With the federal public service in a state of budgetary retrenchment, for many managers the focus is understandably on the here and now. Yet, there has never been a more important time to think longer term about the government of tomorrow and the sorts of skills and capacities that shall be required in an era of heightened mobility and complexity.
One risk in the present climate of austerity is that technology is viewed almost exclusively as an agent of efficiency. When asked how their departments will cope with fewer workers, many ministers in recent months have invoked new IT systems as a response, enabling more to be done with less. Shared Services Canada, already facing resource cutbacks, is viewed as a platform for infrastructure consolidation internally and a means of outsourcing more components externally.
With the notable exception of military procurement matters, the traditional media has thus focused much effort in tracking and revealing the impacts of spending cuts, real of feared. The cycle of retrenchment and secrecy intensifies as government messaging takes hold. Indeed, at one point Minister Tony Clement suggested that many details of the federal cutbacks could not be made public until well into next year (soon thereafter departing for Brazil to address a conference on open government!).
Lost in such context is any strategic notion of public sector reform with regards to enabling the next generation of democratic and operational governance. This is dangerously short-sighted.
As technology goes mobile via cloud systems and social media, there are significant opportunities to rethink the organization and functioning of government. While it is certainly true that many federal public servants recognize such prospects for reform – as many contributions to this publication effectively illustrate – this movement nonetheless requires openness and support from above. Star chambers of expenditure reviews cannot suffice.
Moreover, perhaps the key design issue going forward will be the requisite balance between centralizing government-wide initiatives and unleashing reforms in a more flexible and devolved manner. The research literature has often been schizophrenic on this point, oscillating from the decentralizing tendencies of new public management to more recent pressures for interoperability and, presently, austerity.
Spending pressures within a perpetually adversarial partisan-media regime have done seemingly little to quell the secretive and inward tendencies of this government despite their newfound majority status. Such leadership starts at the top and does not bode well for genuinely open-sourced approaches to engaging stakeholders and citizens in new and more collaborative manners.
At least, that is, within the federal government sphere. One impact of federal retrenchment may well be a rise in assertiveness and leadership by provincial and municipal authorities. Health care is evolving in such a manner and the recent admonishment by Alberta mayors of extremist political views during the provincial campaign suggests a similar bottom-up trajectory. Certainly, open data was not pioneered in Ottawa.
The federal government remains, however, the leviathan of the Canadian public sector: its actions and outlooks matter greatly, both in terms of its own performance and with respect to inter-governmental arrangements at a time when interdependence often trumps separateness. In fact, here lies the crucible of public sector cloud computing in this country: a new and genuinely shared platform for all levels of government to collaborate and innovate, or a federally-led initiative with the participation of other government levels as a mere afterthought?
The government of Canada is also a huge employer, and its ability to recruit and retain the brightest and most creative knowledge workers hinges on moving beyond austerity. At a time when local and national media routinely feature stories of the unique and aggressive antics of technology companies to lure and nurture human capital, federal departments and agencies can hardly afford complacency.
More than austerity, agility is what counts going forward, especially as knowledge societies grow more digitally mobile and socially empowered. Although Canada’s digital leadership has stalled in recent years, fortunately the rest of the world is looking ahead and offering important insights. A 2011 report by the World Economic Forum outlines the essential challenges for “the future of government” and this coming fall, the OECD will provide an equally important contribution on the makings of an adaptive, high-performing and agile public sector.
Let’s hope such a global conversation finds a receptive audience in Ottawa.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (email@example.com).