Governing Digitally: F.A.S.T. Tracking Federalism – Canadian Government Executive

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Digital Governance with Jeffrey RoyE-governmentOpinion
January 21, 2016

Governing Digitally: F.A.S.T. Tracking Federalism

In 2011, the World Economic Forum presented its vision of a future government creating public value as F-A-S-T: flatter, agile, streamlined, and technology-enabled. While governments at all levels now embrace these elements to varying degrees, such logic also applies to the functioning of our public sector holistically.

In this regard, the election of the Trudeau Liberals presents an important inflection point for Canadian federalism. While a more activist federal government is a given, the more salient question remains as to whether such activism will be predominantly top-down, or whether instead we are on the cusp of a more open and collaborative federation retooled for the challenges of a digital age?

Dialogue is a good starting point and Prime Minister Trudeau has signalled his willingness to talk (his Paris entourage a case in point). Yet aside from the large policy and fiscal matters that will fixate First Ministers and the media, FAST-tracking federalism means collaborating at the Ministerial level on the design and functioning of the public sector. Three areas stand-out: service delivery; cloud-based and broadband infrastructure; and electronic health records.

With respect to service delivery, we can only hope that the confusing rollout of Canada Post super mailboxes is not indicative of a federal retrenchment toward traditional ways. Consider the physical presence in any urban centre such as Halifax: Service Canada, Passport Canada, Access Nova Scotia, Halifax Municipal Service Centres, Canada Post retain outlets, along with a myriad of financial institutions including traditional bank branches and more novel providers in grocery stores and other retail centres.

All of this, let’s reminder ourselves, while Amazon recently surpassed Walmart in market capitalization and banks and technology companies are both competing and collaborating to devise mobile payment solutions. Our under-performing public sector online channels are well-documented — constrained greatly by such a bloated and uncoordinated myriad of physical service centres. Consolidation and collaboration are long overdue.

In terms of cloud-based infrastructure for data storage and processing, Shared Services Canada was established to improve the back-office of the federal government, much as Provinces are experimenting with their own reforms. At some point, however, a flatter and more agile public sector will necessitate a shared approach to such refurbishment, provided that appropriate governance underpins such efforts both administratively and politically.

Municipalities, smaller and more nimble, may have the most to gain from the explosion of cloud-based offerings both open-source and proprietary, with growing opportunities to collaborate with one another through shared service providers. Nevertheless, many smaller and rural municipalities also remain hamstrung by unevenness in broadband availability and affordability.

Leading digital countries benefit from both discursive and decision-making structures that encompass their public sector as a whole. Granted, many are unitary states, greatly simplifying the task, but federalist nations such as Germany, Australia and Belgium have made greater strides in inter-governmental planning, investment and coordination.

The German e-government strategy (2010-2015), for example, states quite clearly that “the constructive collaboration of stakeholders in industry, municipalities, the federal states and central government and also many citizens’ initiatives make a major contribution to rolling out broadband networks.” Moreover, building on a shared “internetwork” across federal and state governments completed in 2012, the German strategy commits to “seamless, multi-tier administration.”

Australia, similarly, features the National Broadband Network which is a federally-formed, crown corporation that works closely with all government levels, whereas federal and state Ministers routinely meet openly to explore areas of shared jurisdiction. Undoubtedly the most prominent realm is that of health care, and here both Canada and Australia have struggled greatly to create electronic health infrastructures.

The absence of national identification system is a key variable here, unlike Belgium which has long benefitted digitally from a National Identity Registry that transcends political boundaries for integrated identity solutions shared across a widening array of public and private services. Such a system has enabled Belgium to rival Estonia as a leader in aligning internal interoperability and integrated services externally, many of which now accessible via a smartphone.

A basis for what’s needed here at home already exists. The Joint Councils, informal and administrative, have made great strides in facilitating inter-governmental dialogue and learning, importantly accommodating a municipal voice along with federal and provincial partners. It is now time to add a collective political impetus to build upon their foundational efforts.

Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (roy@dal.ca).

About this author

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy is Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. He is a widely published observer and critic of the impacts of digital technologies on government and democracy. He has worked with the United Nations, the OECD, multinational corporations, and all levels of government in Canada. He has produced more than eighty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and his most recent book was published in 2013 by Springer: From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. Among other bodies, his research has been funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He may be reached at: roy@dal.ca

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