Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative, information technology, and innovation.

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Archive for January, 2009

January 29th, 2009

Highway 407 East: Will they still come?

Government, Politics

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation has announced its intention to build extend Highway 407 East to its natural terminus in Clarington, where it would like with Highway 35/115. This would achieve the government’s goal of a complete multi-lane divided highway route ringing Toronto. Highway 407 is now a privately operated toll-road, with 90 years left on its 99-year lease and with – thanks to numerous court challenges the McGuinty Government lost – a virtually free rein on setting tolls. For the extension, the issues of ownership, financing, and relations with the current concessionaire, Highway 407 International, will be critical.

My co-author Chandram Mylvaganam and I argued in If you Build It …. that public ownership would have been preferable to the Harris Government’s privatization. The McGuinty Government agrees, but the question now becomes how to run a highway that is half-private and half-public.

The Government’s plans call for private sector construction and financing of the road and the tolling technology. Given current capital markets, could they find private sector bankers willing to put up the necessary billions? The private sector developer-operator is to be compensated by publicly-regulated tolls and a shorter agreement than the 99 year lease 407 International received. The question is whether this would be enough to cover their loans, or whether, under these circumstances, their break-even tolls would differ very much from the current tolls.

Who would likely win the competition for the contract? 407 International must be the favoured competitor because it has the experience designing and maintaining the current road as well as the tolling technology. In addition, Highway 407 East will generate additional traffic on the existing Highway 407 (for example Kawartha cottagers who shift their summer trips from 401 to 407). These construction and network economies of scale should enable 407 International to make the lowest bid. On the other hand, we can imagine other bidders, such as major construction companies and, on the technology side, operators of similar road pricing projects, for example IBM, which played a major role in London and Stockholm. If the technologies are not integrated, the user would be presented with the inefficiency of carrying two different transponders and receiving two bills for a trip using the two different parts of 407.

So the devil is in the details on this one. My bet, at the end of the day, is that 407 International will win the contract to build, design, and operate the Eastern extension, and while their tolls on that portion will be regulated, the fact they are deregulated on the rest of the highway will enable them to make their target rate of return on the Eastern extension.

January 22nd, 2009

The Changed Whitehouse.Gov: First Impressions

Government, Living Digitally

Barack Obama’s new Whitehouse.gov website was up and running at 12:01 pm on Tuesday, and it represents quite a change from George Bush’s stodgy and outdated version. Instead of the traditional three-column layout, the top of the home page is dominated by the big message – change has come to America – and big pictures of the inauguration. Underneath are six columns of links, including standards such the White House, the Administration, and the Government. But the full policy agenda is there, as well as the briefing room and blog, and a contact link. Contact will be handled by a new Office of Public Liaison, which is tasked with stimulating dialogue between the Administration and the public. When you visit any page on the site, a right side bar pops up with links to the blog and the Office of Public Liaison (as well as history such as a slideshow with portraits of all Obama’s predecessors.) We’re also told that the President’s weekly address will be available on video, continuing the practice established in the transition period.

The unanswered question is how dialogue will be handled. The transition period website, change.gov, freely hosted thousands of comments organized around such topics as the citizen’s briefing book (125,000 users submitting 44,000 ideas), open for questions (104,000 users submitting 76,000 questions), and join the discussion (4200 comments). The Citizen’s Briefing book has now wrapped up and comments have been disabled on join the discussion. It appears that some parts of the change.gov, such as some topics under the blog, are still open for comment.

As best I can guess, the Obama Administration would like to transfer the dialogue from change.gov to whitehouse.gov, and handle it through the Office of Public Liaison. That hasn’t happened yet, and the commenters and participants are anxious that it does. Obama has raised great expectations about transparency and openness in government, and we are all waiting to see what he will deliver. The old cynic, Sir Humphrey Appleby, said that you can have either openness or you can have government. But that was before the Internet. Stay tuned.

January 15th, 2009

Election Ready

Federal Election

At last week’s meeting of my public management course, I asked a group of students to do an analysis of the Conservative Party website (www.conservative.ca) and another group to analyze the Liberal Party site (www.liberal.ca). Two excellent student presentations reached the same conclusion: the Conservatives’ site is election-ready, and the Liberals’ isn’t.

The Conservative site is easy to use, with everything reachable in three clicks. It has lots of information about Stephen Harper and his family, about the Government’s policies and accomplishments, and about the Conservative Party’s history back to Sir John A. Wherever you go on, the right sidebar has action options: donate, join, help, and “my campaign.” The latter, which requires a membership, includes activities like sending a letter to a newspaper or calling talk radio, and recruiting friends. Interestingly, the home page reaches out to the Net Generation, exhorting them to “freak out your friends. Join the Conservatives” and offering a program of paid summer internships in Ottawa.

The Liberal site hasn’t quite come together yet. Today – January 15 – it still carries Michael Ignatieff’s New Year’s message. It links to Michael Ignatieff’s site (www.michaelignatieff.ca) – which contains a well-written blog and lots of information about Michael – but his site is not yet integrated into the Liberal Party site. Ignatieff’s persona still stands apart from the Liberal site, unlike Stephen Harper, whose identity is clearly as PM and Conservative Party leader. The Liberal site has no statement of party policy but lots of critiques of the Conservatives – some delivered by former leader Stephane Dion. The Liberals’ action agenda is much more limited, with nothing like “My Campaign” nor a Net Generation page.

I suggest three reasons why the Liberals are so far behind. First, they haven’t nearly as much money to spend on web development as the Conservatives. Second, the party is still in a state of transition (disarray?), which is reflected in the website. Perhaps Michael Ignatieff hasn’t had the time to think about how to integrate his very effective personal website with the party site. Third, the party may not want to tip its hand on policy, preferring the standard critical Opposition approach.

In my view, the Liberals will have more leverage over the Conservatives’ forthcoming budget if they can make a credible claim that they are ready to fight an election over the budget. One aspect of credible election readiness is the website. To become election ready will require some time from the party’s senior strategists and party leader Michael Ignatieff, some money, and some involvement on the part of the Young Liberals to match the Conservatives’ Net Generation initiative. Michael Ignatieff has already shown some evidence of being an astute leader, for example in his making the point that the Conservatives’ negative advertising contradicts their desire for a consensus on the budget, and the Conservatives seem to have gotten that message. The question now is whether his organizational skills extend to cyberspace.

January 8th, 2009

In A Quandary about Web 2.0

Government, Living Digitally

Last month we witnessed a clear demonstration of the power of web 2.0 organizing. On November 16, 2008, the Ontario Government introduced a number of restrictions on young drivers, one of which would have prohibited drivers in the first year of their licence from transporting more than one unrelated teenaged passenger. Within a few days a Facebook opposition group – Young Drivers against New Ontario Laws- was formed and it quickly grew to 150,000 members. On December 8, a mere three weeks later, the government rescinded this proposal.

The politicians, particularly the tech-savvy (at least in his own mind) Premier Dalton McGuinty, saw this episode as a wake-up call posing the question of what their government should do about web 2.0. In this case, seeing 150,000 members and 15,000 wall posts, the government simply backed down. In other situations it might not want to. If so, how would it read, analyze, and respond to 15,000 wall posts? How would it establish a dialogue with a 150,000 person group?

I was recently sharing a draft of a paper on The Digital State Revisited to a number of Net Geners, and I got a variety of views about Web 2.0 in government. First, they think it is ludicrous for some governments to block public servants’ access to web 2.0 sites such as Facebook because they are considered a potential distraction at work when politicians have establishing Facebook pages. Second, there is a concern that having a high profile online, especially one that is controversial, is seen by the public service culture (if not the federal public service Values and Ethics Code) as inconsistent with traditional values of anonymity and non-partisanship – potential career suicide.

But despite these negative signals, there is a growing realization – now Dalton McGuinty gets it – that, because the social networking sites are where the citizens are, they cannot be ignored. For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade – which is among the most liberal in terms of staff Internet use policy – has developed its own YouTube Channel and Facebook groups. While internally oriented, a number of departments have developed wikis for staff dialogue, the most notable of which is the Natural Resources Canada wiki, which is used by approximately 2000 of its 5000 person staff. There is also an interdepartmental wiki titled GCPedia.

And some individual public servants are posting their thoughts about Web 2.0 on the Internet for all to see. Mike Kujawski, a Net Generation “marketing specialist and social media expert,” has compiled a list of federal, provincial, and US government web 2.0 initiatives, posted at http://government20bestpractices.pbwiki.com/FrontPage. Nicholas Charney and Mike Mangulabnan have launched a personal blog at www.cpsrenewal.ca.

The Harper and McGuinty governments present an interesting contrast in that the former has exerted tight central control over its message, while the latter has often encouraged open public dialogue as an important component of policy development. But both governments will be grappling with Web 2.0 over the next year. And the Net Generation members of the public service will be moving forward, proposing innovations, and pushing the envelope – as they should be.