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Some illiberal truths about innovation policy

August 1, 2016
Neil Milton

Another week, another article in the Globe & Mail fawning over Navdeep Bains, the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Seriously, if the Globe stroked the Trudeau Liberals any harder, it would be pornography.

Worse, I am certain that whatever policy the government comes up with, it will fail to actually improve innovation in Canada. Why?  Because they are looking for innovation in all the wrong places.

Innovation is about much more than a few ‘sexy cool new things’.  The purpose of innovation is to increase productivity and thereby increase wealth.  As a result, most innovation is not about the “new new thing”.  Most of the time, innovation it is about doing something that is already done, better, faster and cheaper.

The most important thing our governments could do to support innovation would be to innovate internally: do what they supposed to do (provide peace, order and good government), better, faster and cheaper.  In other words, fix their own house first.

There has been a digital revolution in the private sector over the past generation, but most of government in Canada has steadfastly resisted it.  The outdated IT infrastructure of government in Canada is utterly pathetic, and is costing us dearly – including, contributing significantly to our weak productivity and innovation statistics as a country.  Throughout education, health, justice to name a few ‘somewhat important’ fields of government involvement in our country, the IT infrastructure is appallingly bad.

If you have a child in school, you receive a blizzard of crumpled photocopies sent home for signature.  Half the time I find them after the event has taken place. Photocopies are expensive, time-consuming and bad for the environment. A decent provincial government with even a passing interest in efficiency, effectiveness and innovation would set up secure mobile-friendly portals for parent-school interaction.

Our Courts are relics from a by-gone era – trapped in a parochial, paper-based system that is expensive, inefficient, and a serious impediment to justice for all but the richest.  I have practiced law for 25 years, and the file management system of the Courts was out-dated when I started. Now, it is shamefully bad. Of course people of modest means cannot afford justice in the 21st century – they are making 21st century wages, and paying for 19th century inefficiency.

Even our patent and trademark office, with a mandate to support innovators, has IT that makes a Commodore 64 look modern.  If it were not so pathetic it would be ironic.

The fiasco with the new federal payroll system, Phoenix, is illustrative of the dire need for a digital revolution within the federal government (talk about the most inappropriate code-name in government history: Phoenix did not rise from any ashes, it crashed and burned). Putting in a new payroll system should be a simple example of using new technology to do something done before, better faster and cheaper. Instead, we have a epic example of the federal government’s IT ineptitude, which runs far deeper than just Phoenix and infects the entire organization.

It is 2016.  Thousands of organizations with tens of thousands of employees have functioning payroll systems.  A government that cannot roll out a new payroll system is not governing properly and has no business telling anyone anything about innovation policy or practice.

At the federal level, the Shared Services is worse than useless and an impediment.  A dumping ground for the weak and the incompetent, Shared Services is a failure that is probably beyond repair.  The federal government should shut Shared Services and start afresh.

If our governments were serious about an innovation agenda, they would focus on fixing their awful IT systems.  Doing so would drag them into the 20th century (the 21st might be too much to ask) so that they would be at least speaking the same language as the rest of us.

Neil.