made at the provincial level and that may also may be in the process of being made at the federal level.

Last year at the BC Chapter of the Municipal Information Systems Association conference I stumbled, by chance, into a session run by the British Columbia government about a single login system it was creating for government website. So I get that this sounds mundane but check this out: it would means that if you live in BC you’ll have a single login name and password when accessing any provincial government service. Convenient! Better still, the government was telling the municipalities that this system (still in development) could work for their websites too. So only one user name and password to access any government service in BC! It all sounds like $30 million (the number I think they quoted) well spent.

So what could be wrong with this…?

How about the fact that such a system already exists. For free.

Yes, OpenID, is a system that has been created to do just this. It’s free and licensed for use by anyone. Better still, it’s been adopted by a number of small institutions such as Google, Yahoo, AOL, PayPal, and Verisign and… none other than the US government which recently began a pilot adoption of it.

So let me ask you: Do you think the login system designed by the BC government is going to be more, or less secure that that an open source system that enjoys the support of Google, Yahoo, AOL, PayPal, Verisign and the US Government? Moreover, do we think that the security concerns these organizations have regarding their clients and citizens are less strict than those of the BC government?

I suspect not.

But that isn’t going to prevent us from sinking millions into a system that will be less secure and will costs millions more to sustain over the coming decades (since we’ll be the only ones using it… we’ll have to have uniquely trained people to sustain it!).

Of course, it gets worse. While the BC government is designing its own system, rumour has it that the Federal Government is looking into replacing Epass; it’s own aging website login system which, by the by, does not work with Firefox, a web browser used by only a quarter of all Canadians. Of course, I’m willing to bet almost anything that no one is even contemplating using OpenID. Instead, we will sink 10’s of millions of dollars (if not more…) into a system. Of course, what’s $100 million of taxpayer dollars…

Oh, and today’s my birthday! And despite the tone of this post I’m actually in a really good mood and have had a great time with friends, family and loved ones. And where will I be today…? At 30,000 ft flying to Ottawa for GovCamp Canada. Isn’t that appropriate? :)

BC Government's blog on renewing the Water Act

On Friday the Government of British Columbia announced that it was beginning the process to renew the province’s water act. This is, in of itself, important and good.

More interesting however, is that the government has chosen to launch a blog to discuss ideas, prospective changes and generally engage the public on water issues.

It is, of course, early days. I’m not one to jump up and proclaim instant success nor pick apart the effort and find its faults after a single post. What I will say is that this type of experimentation in public engagement and policy development is long overdue. It is exciting to see a major government in Canada tentatively begin to explore how online technology and social media might enhance policy development as more (hopefully) than just a communication exercise. Even if it does not radically alter the process – or even if it does not go well – at least this government is experimenting and beginning learn what will work and what won’t. I hope and suspect other jurisdictions will be watching closely.

If you are such a government-type and are wondering what it is about the site that gives me hope… let me briefly list three things:

  1. Site design: Unlike most government websites which OVERWHELM you with information, menus and links, this one is (relatively) simple.
  2. Social media: A sidebar with recent comments! A tag cloud! RSS feed! Things that most blogs and website have had for years and yet… seem to elude government websites.
  3. An effective platform (bonus points for being open source): This may be the first time I’ve seen an official government website in Canada use wordpress (which, by the by, is free to download). When running a blog wordpress is certainly my choice (quite literally) and has been a godsend. The choice of wordpress also explains a lot of why point #2 is possible.

So… promising start. Now, what would I like to see happen around the government’s blog?

Well, if you want to engage the public why not give them data that you are using internally? It would be great to get recent and historic flow rate data from major rivers in BC. And what about water consumption rates by industry/sector but also perhaps by region and by city and dare we ask… by neighborhood? It would also be interesting to share the assumptions about future growth so that professors, thinktanks and those who care deeply about water issues could challenge and test them. Of course the government could share all this data on its upcoming Apps For Climate Change data portal (more on that soon). If we were really lucky, some web superstar like this guy, would create some cool visualization to help the public understand what is happening to water around the province and what the future holds.

In short, having a blog is a fantastic first start, but lets use it to share information so that citizens can do their own analysis using their own assumptions with the same data sets the government is using. That would certainly elevate the quality of the discussion on the site.

All in all, the potential for a site like this is significant. I hope the water geeks show up in force and are able to engage in a helpful manner.

The Sad State of Vancouver's Entrepreneur of the Year Awards

Last week I noticed Business in BC published its Entrepreneurs of the Year Awards list. The list is filled with deserving and excellent candidates as well as inspiring stories of businesses that are thriving and innovating in a difficult business environment. The recipients are worthy of praise as many embrace values and determination that any city would want to see reflected in its business community.

There is however one thing you won’t find in either the winners, or Runners Ups lists.


That’s right, of the 8 winners and 16 runner ups, which included a total of 29 people, only a single woman made the list (Queenie Chu, and her business partners Kin Wah and Kin Hun Leung of Kin’s Farm Market, were winners of the Business to Consumer Category).

This, quite frankly, is scandalous. According to the Government of British Columbia research on small business and business in BC:

In 2008, 34.3 per cent of all business owners in British Columbia were women. This was on par with the national average of 34.4 per cent and the fourth-highest rate among the provinces. British Columbia trailed New Brunswick (38.3 per cent), Quebec (36.7 per cent), and Ontario (34.5 per cent) in terms of the share of businesses owned by women.

So 34% of all businesses in the province are owned by women, and yet the number of women cracking the Entrepreneur of the Year finalists’ list is… 1 out 29. So roughly, 3% of the finalists if you are being generous (counting by people), 1.3% if you are being accurate and counting by category.

There are a couple of theories that might explain this.

1) There are no excellent women entrepreneurs.

2) There are excellent women entrepreneurs, but they aren’t on the radar of E&Y and BCB.

3) Business culture defines excellence in terms that were created and modeled by men – and so the selection committee and nominators tend to (without malice or intent) favour men.

4) More men than women care about these types of awards, and so they go more out of their way be noticed and nominated

5) Women have less access to capital and inherit fewer businesses so will have a harder time growing businesses that would meet E&Y’s criteria

6) Answers 2-5, plus a myriad of other reasons…

This post is not an effort to take a swipe at BCB or E&Y – although I would encourage a little introspection on their part to assess why their survey (keeps) producing few, if any, women nominees. I’m not looking for parity but it would be a start if 20% of the field were women. Yes, such a number is still far too low, but it would at least come a little closer to reflecting the actual gender breakdown. I’m quite confident that the reason (1) from above is not why they are not making the list. Indeed, the E&Y committee in Ontario was able to hit this low bar for Ontario’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award. 20% (10/50) of its nominees were women.

It would be nice if these awards instigated a greater degree of introspection in the business community at large, for while no one likes to think sexism exists in Canada, we are, sadly, still not at a place of gender parity. In a recent Accenture survey, approximately two-thirds of Canadian male and female executives (67 percent of men and 64 percent of women) believed gender equality in the workplace has improved in the last 10 years. However, one-third (32 percent) of those executives surveyed believed that men and women have equal opportunities in the workplace, and one-third (34 percent) of the female executives believed that their gender limits their career opportunities. While those demonstrate things have improved from where we were a decade or more ago, they are still sobering numbers.

When a Citizen Dialogue is really just a Mob

Two years ago I wrote this piece outlining how Citizen Assemblies violate the conditions Surowiecki outline as necessary to create a wise crowd. My point was to show how there is a fine line between when a dialogue becomes a group monologue, or worse, just a mob. Those who engage in policy discussions need to be aware of where this line lies lest they accidentally confuse consensus and agreement with silent coercion.

I experienced this problem a few months ago while attending an Imagine BC Leaders’ Summit, A Dialogue on Habitat, Health and Livelihoods :10 Big Ideas to Shape a Resilient Future. The day long event included 180+ leaders and interested parties from different sectors and was supposed to cap off discussions that had been going on about the future of British Columbia. But rather than be an open dialogue, the discussion was intensely closed and, to be frank, bordered on fascist.

Things started off innocently enough. The conversation opened up with a number of participants strongly advocating that British Columbia, and the world, needed a zero growth economy. The term was never explained or explored, but it was made clear that continued economic growth was impossible and threatened the plant. I felt concerned that a group of people who could afford to take an entire workday off to talk about the future would suggest that a zero growth economy was necessary (as quickly as possible) especially in a world where over a billion people live under $1 a day. I suspect that the underlying interest in zero-growth had to do with environmental sustainability but nobody used an alternative term such as a sustainable economy, ecologically sensitive economy or carbon neutral economy. No, it had to be zero-growth. Such an outcome is great if you’ve already got wealth, but it necessarily marginalizes those that don’t. The topic however, was less important than the process. A few people (including me) voiced our concern over the zero growth term in a smaller breakout session but never in the plenary discussion. I asked some of the other concerned voices why they didn’t speak up: most had concluded within the first 30 minutes of the day that speaking out on environmental issue simply wasn’t safe. I had to agree – I wasn’t speaking up either.

Of course, once a group appears to have consensus – because alternative perspectives have censored themselves – it doesn’t take long for the conversation to move into some disturbing places. Back in the plenary discussion the group had concluded that imminent environmental catastrophe was the pressing issue of our time and all other issues were subordinate or secondary. The conversation then quickly shifted to assessing why people outside the room (the general public that is) didn’t feel the same sense of urgency. In a conversation that would have made the authors of The Death of Environmentalism shudder with familiarity, at no point was there any introspection about how the people in the room had failed t engage others effectively. Instead, exogenous factors were immediately cited. Specifically, two emerged as key problems. First, the educational system wasn’t advocating “the groups” point of view sufficiently and second, the political structures discriminated against their issue specifically. The conclusion, the school system needed to be taken over so as to appropriately educate people and the electoral system needed to be reformed so as to produce outcomes the group favoured.

If that doesn’t sound like a scary or fascist conversation, imagine the same conversation structure, but with this subject.

In a dialogue setting a group of evangelical Christians determine that most pressing issue is the fast approach day of rapture and, due to lack of awareness and concern, many souls would not be saved. They conclude that the reason people don’t care about the rapture isn’t because evangelicals haven’t been effective at reaching out and engaging people but because a) they don’t control the educational system, and b) the political system is structured to not favour their issue. They conclude that must take over the schools and so kids can be taught Christian values and that the electoral system needs rejigging to produce outcomes that favours “Christian” issues.

Same conclusions, different subject matter.

This is why dialogues have to so carefully facilitated. It isn’t hard for them to become a mob and for the discussion to get angry and totalitarian.

Oh, and a final note. During the afternoon, in a moment you couldn’t have scripted, the fascist subtext of the conversation became explicit. During the Q&A after Thomas Homer-Dixon’s presentation, one participant asked “Your data on ecological collapse is terrifying. But enough isn’t being done. Do we have to take a page out of history and get the jackboots and the brownshirts out and just mobilize aggressively?” (I really almost lost it when this question was asked). Homer-Dixon, to his credit, was clearly taken aback and ran the other direction outlining that such an approach was not an appropriate solution. Jackboots? Brownshirts? We weren’t a dialogue anymore, we were a mob. At least now it was explicit.

Footnote on BC-STV

Had a really nice breakfast with Taylor Gunn of Student Vote yesterday. For those who aren’t familiar with their work I strongly encourage you to take a look at their website. For me, they are a great reminder that citizenship is a learnt skill and responsibility – and they work as hard as anyone to foster it.

Looking over the Student Vote website I was struck by their results for the BC election. I wasn’t surprised by the NDP’s strong and the Green’s (relatively strong) showing as young people tend to lean left. Indeed, if anything I was surprised the Green’s didn’t do better given how much I thought the party was driven by youth. No what surprised me was the referendum outcome – specifically how poorly the BC-STV vote did among student “voters” particularly in comparison to last time.

Gunn was telling me that last time, student “voters” passed BC-STV whereas this time the referendum was defeated 55.59% vs. 44.41% with 64 districts opposed and only 17 in favour. This means even among some of the most idealistic “voters” in the province support dropped at least %15 and likely more (I don’t know the specific results for the last election). My sense is that there are again two reasons for this:

1) that reframing the question to a choice between two systems as opposed to a “yes” or “no” for change may have affected voters more dramatically then people thought. Do people want change? Frequently they say yes. But show them what the specifics of what that change will be and they are often less enthusiastic. I’ve always been struck by an exit poll I remember seeing after the 2001 election in which only 35% of voters who voted “yes” in the referendum actually knew what they were voting for.

2) the second is that I think more exposure to BC-STV – both positive and negative – had a culminative negative impact. BC-STV supporters beleived that the more people learnt about BC-STV the more they would like it. I think they exact opposite occured. The more they learnt, the more questions they had and the less the understood or liked the proposed system. I’m open to the possibility that all these student voters were exposed to a negative add campaign that shifted their opinions but it feels a little like a stretch.

The Myth of the "Wasted" Vote

One of the most disturbing allegations to come out of the electoral reform debate was the notion that people who voted – but whose candidate didn’t win – had their vote “wasted.”

The biggest problem with this analysis is that it casts the meaning and purpose of voting in the narrowest light possible. Defined this way, the purpose of voting is only to elect your representative. Consequently, you either succeed or you fail. Once the vote is over, how you voted takes on no further meaning.

This, of course, is completely false.

Ultimately, governments may win a majority of seats in a legislature, but the margin of their victory does impact the manner and confidence with which they govern. Parties nervous about their future will look to see how they can steal votes from other parties by adopting (stealing) their ideas. In this regard, voting is a powerful signal voters can send, one that communicates quite powerfully to parties, letting them know what they should do if they want to increase their appeal to certain communities.

For a practical example, take a look at the Green Party in British Columbia. Does voting for the BC Green Party constitute a wasted vote? I believe not. I would argue the existence of the Green Party – and the significant vote that it garners – has forced the other parties to react to its agenda. Would we presently have a Liberal Party in BC that is implementing a carbon tax if it weren’t for the Green Party? I suspect not. The pressure this group brought to bear – by making clear that there is a voting constituency interested in Green matters – has been significant, even if it has not won any seats. I would argue that not one of those votes has been “wasted.” Each one has communicated a powerful message.

I can imagine that living in a riding where a specific party is unlikely to win can be frustrating – but calling those votes wasted reveals a misunderstanding of how the system can be influenced and unfairly devalues the voting process. I hope we get over using this language if we end up looking at electoral reform again…

Critical Negotiations in social change movements

Recently I had the good fortune of sharing a tea with Andrea Reimer of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. Our conversation focused on critical negotiations in social change movements – and more specifically, environmental movements.

Andrea pointed me to The Movement Action Plan, an article by social activist Bill Moyer.  The article outlines both the 8 stages (graphed below) a social movement often goes through – as well as the opportunities and pitfalls that exist along this path.

I’ve identified and mapped out (see slideshare presentation below) the 3 points where I believe there are critical and predictable negotiations. This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive, nor an absolute list. But based on a number of recent conversations I suspect this simple list of negotiations are both likely as well some of the most difficult for any movement to engage in. That said, I could be wrong and would love for critical perspective or countering data. This would be helpful as this is helping me frame my thinking for the negotiation workshop I’ll be giving on behalf of the Hollyhock Leadership Institute to members of the Environmental NGO community in late April.


  • The first key negotiation is in stage 2 through 4 where the movement’s component groups and individuals need to negotiate with one another about how to best advance their cause. This is, in short, a large alliance management problem where the benefits of collaboration could be increased public awareness and activism.
  • The second is in stage 5. Here the movement has to transition from being purely activist drive to long term focused. Here the movement is confronted again with an internal negotiation – the “take-off junkies” need to be persuaded to either adopt a long-term strategy or take on a new challenge. Alternatively, the movement could attempt to marginalize them.
  • The third is in stage 6 and 7. Here the movement may find it is negotiation – implicitly or explicitly – with the powerholders. Here the option is to reach agreement to establish a new status quo or, should negotiations collapse, to return to either activism or pressure building. This is where I believe many (but not all) Environmental NGO’s in British Columbia currently find themsleves. They are negotiation with the Provincial government over standards, policies and plans where they can either reach agreement or retreat to protest politics. In a sense their ultimate BATNA (and nightmare scenario for the government) is to threaten to engage in another round of the 1993 Clayoquot Sound protests. The question is, can the NGO community negotiate effectively, both with among themselves over their strategy, and with the government over the standards, policies and plans?