The world is going mobile and governments must adapt. Underscoring the weight of this reality, Facebook recently announced it is surpassing the 10 million milestone in Canada. Ten million accounts or active users? Think smart phones and tablets instead, as the social media giant now sees more than one in four Canadians logging into their account via a mobile device each and every day.

In his 2013 Manion Lecture, Dominic Barton, an expert advisor to Prime Minister Harper, deemed the mobile Internet as the most significant and disruptive technological force of the next decade. The Joint Councils of the Canadian public sector (the Public Sector Service Delivery Council and the Chief Information Officer’s Council) have similarly recognized mobile’s prominence. In order to improve the readiness of all government levels in Canada, the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service (ICCS), the research arm of the Councils, sought to examine key trends, emerging opportunities, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Rather than catalogue or assess the many mobile initiatives underway across Canada’s public sector, the purpose of the resulting report (which I was fortunate enough to author) was to cast a wider net and review research and empirical evidence from other jurisdictions, notably those furthest along in articulating and pursuing mobile strategies. The lessons derived from this exercise are sobering, with tremendous potential for innovation and transformation on the one hand, and many contradictory claims on the other hand.

With respect to service delivery and the costs of mobile migration, for instance, the report aims to cut through the often bloated rhetoric of massive savings anytime soon. Much as the public sector has struggled with a multi-channel service apparatus (to some degree being a victim of its own past successes as many citizens and companies remain wedded to paper-based and telephony channels performing well enough), mobility alone will not resolve such tensions and complexities.

At the same time, however, many governments are now embracing a “digital by default” mindset by which online processes are viewed as the first and preferred manner for providing information and delivering service. As mobile displaces the personal computer as the screen of choice for more and more citizens, this inflection necessitates mobile friendly websites and apps conducive to the proliferation of smart devices.

Yet governments themselves disagree on the logic of creating their own apps, as witnessed by the U.S. federal government’s mandating of departments and agencies to create their own, whereas the British government frowns upon such undertakings as often needless or inefficient (preferring mobile-friendly websites instead and leaving apps development mainly to the marketplace). Underpinning this duality of views is a balancing act between finite public resources and the direct and indirect benefits from investing internally in new competencies and new capacities.

This point was underscored by an important domestic research initiative, Taking Ontario Mobile. Findings published in 2012 (and readily available online) provide powerful testament to the notion that government’s actions and usage of mobile technologies – in other words becoming a model user – provide an important enabling effect for the jurisdiction as a whole. The study, furthermore, found growing support across the Ontario populace for embracing mobile transactions and payment solutions.

This latter realm, of course, already gaining traction with banks and at Starbuck’s and Tim Horton’s, quickly conjures up privacy and security concerns that are paramount in the public sector both operationally and politically. My report demonstrates that countries leading in the mobile space in this regard have benefited from strong political capital and an open, high-level dialogue among wireless carriers, financial institutions, and government bodies. Such a digital and mobile impetus is clearly needed here in Canada as well.

In sum, the issues discussed here barely scratch the surface of the widening interface between mobility and government and the report commissioned by the ICCS. Have a look at the report for yourself, as its primary purpose is to expand the dialogue both within and across governments in Canada as to how best to balance opportunity and risk as Canada invariably goes mobile.


The ICCS study on mobility and government is available online at the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service:


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