Public Service 2.0: A new participative ethos – Canadian Government Executive

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Digital Governance with Jeffrey RoyRenewal
May 7, 2012

Public Service 2.0: A new participative ethos

Is there reason to hope? Once again, the federal government has pledged to empower staff and simplify rules in search of a more innovative public service.

Much depends on whether the focus is placed on structure or culture. Shifting around agencies and offices within Treasury Board denotes the former, of course, whereas the latter is the real imperative. There is an important analogy with e-government here: many by-and-large structural initiatives such as the secure channel and Service Canada, rationally planned and implemented, now matter far less than the need for a new cultural ethos, one more fashioned on the principles of Web 2.0 and the power of “mass collaboration” (to borrow the term coined by Tapscott and Williams).   

What we typically see within Parliamentary democracies is the traditional Westminster doctrine of administration and democracy (the de facto Gov 1.0 model) that places the emphasis squarely on control and communication. And much of e-government’s early wins in terms of online service delivery and enterprise architecture have done little to alter government’s underlying culture.

By contrast, within the emerging context of Web 2.0, government must become more collaborative and participative. The Westminster model is premised on information scarcity and containment – with a corresponding fixation on spin, whereas the Web 2.0 ethos features more open and shared notions of governance, underpinned by a massive expansion of the means to both gather and share information and transform it into useful knowledge.

This knowledge and the learning that results is an important component of service design and effective delivery in a world of mass collaboration. The overarching challenge for governments lies in fostering flexible information and knowledge architectures for the public sector as a whole – while facilitating the creation of new and adaptive governance models for what many now term “service ecosystems” (the boundaries of which extend across governments and beyond governments).

In such an environment, centralization is a handicap. Accordingly, Scandinavian countries that routinely top most government surveys favour more decentralized styles of governance (both within the national apparatus and between national and local governments) than is typically the case in our Westminster model. Yet even New Zealand has explicitly embraced a decentralized governance model, albeit one featuring complementary government-wide elements for shared infrastructure (not unlike the U.K.’s emphasis on shared service clusters rather than an across-the-board mentality).

There is clearly some need for an enterprise-wide perspective, not only for an individual government, but also for a jurisdiction’s public sector as a whole. In terms of investment, security, and interoperability, shared structures can make sense. With respect to leveraging structure into better outcomes, however, flexibility and the freedom to innovate are what matter. This point is not entirely novel – as the ability to forge partnerships across departments and agencies has been shown to be an important determinant of integrative service delivery success. Yet the pursuit of such partnerships has been far too tightly controlled.

A critical question is therefore: who should lead in orchestrating and nurturing a more participative ethos?

The answer is: everyone – via the collective intelligence of the public service as a whole. A necessary beginning is a genuine effort to empower both employees and their individual units. This requires a performance based accountability regime that encourages departments and agencies to experiment. Either via less intrusive central agencies or a specialized service unit created for such a purpose (a Service Canada 2.0), individual units should be supported by principles and incentives for shared action. Central planning processes should be largely abandoned, unless in reprisal for an agency’s ongoing inaction and sub-par performance.

Above all else, Web 2.0 must be viewed as an opportunity for facilitating new conversations both within and outside of the public service. Only a more participative culture can generate and sustain any sort of meaningful structural reform that is to follow.

Jeffrey Roy is Associate 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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