Life in the fast lane of public life – Canadian Government Executive

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Digital Governance with Jeffrey RoyICT
May 7, 2012

Life in the fast lane of public life

A new year is a good time to reflect on the relentless march of time and its close ally, our growing obsession with speed.

The Internet, of course, is synonymous with speed, with instant access to information, products and services all just a click away. Have a question? Ask your iPhone and Siri enlightens or does her best to search the web on your behalf. Technology giants and start-ups alike all share the common mission of constant connectivity while getting you what you want (or what you may want but did not yet realize you did) as conveniently and efficiently as possible.

Nonetheless, as the infamous Eagle’s song tells us, life in the fast lane may come with a downside (apologies to younger readers for the rather dated musical invocation, especially given that 2012 is the year that online music sales in North America will surpass that of physical CDs). 

For the public sector, the road ahead is far from linear, fraught with both promise and peril. It’s useful here to dissect the discussion in three: service, policy and politics. 

With respect to service, the mantra of efficiency is everywhere and not without significant improvements to interacting with public service providers. Governments have little choice but to benchmark themselves with private industry, and tremendous innovations are taking place in both service design and delivery. The rise of social media and mobile applications is particularly fertile ground for sharing, seeking and using information ever more quickly: health care, transportation and public safety are but three examples where the promise of collective intelligence is becoming reality. Looking ahead, our entire payment apparatus is soon due for a major shake-up as Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon compete to offer faster ways of enabling you to part with your currency. Government must adapt accordingly.

A key challenge, however, lies in how the public sector decides which services to deliver how and when. Constituencies are increasingly segmented between those online all the time and those doing so only occasionally. Coupled with a deep-rooted culture of risk aversion, it is a tall order for governments to compete successfully. In fact, across an ever more virtualized service eco-system, whether and how governments should “compete” will become an ever more contested notion.

Shifting to politics, the tensions are far more pronounced. Democratic venues such as parliaments and councils are meant to be methodical and deliberative, which is why they are losing ground, shunned by a YouTube generation preferring imagery and real-time tweets to long speeches and in-depth debate. How, then, to focus on long-term challenges and trade-offs (the very sorts of issues distinguishing public purpose from private gain)?

Companies too, are not without their own governance challenges in terms of an obsession with speed. As stock markets become fixated on quarterly earnings and daily headlines, the role of a board is to set guidance and provide oversight – and to think long term.

Parliament is akin to a board in some respects, overseeing Cabinet and facilitating debate over longer-term questions and choices. In doing so, there has long been contention over the time horizon of a politician, and the relative weight of re-election versus the interests and unheard voices of the next generation. Historically, such tension gave rise to countervailing mechanisms such as an appointed Senate and more recently independent officers free from short-term partisanship and politics.

The U.S. offers important insights too as a small but growing chorus of commentators call for a new constitutional assembly to redesign government from the bottom-up. The hopes derived from President Obama’s digitally innovative 2008 campaign seem largely quashed by economic uncertainty and institutional gridlock. 

Back in Canada, the advent of social media coupled with the decision federally to strip parties of their public funds seems likely to further augment the instantaneous and customer service orientation of partisan action. In a world of smart phones and tablets where fundraising will be top priority, it’s hard to imagine that long-term policy thinking will be priority number one. In majority government settings, where strategic reviews are outsourced to private experts and deputies are rewarded for short-term budget cuts, the risks of hollowing policy capacities within government are real.

2012 promises Facebook’s IPO and the arrival of yet another version of iPad, to name but two notable events epitomizing today’s digital revolution and its ethos of immediacy. At some point, spurred by plummeting partisan legitimacy and involvement (especially among youth) and a need to rebalance customer and citizen orientations online, democratic redesign may paradoxically require a temporary slowdown in order to optimally and collectively leverage technological change as opposed to futile efforts at playing catch-up.

 

Jeffrey Roy is Professor 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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