Digging ditches and digital policy

My neighbour is putting in a pool. As I sit at my desk looking at the construction crew, I think back twenty-five years to a day that I went out for lunch with my office-mate from Bell Labs. We were envious of the road workers on the Garden State Parkway. They were outside on a beautiful spring day. At the end of a shift, construction workers get to see what they accomplished: a hole was dug; a half mile of road was paved; a pile of dirt got moved from one place to the next.

Compared to our office jobs, it looked kind of satisfying. We were planning network development – with features and capabilities that would need 5 years to implement. Some of the capabilities would never see the light of day. We wondered if we would ever get to celebrate the completion of our work. Still, we have objectives; we knew what we were trying to achieve.

The construction workers probably looked at Sam and I driving by, thinking that they envied our jobs: after all, we got to take off in our car for lunch; we had an air-conditioned office; we didn’t have to worry about rain interfering with our work schedule.

The grass is always greener?

Parliament has recessed and we are expecting another cabinet shuffle this summer, likely bringing another new face to head up Industry Canada. When Christian Paradis was appointed two years ago, we had been expecting the imminent release of a national digital strategy. That was understandably delayed until the new minister was able to get a grasp of the file. Two years later, Canada continues to drift aimlessly without any clarity on the objectives. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the absence of a clear strategy has led to us having inconsistent messages and somewhat predictable turmoil.

The objectives keep changing. If Canada had truly wanted a viable “fourth” player in wireless, then the AWS auction was structured in a way that worked against that objective. If a stong national new entrant was the objective, then the 40 MHz new entrant set aside should have been auctioned as a single tier one license. Foreign ownership should have been liberalized in advance. If the new entrant spectrum wasn’t supposed to fall into the hands of the incumbents, then the five year restriction should have been 10-years or longer. If the auction winners were supposed to forfeit their spectrum if they didn’t deploy, then this should have been a condition of license.

No clear strategy. No clear objectives. No scorecard for measuring progress.

The absence of a strategy isn’t just an issue for telecom services and the digital economy. Yesterday, in a new paper looking at “The Resurgence of Industrial Policy and What It Means for Canada“, the Institute for Research in Public Policy observed:

Like other countries, Canada is once again engaging actively and more openly in industrial policy. In fact, it has a profusion of industrial policies, what it lacks is a strategy.

What are we trying to accomplish? How do we measure success? As I said last week [here and here]:

Set clear objectives. Align activities with the achievement of those objectives. Stop doing things that are contrary to the objectives.

The guys working in my neighbour’s yard know they are building a pool. They have an objective, with a timeline. The site supervisor can see how they are progressing toward their objective and make management decisions to keep the project on schedule.

How do we celebrate success in digital policy, if we aren’t clear about what we are trying to do?

1 thought on “Digging ditches and digital policy”

  1. Jeffrey Simpson, in a piece entitled “In case you’re looking for an energy project with ‘vision’” in the June 15th edition of the Globe and Mail, may have, in addition to identifying why the federal (Harper) government isn’t at all interested in looking at the issue of a pan-Canadian power grid, identified the reason why we still don’t have a national digital economy strategy.

    In that column, Simpson states:

    “Here is a vast national project of the kind for visionary countries. The current federal government would not spend an instant thinking about it. It doesn’t like the “vision” thing, isn’t much interested in climate-change mitigation and would be preoccupied with the costs but not the putative benefits.”

    The current federal government…….doesn’t like the “vision” thing. That’s the reason Canada doesn’t have a national digital economy strategy. It’s also the reason why Canada doesn’t have national strategies for transportation and urban transit, affordable housing, power grids, cities, etc., etc., etc. And so, we keep getting objectives and policies that are put in place to address an immediate problem without any consideration of the longer-term implications. And this will continue until there is a strategy in place that provides the long term vision (put a swimming pool in the backyard) against which all issues can be analyzed and appraised.

    Unfortunately, unless the federal government is embarrassed into changing its modus operandae on the digital economy file by writers such as yourself, I am prepared to wager a ‘two-four’ that we will still not have a strategy when we are next scheduled to go to the polls in October 2015.

    The best we can do is be patient and hope that somehow out of the chaos the current government, minister, policies and regulations some form of order will emerge that doesn’t leave us too far behind the rest of the world. As Simpson put it in his column:

    “But governments don’t last forever. What are civic society and opposition parties for in a democracy if not to think beyond the mentality of the incumbent one?”

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