The European advantage

Collaboration spreads the wealth in continental approach

One benefit of federalism lies in the experimentation and learning that can occur across jurisdictions, such as provinces and municipalities. Although politics and resources often intrude on relationships across government levels, there is little question that Canada is benefitting from a bottom-up emergence of new service delivery models such as 311 call centres, integrated portals and democratic experimentation.

Federalism allows for a positive mixing of competitive and collaborative pressures and there is little reason for this balance not to extend beyond national borders. As the world as a whole comes to resemble a federated architecture, countries and their governments are under pressure to forge interoperable governance in order to effectively respond to the realities of globalizing markets and societies.

This federated architecture also features a critical governance level in between the national and global, namely the continent as a region. With respect to e-govern-ment, most typically viewed as a national agenda, North America is losing ground to the more orchestrated efforts of the European Union (EU) and its member states.

What is most striking about the European approach to e-government is the way countries have agreed to a broadened digital agenda that goes far beyond the service delivery dimension most prevalent here at home.

As part of its 2010 e-government action plan, the European Commission is committed to five priority areas that include: leaving no citizen behind (closing the digital divide); raising government efficiency; implementing e-procurement (valued at 15 per cent of GDP); safety and security (access to services and identity management); and strengthening participation and democracy.

Without question, there is a wide variance across member countries in terms of digital infrastructure and e-government performance. Within the EU, for example, one finds Denmark – ranked as the continent’s leader by The Economist Intelligence Unit – alongside less developed jurisdictions such as Poland and Romania. Yet, these latter countries benefit enormously from a regional governance system that redistributes not only resources but also ideas and competencies.

Consider Estonia, a formerly communist enclave of the Soviet era that has recently vaulted to third place in the EU’s 2006 public service rankings of digital readiness and delivery. Some 80 per cent of Estonians filed their taxes online.

Beyond the service realm, the country benefits from a digitized political sphere in which politicians routinely vote online, make use of webcasts, and share information virtually as opposed to the traditional paper route. Little surprise, then, that Estonians have already successfully piloted electronic voting in local elections as a precursor to general usage in parliamentary elections later this year.

One interesting finding from the local e-voting pilot is that roughly the same proportion of voters chose the online route in both urban and rural dwellings. Across Europe, in fact, driven by the EU priority of “no citizen left behind,” the urban-rural divide is receiving much greater levels of attention than is the case in Canada and the United States.

Complementing the broadband strategy of each country is an EU dimension that includes regional growth funds for the poorest parts of Europe and a new pan-European, inter-disciplinary research program to help extend broadband coverage to rural and remote communities.

In contrast to the EU’s broad and inclusive digital framework, the North American variant, the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), reduces Canada and Mexico to bilateral conformance to U.S. security protocols. There are important informational and digital dimensions to the SPP but, as we discovered from the Arar affair, they are pursued as subversively as possible.

The absence of a political dimension to North America is also evident with regards to Canada’s schizophrenic approach to cross-border identity management. By contrast, in Europe there is an overt dialogue across member states about privacy and identity, and how countries collaborate to preserve market openness, extend human mobility and strengthen multiple European identities.

This continental divergence is also becoming technological. Not only is Europe gaining in terms of overall broadband coverage, but its leadership is pronounced in the wireless realm (Telecommunications Policy Review Panel). As e-government evolves into a broader lens of digital development for countries, and for groups of countries, whether Canada can afford to limit itself to traditional anti-American posturing may well become a more strategic concern.

Jeffrey Royis associate professor in theSchool of Public Administration, Faculty of Management, at Dalhousie University. He can be reached

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