Abstract: A Community-based Model for e-service delivery for First Nations: The K-net Approach to Water Treatment in Northern

A Community-based Model for e-Servicing in First Nations Communities:

Water Treatment in Northern Ontario

The Keewaytinook Okimakanak Approach

Michael Gurstein, Ph.D.

Centre for Community Informatics Research, Training and Development, Vancouver

Brian Beaton

K-Net Coordinator

Keewaytinook Okimakanak, Sioux Lookout, ON

Kevin Sherlock

Executive Director, Anishinaabeg Kakenwaydemiwatch Nepi, Thunder Bay, ON,


This paper examines the Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO) approach to community-based ICT-enabled service delivery; develops an outcome/evidence based model of this approach in light of on-going Community Informatics research and theory and KO’s experience with other areas of Information and Communications Technology (ICT)-enabled community-based service provision; assesses, examines and situates the Water Treatment program within the context of this model and provides a more general articulation of this model for possible utilization within the overall context of a broadband platform for service deployment.

It is the intention of this paper to begin a more general discussion on overall policy with respect to service delivery in remote and rural indigenous and other communities. As well, the paper will explore how the new opportunities presented by ICT can transform services and service delivery to make these both more efficient and effective while at the same time providing ways for communities themselves to become much more involved in the actual delivery and management of locally essential services.

In July, 2008 the First Nations Chiefs-in-Assembly unanimously passed Resolution 19/2008, “e-Community for First Nations: A National Framework”. An important component of this national framework was the support for a broadband network development strategy that addressed the needs of First Nations across Canada. Among the intentions of this Resolution was to ensure the development of a broadband platform to enable the efficient and effective provision of the range of educational, health and other services to and in First Nations communities.

Service provision in Aboriginal communities particularly those in rural and remote locations has suffered from a range of difficulties including exceptional cost, inefficiencies in delivery, high turn-over in service staff, and overall control over service quality control, among others. The consequence of this has been in many cases overly costly, inadequate or inappropriate services, penalizing residents because of where they choose to live.

ICT and particularly broadband Internet communications has the capability of overcoming the challenges of remoteness (and location overall) and thus ensuring equity of service access, along with an appropriate level of service quality, and effectiveness and efficiency in service delivery. Indirectly this approach provides opportunities for communities to benefit from the resources being provided for these services for example through the generation of local employment opportunities.

KO and its telecommunications arm, the Kuhkenah Network (K-Net) program in Northern Ontario has been a global leader in the development of approaches to electronically-enabled community-based service delivery for remote and rural areas including in health care, education and governance. (Fiser, Clement and Walmark, 2006). Most recently KO has developed and is implementing a highly innovative approach to the community delivery of services for Water Treatment. Their approach includes the use of two way videoconferencing for continuing education, for remote mentoring, and for support; and in the next phase for remote monitoring and remote servicing. These developments are components of the KO Water and Wastewater Plant Operator Training initiative and the Safe Water Operations Program implemented with ongoing operational support from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).

The Remote Water and Wastewater Monitoring Initiative

According to contemporary newspaper accounts, a completely unexpected contamination of the small Ontario town of Walkerton's water system by E. coli in May 2000 resulted in seven deaths and 2,300 ill people, some of whom are experiencing permanent health effects. One result was a Canada-wide outcry. Ultimately it was revealed that this disaster probably could have been prevented had the provincial government not cut its Water Treatment Approvals and Inspections programs and if water treatment plant operators had been properly trained, certified and supervised. This in turn, brought home to many First Nations something that had been of concern for years—that water-borne catastrophes could also occur on their reserves.

In fact, bad drinking water on First Nations made headlines in October 2004 when 1,000 residents of a remote northern Ontario community were evacuated while their water treatment plant was cleaned up. Many residents of that community experienced health problems and needed treatment for skin rashes and other illnesses blamed on dirty water and poor sanitation.

A report on these events released in November 2005 found that more than half the operators running water treatment plants on Ontario reserves lacked the required training, and many weren't certified. A federally funded agency, the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corp. found that operators at only 60 of the province's 134 reserves had received the necessary training in water treatment plant operations. A study conducted in 2001 by INAC had in fact found a significant risk to the quality or safety of drinking water from three-quarters of reserve water systems.

In March of 20061 Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice outlined a clean water plan for native reserves indicating that residents of First Nations communities should feel as safe about their drinking water as all Canadians. "It is unacceptable that many First Nations communities across Canada continue to face ongoing risk to the safety of their drinking water," Prentice told a news conference in Ottawa.

The government presented a five-point plan for improving water standards on native reserves, which included:

  • Setting standards for the design, construction, operation, maintenance and monitoring of reserve water plants.

  • Ensuring that all systems would be overseen by certified operators by 2007.

  • Kick-starting action plans for 21 First Nations considered most at risk.

  • Developing related legislation with input from First Nations.

  • Requiring regular progress reports.

Work was expected to begin immediately in 21 communities identified as most at risk for waterborne health hazards. Under the long-term plan, natives would be in charge of making sure reserves lived up to federal standards for design, construction, operation, maintenance and monitoring of drinking water. In the short term, the federal government would temporarily contract out water services to private companies.

According to Prentice, the problem with drinking water on reserves was not money. It had to do rather with accountability and standards. First Nations would be expected to meet federal or provincial standards, whichever was higher, or risk related funding, Prentice said. "The water systems that this department will fund will be obligated to live up to the standards that are being put forward in this protocol." Prentice also said that a $1.6-billion water fund pledged in 2003 over five years would be enough to help the 21 high-risk First Nations, establish the plan and accelerate training.

The difficulty in communities such as those served by K-Net is that while they have need for a means to achieve appropriate levels of clean water, current systems and the regulations and standards associated with them have been designed with non-remote and non-rural communities in mind. Thus these standards assume a ready availability of certain materials, and certain technical skills and knowledge which may not be available in remote and rural and indigenous communities at a reasonable cost and in a timely fashion. As well, the population density is generally insufficient to financially support the skill and supply system required by the indicated complex systems and services.

The introduction and demand for complex water and wastewater plants to protect and support clean water is only a recent requirement for remote and rural communities as populations and lifestyles have changed with modified settlement patterns and changes to the resource and economic bases of communities. In most instances these communities have had, through existing and frequently traditional resources and skills, everything required to provide an appropriate level of clean water but the delivery of the clean water itself is put out of the reach of the local communities because of government regulations and externally introduced standards. Thus to achieve a workable water treatment system in these communities it has been necessary to find a way of “re-engineering” the externally developed systems and standards to be capable of implementation at the local level and similarly to design/re-design training programs for local service providers which are based on the physical and human resources that can reasonably (and cost-effectively) be expected to be available in remote and rural communities.

The widespread availability of an advanced electronic infrastructure into these communities suggests the method by which these service delivery limitations may be overcome.

The Water Treatment Service

The delivery of safe potable water to individual community members is a priority for First Nations throughout Canada. The Keewaytinook Centre of Excellence (KCE) has been developed to meet the needs of client bands and communities for professional training for water and wastewater operators through the delivery of affordable technical and academic training programs. The Centre is located in the small, rural Northwestern Ontario town of Dryden in the heart of First Nation traditional lands. KCE is a one-stop source for certification courses, academic upgrading and continuing education training programs.

Qualified trainers at the KCE provide operators with foundation skills (specifically in mathematics, communications, public health/microbiology, and water chemistry, among others) and hands-on water plant operator training. The Centre's services also extend to the private sector, the municipal sector, and to provincial and federal government utility workers. The KCE is designed so that through its strategic partnerships (with various levels of government and the private sector), the ongoing operation is assured of long term viability, even as technologies and systems evolve to accommodate a forever changing environment.

A very significant element of the service is that it would be “community based” that is, that the overall management and on-going operation of the program would to the degree possible be done by and through community members. This was significant for a number of reasons including reducing the overall cost of the service – bringing outsiders into these communities either for short periods (as for example for service maintenance) or for long-periods to undertake jobs for which local residents don’t have the specific competencies is expensive because of the cost of travel in and out of the communities and as a consequence of the cost or general absence of certain amenities which those not living in remote and relatively inaccessible northern communities would take for granted. As well, the degree to which the service could become one “owned” by the local community is the degree to which it would likely be sustainable over the longer term—partially because local financial resources would be made available to support it, but also because local social and organizational processes would become activated to for example, control vandalism and petty crime around the service, ensure that suitable persons were selected for management committees and as service personnel and so on.

Another related element of this is that the service would work best and be most sustainable if a local person or persons were to be the local operators. It should be pointed out that in many instances local residents are lacking in formal qualifications and skills and including formal educational and literacy skills. This doesn’t mean that these residents are lacking in skills—surviving physically and economically in an often harsh and unforgiving environment in which these communities are located requires very significant skills of all sorts but often these are not of the type that are formally recognized or that translate directly into the kinds of technical skills that would be required in a service such as is being discussed here.

The development of the KCE by KO with the support of government is an acknowledgement of these circumstances. The specifics of the design of the service and the on-going training and support for this service is in itself a very significant and creative response to these particular local circumstances and present a useful model in how to bridge between technical requirements (or opportunities) presented by a highly advanced technical environment and the human and social resources available in what many would describe as a marginalized or developmental context.2

The purpose of the remote monitoring and water plant maintenance initiative (Anishinaabeg Kakenwaydemiwatch Nepi – AKN) is to facilitate the installation and delivery of an affordable and sustainable monitoring and maintenance system in the water and wastewater plants in these northwestern Ontario First Nations. This service responds to the unique needs of these First Nations and takes into consideration the training, support and sustainability issues as the service is transferred to the First Nations and their second level support organizations. One goal of AKN has been to establish a remote plant monitoring system to deliver the required 24/7 maintenance and security for all the partner communities by utilizing the distributed expertise developed through appropriate and effective training and upgrading programs.

The intention of the service is to provide equivalent service to that which is available in those (mostly Southern and non-First Nations) water and wastewater plants that already meet provincial requirements for locally operated safe water operations. The ultimate intention is to ensure a system for managing and sustaining safe water systems in each First Nation community. A 24-7 monitored operation employing local and regional qualified technicians would be made available. Training through distance education, and ongoing data collection for research and reporting would also be possible for those utilizing the service.

The goal of the remote plant monitoring program is to bring the necessary infrastructure and services to the support of water and wastewater plant monitoring in remote and isolated communities. The remote plant monitoring program thus:

  • Provides remote plant monitoring infrastructure for water plant and wastewater plant equipment located in the partner rural and remote First Nations;

  • Delivers in each First Nation a water and wastewater monitoring service that meets provincial and federal monitoring requirements equivalent to that available in other centres;

  • Provides an online, high speed data connection from each of the plants to a centralized monitoring system that is capable of identifying and distributing messages to qualified plant technicians who are scheduled to cover a 24/7 troubleshooting service;

  • Creates a three year transfer strategy that will ensure all the partners have the capacity and resources required to sustain the ongoing operation and support for all the partner First Nation water and wastewater plants;

  • Connects each plant to a broadband service capable of supporting online training and troubleshooting services using videoconferencing equipment; and,

  • Works with the local First Nation plant technician(s) to ensure that the water and wastewater plants are operating and maintained to provincial and federal standards and are available for all local businesses and residents.

Remote Water and Wastewater Monitoring Initiative as a Model

The Remote Water and Wastewater Monitoring Initiative is a model for how a complex and information intensive service can, through the use of ICT, be cost-effectively delivered into partner communities overall lacking in the advanced technical skills normally required to provide the service.

The steps by which this service has been developed and implemented can be seen as a potential model for ICT-enabled service delivery into remote and rural communities overall lacking in kills and human resource capacity.

The opportunity to develop this as a program for community-based delivery was implicit from the very inception and conceptualization of the service. The program was initially defined not as a “service” but rather, according to the legislation, as a set of service “characteristics” or “standards” which needed to be fulfilled at the community level (viz. identifiable indicators of water quality). This meant that rather than being required to provide a specified “service” in the community with for example appropriate levels of service delivery and thus all the attendant support and supply systems, what was required was a service” output” which met certain specified criteria. The method for achieving that output would be left to be determined by those designing and delivering the service.

This approach recognizes that the communities for which the service was being designed, do not have locally available service providers with a requisite level of skill; nor based on experience with other similar areas of technical service, would they be able to recruit or retain outsiders with the appropriate skills and qualifications to come to and stay in these isolated and relatively impoverished communities. Thus rather than attempting to identify or create the desired service providers, the authors of the program undertook to redefine the nature of the service to be provided—so that it could be redesigned in such a way as to be appropriately provided by those already resident in the community and thus likely to be retained in the community.

This “redefinition” of the service in practice meant that the actual service being provided in the community could be restructured and simplified to a level where relatively less skilled community residents could be hired and trained to deliver the service; of course with the more technical and potentially skill intensive elements of the service being provided or intelligently supported by people in other communities or outsiders directly linked into and engaged with the on-going service provision through real-time interactive electronic contact with the community-based service provider. Meanwhile, the program overall was working to provide training and support to local technicians to develop and upgrade their skills and qualifications so that the external monitoring and maintenance services could be minimized while the bulk of the activity could be provided within local communities and through interaction with partner communities.

To do this required that the service be redeveloped from one focused on relatively highly skilled and certified service providers to one where the service provision and skill requirements was divided between relatively less skilled staff at the local level and more highly skilled individuals available for remote interaction and support through continuing electronic contact with locally hired staff. This further meant that the service would need to be divided into relatively limited skill level (locally based) monitoring and technical tasks supplemented by a higher degree of (machine) intelligence built into the local equipment along with on-going procedures and protocols for remote external monitoring, support and direct intervention as might be required.

In practice, this new approach required a “re-engineering” of the normal method of service provision including a restructuring of the government mandated technical certification process, a redesign of the conventional training programs, the development and installation of new technical systems (and the redesign of the service program to accommodate these new systems) and so on. Without the re-engineering of the overall service and the regulated approach to the service it would not have been possible to enable effective service delivery in these communities.


It was recognized that staffing the water treatment program locally would be the only way that the community could be assured that the staff person might be likely to stay locally and thus ensure that the resources put into training would be a reasonable investment. Thus rather than relying on open competition and self-selection to identify the community service provider it became a task for the community itself to identify this individual using local needs and priorities as the selection criteria. Necessarily the criteria for selecting the individual went very much beyond the specific identified technical skills or capacity to include an assessment of the character of the individual and of course including the likelihood that the individual would be retained in the community. As well individuals personal characteristics such as reliability, punctuality, health were taken into consideration. In some cases, the individual would be the sole service provider in this area in the community. Often finding a replacement or substitute would be very difficult and highly expensive to recruit and to put into place even temporarily.

The process of staffing for the community position would thus be a combination of assessment of technical capability and of an appropriate “fit” with community requirements.3


Given the innovative approach to the service being provided, there was the need for a specific approach to training different from what might have been required for conventional environments. Rather than being able to develop a training program for a relatively skilled technical employee (very likely a high school and college graduate with some sort of technical qualification) the training program would need to be developed to qualify a community person with relatively limited formal literacy and numeracy skills (often without a completed high school qualification) based on the skill profiles available in many of these communities. This means that the training program would have to be designed to provide a degree of literacy and numeracy upgrading in addition to (or as preparation for) training in the specific technical skills required by the position as well as being adapted in each instance to the specific pre-circumstance of the community individuals identified as being the local candidate for service provider.

In addition, while most of the conventional training materials and manuals would be available only in English, many of the service providers would not have strong grasp of English and thus both training and training materials would need to be developed to accommodate the indigenous language. Also, given that the local service provider would be in continuous contact and with continuing support from a remote service hub which in more highly technical areas would likely have only limited indigenous language skills there was also the need for a considerable degree of training in English as a second language for the service providers—recognizing that to a considerable degree the language of their interaction with their mentor/trainer might well be in English.


The on-going monitoring and provision of chemicals required to ensure water quality needed to be re-designed to take into account the literacy and skill levels of the local operators. In this, more responsibility would be given to the skilled service providers at the service hub thus minimizing the risks attendant on the relatively limited formal skill levels of these community based operators. As well, this would be reflected in the design of the technical system itself for example, using visual (graphic) cues concerning chemical treatment rather than textual or numeric cues.

As the skill levels of the operators matured, the program needed as well needed to evolve to accommodate the more technically advanced individuals while supporting those just starting to learn the required introductory skills. Overall, the working procedures for the water treatment and the testing and maintenance of the system needed to be redesigned from that conventionally undertaken in southern environments to reflect the different working and cultural patterns and life style elements of operators in these Northern communities. The lack of back up for example, or the need for flexible scheduling to accommodate lifestyle requirements among First Nations individuals needed to be designed into the system for these northern communities.

As well of course, since the service was meant to be an on-going one, there was the need to be cognizant of the service cost, even if it was being subsidized by various levels of government. A service which such as is being described could be operated at relatively modest cost because of the minimization of local costs (local maintenance and turnover costs for outsides brought into the community as local service providers), limiting the volume of technical services being provided through outside “fly-in” contractors (with their very expensive travel and local maintenance costs), and by shifting the technical requirements (and thus costs of technical support) away from the hub to the local nodes as the skill level and experience in the local nodes warranted this.

Technical Supports

The implementation of the system only became possible in this environment because of the availability of a high capacity two-way broadband based real time video conferencing network operating on a privately (K-Net) managed network. This system allows for support service providers at the service hub to undertake a visual inspection of readings and to do direct supervision of local operations as might be necessary at critical moments or in non-routine situations. The availability of the video conferencing systems allows for a form of remote presence in each of the remote communities which enables the intervention where necessary by a more highly skilled, qualified and experienced service provider (based at the service hub) as might be required to support the less skilled and experienced local service provider. This interaction means that the local individual has continuous access to the skills that might be required to maintain the system including for service and repair and for these services to be delivered from a remote location without the requirement for very costly travel into the community.

The intention is to provide a means for electronically-enabled remote monitoring of on-going local operations and local systems and even in many instances for direct remote management and operation at a distance including for example the introduction of chemical additives as might be required for the system operation. Again, the availability of a high volume broadband network linking the remote community to the central hub provided the means for this type of interaction.

On-going support and quality control

In practical terms the electronic connection allowed for service provision of the requisite level of technical knowledge and experience without this knowledge or these skills being locally physically available. Of crucial importance both because of the legislated mandate and the nature of the service is the maintenance of an appropriate level of service quality. Again through this continuous real-time videoconferencing link and remote equipment monitoring systems, it is possible for the service hub to ensure and enforce quality control at the local level by being available and having sufficient timely information to intervene into the situation as might be required. In addition, via the network it is possible to provide the range of textual, visual, animated or video instruction and direction that might be required to ensure an appropriate level of service quality.

The centralization of the support and quality control capacity at the more technically capable service hub means the availability of sufficient coordinated skill and knowledge resources to ensure an appropriate level of service for all the partner communities. The service hub in this instance is providing service to multiple local units within a context where the service itself has been re-engineered to maximally allow for this type of remote quality control and service support.

A Model for ICT-enabled community-based service delivery

The service delivery model being implemented is that of a fairly familiar “hub and spoke”. In this instance there is a resource and skill intensive hub supporting a number of distributed local nodes. These nodes are linked to the hub by means of a broadband-enabled two way videoconferencing, telecommunications and data transmission link.

While the hub and spoke model is a conventional approach to the central management of distributed services what is of special importance in this instance is the fact that the model is being used to support a fairly skill and knowledge intensive service being locally managed and implemented by what in many cases would be those with more limited formal skill and literacy levels..

That these operators may have more limited formal technical and literacy skills is a direct reflection of the fact that they have been chosen from within and by their local communities which in turn themselves have limited related technical skills and associated specialized knowledge. The challenge in this instance was to design a system which could be workable in these very small and isolated communities from a perspective of minimizing the turn-over among these local operators, providing an employment opportunity within communities where these types of employment opportunities are very scarce and doing this at a reasonable cost recognizing that the cost of hiring and maintaining an individual who was not normally resident in the community would be prohibitively expensive and moreover would be subject (based on experience with similar types of employees in other skills areas) to continuous and very costly turnover.

The challenge (and opportunity) in this instance was to design the system so that it could be locally maintained by local staff while still through the direct (electronically enabled) intervention of remote and more skilled staff maintain a suitable level of service quality.

Thus in case the e-services model that is being discussed includes the following:

The design of the service: so as to reflect the specific characteristics of the local communities (nodes) in order to permit the use of locals as local service providers while at the same time ensuring the maintenance and enforcement of the legally prescribed standards of service

  • Language (use of indigenous language by operator and English as the working language of interaction)

  • Culture (and life style)

  • Skill and literacy level

The technology providing the basis for the linkage between hub, spokes and nodes

  • Broadband infrastructure installed sufficient to support intensive two-way video, audio and data conferencing

  • Two way videoconferencing for continuing education and mentoring

  • Means for virtual presence and remote monitoring and system maintenance and management

A re-engineering of division of responsibility and required skills between hub, spoke and nodes

  • Allocating skills between hub and nodes based on skill levels of available local service providers

  • Using technology supports as and when appropriate to minimize the requirement for costly technical skills at the hub

  • Designing training programs based on the re-engineered service design and including a recognition of the availability of the electronic support for continuing training and mentoring.

  • Providing on-going videoconference supported technical support, continue skill development, remote monitoring, technical trouble shooting and so on for the local operator.

Development in the community of a local capacity to:

  • Select the local service provider

  • Supervise and support the local service provider

  • Provide emergency back-up in the case of a breakdown in the overall system including with the local service provider

For the service to be effectively and “sustainably” delivered into the community each element of the above model would need to be put into place, but once in place a similar model for service delivery could be applied to a wide range of technical and information intensive services into poorly serviced areas where the cost of service delivery might be prohibitive.

The impacts of this approach to service delivery have been quite extensive and positive:

  • The primary impact of the service delivery is that the service is being delivered into the targeted communities. Where previously there had been very poor water quality and related poor water quality management in many communities with in some instances significant resulting health problems, the impact of the program has been an upgrading in the quality of water and the elimination of the risk and reality of diseases resulting from poor water quality. Thus the primary impact of the service delivery program is that where previously service had been limited and with significant quality issues now the services are widely available with suitable levels of service quality.

  • a second result of the program has been the creation in the community of a job for a technically skilled employee and in some cases two or three such employees. The creation of a technically skilled job such as this in many of the very small communities is significant since very few of these types of jobs are available to local individuals. The creation of this type of job has a larger influence within the community including in extending the role models available to as well as additional local employment opportunities for young people

  • the improved water and wastewater service provides a level of security and confidence to support local growth and development.

  • the support and utilization of the local community broadband network for monitoring and delivery of services provides another application for the ongoing development and sustainable operation of the local network.

  • a final impact is that the service is now being provided in a cost effective manner. Where previously the service required quite frequent interventions from skilled staff to be flown in to the local areas at very significant travel expense with the new system these expenses have been drastically reduced with no direct effect on service quality and thus the service is significantly more “sustainable” for the long term than previously.

The Community Informatics Paradigm

K-Net as the technology service provider to KO has developed broadly within what might be called a “community informatics” paradigm (Gurstein 2007). What this means in the K-Net context is that the efforts and initiatives in the use of ICT have focused on the use of the technology as a means to enable and empower those in the local community to realize benefits and exert a degree of control over the range of services being provided.

This approach to e-service delivery should be contrasted with what we might term the conventional approach to e-government service delivery. This approach reportedly has as its overall “mission” “to expand integrated service delivery capacities (in terms of both service offerings and delivery channels) across the government to realize more citizen-centric outcomes (Roy 2008). Roy goes on to describe “the tentative starting point for Service Canada” as being done within five guiding objectives:

The tentative starting point for Service Canada, in terms of its five guiding objectives, reflect these three dimensions:

1 deliver seamless citizen-centred service

2 enhance the integrity of programmes (by building trust and confidence in the programme offerings)

3 work as a collaborative networked government

4 demonstrate accountable and responsible government and

5 build a service excellence culture.”

However, the definition of “citizen-centred service” appears to be focused on “citizen satisfaction surveys”, “more elaborate and complex governance partnerships with industry”, and “concerted action …to achieve shared outcomes…that, as underscored …involve a certain degree of coordination and definition by the most senior levels of leadership”. The overall approach might be summarized as follows (Roy)

More than a technological challenge, online delivery channels must coexist in a multichannel world where the interface between government as a service provider and the citizen as a customer is driving a more ambitious restructuring of roles and relationships within any single government, as well as between sectors and other government levels.

By this definition then, “citizen-centric service” becomes a world of “citizen as customer”, “provided” by government centrally driving the definition/design of services within the narrow framework of a “multichannel” world, presumably meaning where services are redesigned for delivery through the narrow and restrictive channels available to government as e-commerce surrogate. Very little if any room in this e-Government world for adapting services to the specific needs of local groups/communities.

Equally of course there is no room in this e-Government world for communities themselves to get access to government resources to provide services to themselves since there is the overall presumption that through the introduction of e-Government strategies and programs services are achieving their maximum efficiency and effectiveness (Roy).

In those instances where governments are unable to achieve these efficiencies and they look to communities to provide services for themselves. However, this off-loading of what was once responsibility for service delivery from governments to community groups has been accompanied by a burden on communities to apply for “project” funding while at the same time their core ongoing funding is cut. Without such core funding, the groups spend much of their time filling out applications for project funding rather than delivering the services, which creates significant stress in the community-based organizations. (Gibson, O'Donnell, and Rideout 2007). The experience in fact, is that even in a period of apparent government attrition there appears to be a growth in government administrative and service support staff even as funding for those attempting to deliver service on the ground is being cut in the name of government austerity.4

Localized control

Central to the Community Informatics (CI) approach is a concern that ICT are an enabler of local development. The technology is in fact neutral as to whether it is supportive of centralized or local control. However since funding and resources are primarily concentrated in the centre, when new developments occur the tendency for those with the resources is to attempt to strengthen their relative (and thus centralizing) position through the use of those resources. This may be one reason why community informatics approaches are less widespread than they might otherwise be even though they are probably more conducive of broad-based and sustainable economic and social development than centralized or top-down approaches. The success with service delivery of KO’s position of insisting on resources being made available for service management and development away from the centre and under the control of the local end-user or end-user communities is a significant example of the value that a CI approach can bring to local communities.

Electronic service delivery

The K-Net CI approach has been one which has emphasized the opportunities presented by ICT for not only delivering services electronically but also for extending the range and volume of services which are available. As well they have worked to use this approach to make available certain services previously inaccessible to communities because of their remoteness and small population bases. What K-Net has done is to demonstrate that ICT can make a valuable contribution to the operational systems of rural and remote communities. This of course, parallels the use of ICT in the business and service models and operational practices of ICT intensive private companies and governments. And as well, the effects have been similar—that is the lowering of the unit costs of delivery and a significant extension in the range of services being made cost-effectively available in participating communities.

Distributed services

The fundamental insight of the very successful e-business companies is that by concentrating service management and delivery in a central electronically enabled hub while making these uniformly, continuously (24/7) and globally available electronically, great economies of scale and efficiencies could be achieved (Kalakota and Robinson).

Governments have equally looked to achieve similar efficiencies in their services. The difficulty however, is that e-services provided in this way have in general and particularly for government services been disempowering and often inappropriate for local requirements—for efficiency sake adopting a one-size-fits all even though the technology would allow for the management of a multitude of options. These services are designed and developed centrally and made available and even where superficial options are made available for user (consumer) choice, there has been little real involvement of end users in the actual design or development of the service. These issues are particularly acute where as has been the case for a large number of government services, the e-Government approach has led to the elimination of direct service delivery in favour of the electronic option resulting in not only a loss of service quality but also a reduction in employment opportunities which may be of considerable significance in smaller and rural communities.

Meanwhile of course, the technology equally allows for those at the periphery to use the electronic resources to manage and develop their own services or to take charge of the delivery of services within a distributed servicing model (while at the same time adapting those services to their own local requirements). While this may, from the perspective of the central agency or service provider be perceived to be less efficient5, with end-users designing and managing their own services, the overall effect is that the services provided are those which are of maximum benefit to the end user (and presumably most effectively if not necessarily efficiently provided from the end user’s perspective). KO has uniquely, among the range of community-based service organizations in Canada and with few counterparts elsewhere in the world, chosen to exert considerable energy (and overcome very great resistance) to take this second path towards locally based service delivery. By engaging communities in service provision KO has been able to achieve community benefits significantly beyond those achieved simply through electronically delivered services.

As already mentioned, to date Community Informatics has focused either on working to influence national programs to shift current practices of service delivery from centralized and top-down to being more community-based and recognizing the value that can be added to services through an inclusion of community processes and community actors; or on the design and deployment of community-based projects integrating ICT into community initiatives for economic and social development of various kinds. The limitation on these two approaches, one which has been imposed by the external reality of available financial support and otherwise for CI practice is that in the first case, the current approach is directed toward what is generally perceived (within the targeted institution) as an additional and immediate cost without any balancing immediately balancing benefit. The limitation of the second approach is the difficulty (from the variety of perspectives already noted above) in scaling success from individual projects into larger scale programming.

KO and the CI Paradigm: Dual Institutions—Between Two Worlds (Beaton and Fiddler)

Those in the non-governmental sector supporting or involved in service delivery have lagged considerably in their capacity to design or redesign ICT-enabled services. The risky and leading edge nature of ICT service applications has meant that these have been entrepreneurially driven for the most part both in the private and the public sector. Leadership in the area of service delivery in the not-for-profit sector has traditionally rested with governments. They have had the mandate (and not incidentally the resources) to provide the range of services to citizens and communities. In the context of the transition to ICT enabled services, government has taken the lead in the development of e-government and related e-services. However, as has been widely noted, the orientation of most governments has been to shift from “citizen” oriented services to one’s where the recipient is seen as a service “client” (Roy). What this means is that rather than the service being structured in the context of the broad public interest, the service is presented as another element in a competitive marketplace where the assessment of the value of the service is in large part determined by “customer satisfaction” rather than how it contributes to the “public good” in the broadest sense (Roy, Saha).

However, while this remote access may assist in resolving the availability issue there remains the matter of having access to services that respond to particular local or sectional requirements where the available service is inappropriate, overly expensive, or otherwise unsuitable. While of course, communities have always provided a very large range of services for themselves (and the more isolated the community the more they have been self-sufficient in a range of areas) what is new, is that ICT have now begun to enable local communities to provide for themselves a range of more sophisticated and technology intensive services. These previously had been denied to them while also adapting and re-engineering those services so as to be appropriate to the specific resources and needs of those local communities.

O’Siorchu and Girard (2005) in a report developed for the United Nations Development Program initiate this discussion by identifying a range of strategies by means of which communities in Less Developed Countries might self-organize to provide themselves with access to the Internet and ICT in general which otherwise might not have been available. As well they indicated but don’t elaborate on the opportunity which this self-managed access is now able to provide to these communities towards community-based ICT enabled services. Harris and Rajora (2006) again for the United Nations document a wide range of community organizations providing an equally wide range of ICT-enabled services in certain communities throughout India although for the most part the services being made available are conventional services being provided to marginalized communities rather than services specifically developed by and for those communities.

Again at almost the same time an Interdepartmental Working Group in Australia was adopting what appears to have been a “community informatics” perspective while looking at the newly emerging community access throughout rural and remote Australia and beginning a discussion on how to enable and support the adaptation and integrated utilization of ICTS—i.e. “re-engineering”--of existing publicly provided services specifically to support the specific requirements found for example among aboriginal communities in Outback Australia among others. (Online Access Centre )

Simultaneously or even slightly in advance of these international efforts Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO) was doing all of the above—developing a community owned electronic and telecommunications (ICT) platform to support access and service delivery into their remote communities; finding ways of innovatively delivering existing public services to the residents of those communities for whom this previously had been impossible and as well re-designing (re-engineering) existing public services so as to adapt specifically to the resource and cultural requirements of the local aboriginal population.

The cliché is often presented that organizations such as KO stand between two worlds generally characterized as the “developed” “White” world, and the “less developed”, “First Nations” world. In fact though, while KO stands between two worlds, these worlds are first the “traditional” world of top-down centralized hierarchical institutions and bureaucracies and a new world that they have in part been helping to usher in. This second world is one where they have, as an organization, been living for a number of years which is the world of peer-to-peer relations, of networks where the intelligence lies at the periphery and where community-based processes and the power to manage and direct the network is distributed through the network as the norm rather than the exception.

What this means in practice is that KO has an understanding of the nature of the services that are required by and useful in its communities, and of the best way of cost-effectively delivering those services in and to its communities; while those (primarily the Federal Government) currently responsible for designing and delivering those services into KO’s communities have a different perspective on service delivery strategies. The first strategy is at least implicitly the community informatics model that we have been articulating in this paper, while the second government approach is one consisting of remote and centralized functionalities which seem to be the over-riding characteristics of e-Government.

This difference in approach is not simply the traditional one of local vs. centralized control which is an on-going theme in First Nations (and other indigenous peoples’) interactions with Government, although there are of course elements of this. The difference in the current instance is rather that KO through K-Net is deeply informed by an advanced understanding of what is possible through the use of ICT in service design and delivery; how the use of ICT can transform the nature of the services which can be made available; how ICT can impact on the potential benefits and effectiveness to communities which can be gained from these services; and the overall significance of ICT in the efficient use of resources in support of the delivery of those services. In this understanding there is an impatience about the failure of e-government strategies to deliver on the ICT enabled opportunities that would be available to support the development of remote and rural communities in general and First Nations communities in particular.

The challenge for KO thus is to find a path through this dilemma where its primary funder(s) and service sponsors are working within one (and in many cases a more limited and pre-ICT) understanding6 of the service delivery opportunities; while KO through K-Net recognizes the opportunities and possibilities of another and by far the more advanced approach to the use of ICT in supporting the provision of services to remote and rural populations.

The need for KO and for all those espousing similar innovative service delivery approaches is to find a way of revamping the funding arrangements for service provision so as to take account of and support the structural changes in service delivery which KO through K-Net has introduced (based on its innovative use of ICT). This does not mean that the size of the funding envelope needs to change (this would be the subject of another study) but rather that the administrative controls and practices underlying such funding would need to be revised so as to acknowledge the innovative approaches introduced by KO.

E-Service Delivery and Community-Based Organizations

K-Net working on behalf of KO in their remote and rural region in the health, education and manpower training areas, has been responsible for a range of advanced applications (from a Community Informatics (CI) perspective) linking a deep understanding of community processes and the requirements for community owned7 (here referred to as community-based) applications with effective and intelligent use of existing ICT systems.

To do this K-Net has been able to marshal considerable financial and technical resources to create an advanced ICT-enabled service delivery infrastructure. This infrastructure has been combined with a clear understanding (and vision) of how this could be used to support service delivery in the region as a supplement to (and even in some cases replacement for) existing services and service delivery approaches.

In this, K-Net has been moving against the dominant tide of e-government services. This approach, while focusing on a perceived “efficiency of service delivery”, shifts service management and deployment increasingly to the centre i.e. away from local or community management. In addition, there has been a tendency to de-emphasize the (citizen) “participation” element in service design and delivery and has concentrated on “e-government” rather than “e-governance” as the organizing principle.(Gurstein 2005) K-Net’s efforts on the other hand, focus on empowering the communities and their members to own and utilize local IT resources for economic and social benefit.

The “one service fits all” approach doesn’t work for remote and rural communities when it comes to meeting local needs. People in these environments have had to find ways of taking the provision of service into their own hands or consign themselves to doing without. In these instances, having access to electronic means for obtaining otherwise unavailable services (as for example remote access to banking services or training programs) has begun to change the service landscape in potentially significant ways.


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2 We would like to thank Susan O’Donnell for suggesting that the points made above be explicitly addressed.

3 There are of course, potential difficulties with this as well, since these relatively well-paid positions would be highly sought after in the community and in such instances there are frequently accusations whether deserved or not of favoritism by local officials surrounding these selection processes.

4 Private communication from a local provider of a publicly funded service.

5 There is some considerable argument now as to whether the diseconomies of scale might now be such that the ICTICT-enabled economies of disaggregation would tend to favour smaller, more nimble, more flexible, more contextually adaptive and flatter dispersed organization rather than the centralized and thus less nimble or flexible and less responsive structures.

6 This is not to say that the individuals involved lack this understanding but only that the institutional (and frequently political) frameworks within which they are working have not been redesigned in such a way as to accommodate such approaches as K-Net’s.

7 Community-owned’ means that the local community has a significant degree of control over key characteristics of a network, such as the nature of services offered, tariffs charged, and disposal of surplus income. Furthermore, the primary goal of the network is to serve the needs of all members of the community, including poorer and marginalized members. In some cases, this means direct community ownership in the form, for instance, of a cooperative. In others the community may be part-owner, along with others such as local entrepreneurs or the public sector. But the right of the community to decision-making may also derive not from legal ownership per se, but be guaranteed in the legal constitution of an entity. Local authorities or municipalities, too, may own and run networks on behalf of communities. What all have in common is that services are deployed explicitly with the goal of serving the community, and that the community has a strong and ongoing influence and commitment. (Ó Siochrú and Girard) p. 177)

The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441