A mesh for new machinery

Information technologies that make government services more seamless have proved a catalyst for a huge and ongoing debate that covers the entire spectrum of government activity, from operations to policy to governance. Much of it revolves around what we call “the machinery problem.”

The spread of new technologies is creating a new generation of government machinery. It connects governments in new ways, reorganizing them into “networks” that cut across traditional boundaries.

By contrast, the old machinery was built around a clear separation of “silos.” It is a system of programs, departments and jurisdictions that, ideally, exist in splendid isolation.

In effect, the two systems conflict with one another. While the old machinery requires a clear separation of roles and responsibilities, the new machinery requires cross-boundary collaboration, which tends to blur them. Now, while almost no one disagrees that collaboration could lead to huge gains in efficiency and effectiveness, there are real concerns over the impact it could have on other aspects of our system of government. In particular, it has raised deep questions about the potential impact on personal privacy, government accountability and federalism.

Collaboration requires a major increase in the flow of information around the system. But the basis of our system for protecting personal information lies in keeping the silos separate so that information can’t be shared with officials from another program or department. This ensures no one can access information about us without our permission. Collaboration challenges this principle and is seen as a threat to privacy.

In a parliamentary system, each decision should be traceable to the person who authored it and, ultimately, back up the chain of command to a minister. By contrast, collaboration suggests that decision making should not be seen as strictly vertical; sometimes it is shared or jointly exercised with “partners” outside the organization’s boundaries. So collaboration appears to threaten accountability.

Our constitution separates federal and provincial spheres of activity. There is often very strong resistance, especially from provinces, to the idea of integrating programs and services in ways that put pressure on governments to align their policies across jurisdictional boundaries or create new mechanisms for joint or shared governance. As collaboration moves governments in this direction, it reduces their autonomy and increases their interdependence. As such, it appears to threaten federalism.

In fact, these three areas – privacy, accountability and federalism – have evolved in tandem with the old machinery. As we have just seen, the practices we have developed to support them depend on the silos. As a result, our commitments to privacy, accountability and federalism have become huge obstacles to the evolution of the new machinery.

One of the biggest challenges facing governments today is to remove these obstacles by rethinking the practices in ways that allow for more collaboration. If we fail, we will be unable to build the government machinery we need for the 21st century.

But let’s be clear: no one is suggesting we simply exchange privacy, accountability or federalism for better machinery or services. The point is rather that we must not confuse how we protect privacy with why we protect it, or how we practise federalism with why we opted for it in the first place. In short, we must not confuse the means with the end, the machinery with the task.

Crossing Boundaries has released a new book, Progressive Governance for Canadians: What You Need to Know, that seeks to address the machinery problem.

There is more than one way to ensure that governments do not use our personal information to harm us, just as there is more than one way to ensure that governments are accountable or that their autonomy is respected. But we must be open to new ways of doing things and creative in our search for alternatives.

A key task of our book is to help identify them: to trace out key issues around the machinery problem, reframe them in a way that helps us see how to move forward, and provide some practical thoughts on what to do next. The old practices have served us well, but times have changed. We need to get on with retooling government for a different kind of world.

The volume is available for download free of charge at www.crossingboundaries.ca. Printed copies are available on request.

Don Lenihan is president of the Crossing Boundaries National Council, a not-for-profit forum focused on a more citizen-centred approach to government. He can be reached at dlenihan@crossingboundaries.ca

Related content:

The future of federation

Refining customer service

BC OnLine boosts public-private collaboration

New municipal organizations aim to facilitate collaboration

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