e-Government at the crossroads

As Stephen Harper’s Conservatives prepare to take office in Ottawa, many in technology circles are asking themselves: what will this new leader and his team have in store for e-government in Canada?

Notwithstanding Accenture’s propensity to be kind to the Government of Canada, the past few years have not been the best of times for digital enthusiasts within and around the federal government. There has not been a permanent CIO in more than two years and many of the government’s key internal initiatives, notably shared IT services and Service Canada, are mired in political ambivalence and uncertainty as to how best to move forward.

Reg Alcock’s tenure as President of the Treasury Board has been a disappointment to many. Given his founding efforts with Crossing Boundaries prior to entering Cabinet, many carried high hopes for a true technology champion in government. Where better than the Treasury Board to instigate change? In his defence, sponsorship scandals and Gomery-driven discussions of new controls, coupled with minority status in Parliament, hardly made for ideal conditions to engineer meaningful reform.

Similarly, Scott Brison’s tenure at Public Works also fell short, as much noise about departmental restructuring and procurement reform led to little concrete action. It was clearly an error by the Martin government not to have seized on the sponsorship scandal as the occasion to disassemble this overly centralized bureaucracy in favour of a new set of more autonomous and specialized units (and of course, it is not too late to do so).

What became increasingly obvious this past year is that political visibility – on issues such as health care and survival, as with last year’s frantic budget negotiations – displaced any appetite for a meaningful (and particularly digital) transformation of the federal public sector.

Should we expect any better from the Conservatives? At first glance, the campaign revealed little. The Conservatives succeeded on the strength of a series of policy measures – such as lowering the GST, new defence and security initiatives, a child tax credit and others – that were cleverly complemented by promises to tackle corruption and waste. On the former, the Liberals appeared stale and scattered; on the latter, they proved deeply vulnerable.

Against that backdrop, the election campaign left little room for discussions of managerial and technological reform (as is usually the case). The most broadly based question therefore becomes how the Conservatives will choose to organize the federal apparatus to achieve their political objectives.

There are nonetheless three important sub-themes that will define the Conservative approach to technology and e-government. The first is whether the new government will view digital governance as an instrument of greater efficiency or rather, more ambitious organizational renewal. Under pressure to avoid deficits, political leaders are often inclined to view digitally induced changes as a means to achieve savings.

That mentality found its way into the Martin government to some degree, with the promised savings from service and infrastructure reforms already earmarked for new program spending. The danger is that the Conservatives may be tempted to squeeze further, limiting the upfront investments still required to achieve greater returns down the road. However, with substantial federal surpluses forecast for the coming years, there is also some room to manoeuvre.

The second, related theme is federalism and the interplay of federal and provincial governments. A Conservative government will likely be more inclined to accept a somewhat smaller federal administration in favour of devolved resources and authority to the provinces and cities. At the very least, public servants working within the federal government will face a new political culture predicated more on collaboration than what has often been a top-down imposition of federal solutions and initiatives. The implications here for Service Canada and its provincial counterparts are important.

The third and final theme to watch for is a greater openness to private sector involvement in reforming, upgrading and even transforming federal architecture. Still, technology companies hoping for massive outsourcing deals along the lines of those which emerged elsewhere in the 1990s should be cautious.

More and larger partnerships may well emerge, but the interplay of these three themes will determine their form and ultimately their success. For instance, those in both industry and government should be careful to avoid promises of unrealistic cost savings in the short term. A Conservative government may also prove open to new thinking on shared inter-governmental solutions, an approach requiring a new political dialogue that will take some time to emerge.

Jeffrey Roy (roy@management.uottawa.ca) is associate professor at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of, E-Government in Canada: Transformation for the Digital Age, due for release in March.

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