Canada has recently witnessed several important debates concerning the Internet’s widening impact on government and society at large. Yet with few exceptions, elected officials have shown themselves to be laggards rather than leaders, reacting politically and predictably but doing little proactively. Fortunately, other stakeholders are doing their part, providing at least a partial basis for bettering our digital future.
First, there are the Public Auditors. Separate 2013 reviews undertaken in Ontario and federally have examined online service delivery capacities, raising serious issues about the progress and prospects of such efforts within and across these jurisdictions. Canada’s struggles in this regard are by no means unique, as likeminded reports from the U.K. and Australia and elsewhere illustrate.
What is most discouraging, however, is the absence of any political dialogue stemming from these reports, superseded as they were by more headline-worthy findings from elsewhere better able to spark a nexus between traditional news media (perpetually seeking scandal) and political sound-bites. Sadly, this nexus can also attract academics: well-known privacy expert Michael Geist, for instance, seized upon the federal audit as a basis to bombastically label Canada’s e-government efforts over the past decade a “complete failure.”
The Ontario report put forth a number of thoughtful recommendations worthy of debate with respect to ServiceOntario, recommending the exploration of a new smart card for example (in keeping with the B.C. model at present). From the vantage point of the provincial legislature, silence reigns. By contrast, the Premier has appointed an important external task force on Open Government to consult the public on such matters. Elected officials need not apply.
Next we have the Commissioners. In late 2013, the federal Information Commissioner criticized the use of instant messaging by political staffers and public servants, suggesting an outright ban. Underpinning the headlines is a detailed study of such practices within the federal government, a study that one might expect to yield an interesting set of discussions by a Parliamentary Committee on how best to adapt accountability systems in a digital age.
Apparently not. Though not hard to empathize with Minister’s Clement’s dismissal of the Commissioner’s proposal (as banning digital tools outright seems perhaps not the best way to build Gov 2.0), it’s unfortunate that such an important topic has seemingly been reduced publicly to starkly linear perspectives on such a complex and consequential matter.
Most recently, the federal Privacy Commissioner has weighed in with respect to NSA-stylized concerns about Canada’s security apparatus and the erosion of personal privacy in airports, among other places (does anyone really expect privacy of any sort in an airport?). Her timely and well-grounded calls for greater transparency and oversight now add to an illustrious, though seemingly forgotten, collection of reviews since 2001 stemming back to the O’Connor public inquiry of the Maher Arar affair.
Whatever one’s views on privacy and online service delivery in a digital age, the Auditors and Commissioners are at least doing their work. Their role is to review and report on what they find. Regrettably, a traditional news media apparatus, accentuated by online demands for tweets and posts, is only too keen to frame their outputs in the most adversarial manner possible, thereby feeding the theatrics of Question Period and the partisan talking points on cable television.
Politicians are all too often complacent in accepting their own diminishment. What’s missing is a more thoughtful and inclusive manner of dialogue involving elected officials, legislatures, and the public at large. By international comparison, Canada falls well short in this regard. A cursory review of works by British parliamentary committees, in recent years, on themes such as open data, IT procurement, and public sector reform is illustrative of our shortcomings. One such U.K. body is currently examining the relationship between individual privacy and national security.
Edward Snowden’s revelations and Target’s massive data breach are the stuff of headline news, but they also reflect wider systemic issues in need of open and proactive dialogue and collective action. It is analogously counter-productive to simplify the works of public Auditors and Commissioners in an adversarial and dismissive manner. Instead, it’s time for elected officials to show up and do their part – or Canada’s digital performance will continue to wane.