For what it’s worth – Canadian Government Executive

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Renewal
March 4, 2015

For what it’s worth

There’s something happening here. It might not warrant the protest cry of Stephen Stills’ iconic lyrics, but it is revolutionary nonetheless and it will have a profound impact on the governance of our country. Trouble is, of course, what it is ain’t exactly clear.

Canada has been slowly if erratically moving the yardsticks of e-government for two decades now, but there is a growing sense that the pace and scope of change could soon threaten the foundations of our Westminster system. Our governance model has been remarkably resilient and our public services have adapted ably to major change, but as digital sage Don Tapscott has stated, tinkering at the edges of reform “is not going to work anymore…we do have a burning platform of sorts.”

As Uber, Netflix and the next generation of applications challenge the role of regulators; as Amazon sets new expectations for service delivery (will the drone replace the mail carrier?); as Twitter becomes the forum for policy engagement, 140 characters at a time; and as politicians and public servants are held accountable by the everyman journalist now trolling the Internet, what are the implications of an increasingly digital society for a parliamentary governance model built on representative democracy and a hierarchical bureaucracy? Will it be nimble enough for this new era?

In an recent article for Foreign Affairs on Estonia’s near-total embrace of online service delivery, including its exploration of the cloud as the new home for its entire e-government, Eric Schnurer noted the growth of extraterritorial, virtual services. Jurisdictions the world over have long competed to provide public services, but “the line between governments and businesses is thinning,” he wrote. “Both need to convince people to pay for their services and offer incentives over competitors. Americans might soon choose to get their Social Security benefits from Sweden, tax rates from Estonia, online security from Chile, education from Singapore, and adjudication from Delaware.”

The Institute on Governance, for one, is not waiting to see how this unfolds. In an effort to understand where “these rapidly changing boundaries are taking us,” as its president, Maryantonett Flumian explained, the IOG leveraged a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council “to broaden the debate, build partnerships and test ideas.”

Over two days in January in an wired Adobe conference centre, almost two hundred stakeholders from across all three levels of government, academia and the private sector gathered for a Digital Governance Forum.

There were references to paradigm shifts, a new agenda for the digital age, and even a call for an e-version of a Royal Commission to come to terms with the disruptive impact of digital transformation. Whether it sparks a national conversation as intended remains to be seen, but it is now part of an ongoing, multi-year research initiative.

It was fitting, perhaps, that the event opened with a panel of three expert political operators, all of whose parties have benefited significantly from the rise of digital technology.

Gerald Butts, principle advisor to Justin Trudeau, Conservative Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies, and New Democrat Brad Lavigne, vice-president of H+K Strategies, and their respective parties have all gone data mining for micro-segments of the Canadian population to build membership, raise funds and flag issues.

Data is the new currency for governments, political parties and advocacy groups, Lavigne acknowledged. “Digital allows us to micro-target” in a way political parties never could before, not just for geographic and demographic information, but increasingly for psychographic – “what shapes people’s opinions…and what will change people’s minds.” And that will only increase as predictive analysis gains in accuracy, Powers agreed.

The Conservative Party’s information management system has been hugely influential in its success over the past decade, and Butts admitted the Liberals are attempting to build a better version 2.0. While it might not be a dark art, he argued, it has injected a level of commercial competition between parties that is only going to intensify. “I think we are in really early days of the advent of this technology,” he said of political, advocacy and corporate organizations. “What I expect to see in the adoption curve is a really steep climb in the next 10 to 15 years.”

All three noted in their opening comments the challenge of engaging constructively in an environment that seems to favour outrage and trash talking over true debate. But as if to highlight the power of advocacy in this space, that same day Bell launched its third annual Let’s Talk mental health awareness campaign, an event that generated over 120 million interactions on social media.

Whether that leads to positive action, well, as with political engagement, governance or any other activity affected by digital technology, it still ain’t exactly clear.

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