The securing of a much-coveted majority by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives surely sets the stage for revolutionary changes in digital government. Or does it?
What a majority means for IT is a hot topic in Ottawa these days, especially in industry circles where conventional wisdom dictates that control of the House for the next four years should yield bold steps and big investments – especially early on.
There are certainly pressures for reform. The April 2010 Auditor General’s Report on the federal government’s antiquated IT systems and the resulting security risks, provides ammunition for those promoting renewal. Similarly, the Obama Administration’s enthusiasm for all things digital, including and perhaps most especially cloud computing, adds a continental impetus, especially as the Conservatives seek a new deal on border security issues that are increasingly digital in scope.
Finally, just prior to the election the Conservative government launched its open data portal (www.data.gc.ca) and, perhaps more important, on the same day of the launch loosened legal restrictions on data usage in an effort to jump on the openness-apps bandwagon. This theme was returned to in the Conservative platform, along with a pledge to create a government-wide working group to oversee and expand such initiatives in a coordinated manner.
Yet this is about all one finds in the platform in terms of guidance of what lies ahead. The words “cyber” and “electronic” did not even appear in the 65-page document, the former especially a surprise given the U.S. government’s aggressive cyber security plans and recent data breaches within the Government of Canada. A resurgence of the seemingly stillborn Digital Economy Strategy garnered a single page, albeit the focus less on changes to government than competition policy, market innovation, and copyright legislation.
Such an implicit emphasis on less government may signal a new, post-stimulus direction of spending cuts and workforce reductions (some of which have already begun). While IT can facilitate some automation in this regard, the risk here is a return to the days of framing investments and outsourcing arrangements in terms of financial savings that rarely, if ever, fully materialize, most especially in the short term. The future of Service Canada and service reforms more broadly are particularly salient here, navigating stiff crosswinds of cost cutting on the one hand, versus improving longer-term outcomes on the other.
For now, perhaps, specifics matter less than the governing philosophy embraced by a majority government (and in particular the tone and inner workings of the Prime Minister’s core apparatus). Beyond partnering effectively with industry, the framing and conduct of two key relationships within the public sector sphere as either adversarial or collaborative will prove determinant in shaping the digitization and performance of Canada’s public sector: the federal public service and other levels of government.
With respect to the public service, critics of Harper both old and new, especially those searching for signs of that long-hidden right wing agenda, expect animosity between the political class and public servants, especially if painful cost-cutting measures ensue. Moreover, the desire for deep systemic change can reinforce centralized leadership and a communications cult, hallmarks of previous Harper-led governments.
The counterview is that a solidified and more confident Prime Minister may instead embrace the public service as a strategic partner in realizing change, freed from insecurities and suspicions on both sides that stemmed from minority Parliaments and the ever-present spectre of an election. The lesson here for IT management is important: large-scale initiatives, tightly controlled without well-designed governance mechanisms and competencies, are political disasters in the making. Just ask Ontario in the wake of e-health efforts…
And provinces matter for other reasons. A stable federal majority – and one with devolutionary political roots – creates at least one condition for meaningful inter-government dialogue on key issues such as integrated delivery, cyber security, identification management and democratic engagement. Despite calls for shared infrastructure and greater interoperability, the federal government has taken a largely minimalist stance at inter-governmental councils in recent years, being inward focused, operationally distracted and politically indifferent.
Inaction on identity management is illuminating here. Prior to 2006 the Conservatives favoured a national ID card. Deemed overly expensive and risky, especially in light of aborted plans in the U.K. and Australia, they have since abandoned any serious national effort in this realm rather than seeking new and more collaborative solutions with their provincial counterparts.
Any meaningful refurbishment of service channels (both online and in communities), payment infrastructures, and data security systems requires a creative alignment of federated architectures technically and federalism politically (with the municipal presence also paramount). An empowered public service and collaborative political mindset across the public sector are the keys.
Jeffrey Roy is Professor of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (email@example.com).