Success doesn't compute for the federal Community Access Program

Forthcoming in: The Monitor. Ottawa, Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, Vol. 14 #2 June 2007
by Marita Moll

It is a little known national success story that has more outlets than Tim Hortons and has served over 20 million Canadians in the past decade. [1] Launched in 1994 as part of the "Connecting Canadians" agenda, Industry Canada's Community Access Program (CAP) provides computers and Internet access in places like schools, community centres, friendship centers and libraries.

A companion program, the CAP Youth Initiative (CAP-YI), funded through Human Resources and Social Development Canada, provides paid work experience to youth. Together with the assistance of thousands of volunteers, they support the CAP sites and help immigrants, seniors, youth, First Nations and socially and economically challenged citizens to use the new communications tools.

"In Toronto, because of CAP," according to Peter Frampton, Executive Director of the Learning Enrichment Foundation, "we have immigrant women accessing supports while they work in a social enterprise; we have tenants pushing the bounds of technology to try and get a computer into every rooming house; we have groups building programs out of the CAP sites that exist in subsidized housing - teaching their kids and engaging youth." [2]

Despite the clear need for such a program, CAP funding dropped from $25 million in 2005 to $8.8 million in 2006. Some transitional funding was allocated to cover the first part of 2007. Then, as thousands of committed workers held their collective breaths, funding was allowed to run out completely on April 1st, 2007.

It didn't make sense. By any measure, the CAP/ CAP-YI initiative had been extremely successful. Federal sources had estimated that there was a 20/80 split in the investments in these sites with the 80 percent representing money and resources leveraged within the community itself. A 2001 GPI (Genuine Progress Index) Atlantic survey of rural CAP sites in British Columbia indicated that the benefits extended far beyond the provision of Internet access and computer skills training. "CAP sites play an important role in strengthening rural communities, enhancing communication and reducing isolation, facilitating inclusion of youth, seniors and disadvantaged groups, promoting equity and providing opportunities for education, employment and local learning." It also showed that CAP volunteers contributed an estimated 630,000 hours of voluntary time each year to British Columbia's rural CAP sites. "These volunteer hours are worth $9.5 million annually and are the equivalent of 330 full-time jobs," says the survey report. [3]

In 2004 Industry Canada's Audit and Evaluation Branch released an Evaluation Study of the Community Access Program (CAP) which said "the present evaluation findings indicate that CAP is a unique program that continues to be needed and relevant because there is still a digital divide in Canada and CAP has been having success at bridging this gap in public Internet access and capability."[4]

Despite all the good news, CAP co-ordinators and volunteers waited in vain for some sign in the March 2007 budget that "Canada's New Government" was prepared to stabilize their funding. Instead, thousands of community access workers, rural and urban, were left with no funding at all, stranded in policy limbo for the next four weeks. They continued running the centers anxiously wondering what happened to Industry Canada's 10 year $600 million investment in the "Connecting Canadians Agenda".

On April 27, in response to a question from NDP literacy critic Denise Savoie (Victoria), the House of Commons was assured that the program would be funded for 2007-2008. "They've had months to complete their review of CAP and re-brand the program to make it look like they created it from scratch," said Ms. Savoie. "How long does it take to come up with a new name and re-paint the pamphlets Conservative blue?"[5] Her challenge seems to have started a ball rolling, albeit a pretty ragged ball.

Two days later, CAP administrators received an e-mail from Industry Canada asking for "expressions of interest or formal proposals" towards funding for the coming year. There appeared to be fundamental changes in the way the program was being delivered (through Ottawa rather than regional offices) and information requested was not well defined. In addition, some e-mail addresses in the notification were completely out of date while some current ones were not included. Despite the four week wait for any information at all, administrators were given only two weeks to respond to this request for proposals.

On May 10th, without notifying the CAP community at all, a new "Applicants Guide" was posted on the Industry Canada website. Further to the requested "expressions of interest", administrators were required to submit formal funding applications by May 30th. When they found out about the deadline, some indicated there was no way it could be met, especially in the more remote parts of the country. Up to this point, there had still been no announcement of funding levels nor any indication of how funding would be allocated - was it to be by number of sites, geography, service levels? For those responsible for keeping services running and meeting bills in more than 3,000 communities, it was a bizarre turn of events. The program seemed to have fallen into a state of disarray.

For a government so intent on putting on a smooth public face, the recent events surrounding the funding of the CAP/CAP-YI programs have been very bumpy indeed. In the words of Industry Canada itself "the program plays a crucial role in bridging the digital divide; contributing to the foundation for electronic access to government services; encouraging on-line learning and literacy; fostering the development of community based infrastructure; and, promoting Canadian e-commerce." [6] So, why the lukewarm support and seemingly haphazard processes?

The dedicated people who deliver this internationally respected program, have squeezed huge social and economic benefits out of really small federal funding allotments. Yet they themselves are being treated with so little courtesy and respect it should make federal politicians blush. And it begs the question: Just how do you spell success in the current federal policy environment?

Marita Moll is a co-investigator with the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN) and a CCPA research associate.

[1] Pacific Community Networks Association. Government kills community internet program. Press release, March 2, 2007.
[2] Letter to Industry Minister Bernier, Nov. 06, 2006. Personal e-mail, used with permission.
[3] Coleman, Ronald. "Economic value of CAP sites as investments in social capital" and "Impact of CAP sites on volunteerism." GPI Atlantic. 2002.
[4] Industry Canada. Evaluation of the Community Access Program Final Report. 2004.
[5] NDP. "Bernier must reinstate community internet access" Press release. Ottawa, April 27, 2007
[6] Industry Canada.