Elected officials’ role in a citizen-centric world


Much of the discussion around IT governance and service transformation centres on the public sector’s internal architecture. How best to invest resources, share information and achieve better outcomes holistically are key design questions for CIOs and service leaders responsible for enterprise management.

The undertone of such conversations is technological organizational innovation, especially in forging federated structures across departments and agencies. In a citizen-centric world, the ‘citizen’ is really a ‘customer’, unconcerned with operational plumbing, fixated instead on fast, convenient and integrated outcomes. Interesting to note that despite this being government, politics has no role – elected officials apparently not required.

Consider Service Canada. Its television ads champion the notion of ‘people serving people’, and the people on the government side are public servants. Who is the minister responsible for Service Canada? Does it matter? And indeed, can there be just one minister responsible for an entity devoted to integrative outcomes across the federal government?

Strong leadership

The typical response from many observers (especially industry folks) is to trumpet the importance of strong leadership – beginning first and foremost with the prime minister. In its final report, the federal government’s GOL external panel made such a pitch, calling for direct prime ministerial intervention in order to steady and reinvigorate a drifting vessel.

There is some truth to the need for direction from the centre. Take the new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In his first months in office he has created a new cabinet sub-committee on public engagement and service delivery and appointed a senior advisor on public service transformation. The message across his government is clear. Whereas in Canada, Prime Minister Harper chose not to re-establish a similar committee on government-wide service delivery that met only once or twice during the final days of the Liberal regime.

This need for centralized leadership is akin to the importance of a strengthened CIO function to oversee government-wide change. Yet, a good CIO knows that carrots must outnumber hammers, and that orchestrating progress requires a collaborative mindset that must be nurtured across all levels of the organization. In pursuing service transformation, it is a huge mistake for anyone to exempt politicians from this truism of networked leadership.

To return to the UK, the new cabinet sub-committee exists to overview a new performance management framework predicated on results through integrated action. In order to facilitate collaboration across government, new ‘customer group directors’ are being created for specific client groups, each reporting to a single minister with collective responsibilities for better serving this group.

Political engagement can also help governments free themselves from their traditionally inward and risk-averse approach to service innovation. In Belgium, for example, perhaps the world leader in political complexity, an aptly named ‘Kafka Plan’ was created by the Belgian government in 2003 to solicit both problems and ideas from inside and outside of the state: the result has been over 7,000 suggestions, over 130 pieces of legislation abandoned, significant cost savings, several awards, and the exporting of this initiative to other European jurisdictions.

Building on such efforts, in 2003 Belgium became the first country to launch a national electronic ID card. The card includes a unique identifier for each citizen, now enabling electronic data exchanges and service provisions across the country’s social security and health care systems.

A critical aspect of this identity management system is the Crossroads Bank for Social Security (CBSS), an autonomous public sector body whose origins date back to 1990, when it was established to form an initial repository for information holdings for citizens and employers contributing to or benefiting from social security programs. Today, the CBSS works as a ‘service integrator’ for all federal social security benefits and integrates with services provided by other government levels.

The lesson of CBSS is twofold: first, that IT governance and new service architectures are also about good corporate governance (that politicians must put in place, as Canada has done in e-health with the creation of Infoway); and secondly, that political innovation is a prerequisite to new collaborative arrangements across jurisdictions.

In short, the message to politicians is clear: Get engaged.

(Jeffrey Roy is associate professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University:roy@dal.ca)

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