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GUIs: government-user interfaces

Good public infrastructure and good public policy are crucial for entrepreneurs.  The overly simplistic notion that all government needs to do is “just get out of the way” grossly fails to capture the myriad important things government must do in a modern economy, and the things government can do to improve the environment for wealth creation by entrepreneurs.

All businesses (and taxpayers, and citizens) need to interact from time to time with government.  I refer to the point where these interactions happen as GUIs: government-to-user interfaces. Some are great; some are not so great, and that is a real shame. Less friction in GUIs means more and better commerce. Less hassle conducting business means more time and money creating wealth.

I understand that it takes money to build good IT systems, and there are certainly plenty of examples of government IT projects that went horrible wrong (the long gun registry being just one horrific example). However, a few failures is not a reason to stop – it is a reason to do a better job. Also, there is no reason that all of the development risk needs to be borne by ‘taxpayers’ – there are lots of ‘savers’ (investors) who can and should be sharing risks with taxpayers.

Everyone wants to talk about “infrastructure” but what they really means is the subset, ‘hard infrastructure’ that involves pouring concrete (roads, trains, etc.). Soft infrastructure offers some very interesting opinions for areas where money invested could produce very significant economic dividends, and, the investment does not have to come from taxpayers.

The world is awash in capital chasing investment returns. Investors, especially pension funds, face a scarcity of suitable public infrastructure investments. In my view, upgrading, enhancing, and re-building a number of government-user interfaces is actually a form of “soft infrastructure” that lends itself perfectly to “triple P” (Public-private partnership). For instance, Teranet (Ontario’s online land titles system), which was once a publicly traded income trust and now is wholly-owned by OMERS (the pension of Ontario’s municipal employees) is an excellent example of a very well built and well run piece of GUI that generates income for the province, and has dramatically reduced the transaction costs of doing business in Ontario (by making it easier, faster and cheaper to buy, sell and encumber title to real property). Similarly, Saskatchewan’s corporate registry system is now owned by a publicly traded company, with the very sexy name of “Information Services Corp.”. You can buy shares of it on the TSX, under the symbol ISV.

We need better GUIs, and one way to get them is to do a lot more creative thinking about who can and should be investing in the development and operation of them – taxpayers, or savers.


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