The future of federation

With the lines of government jurisdiction constantly blurring, and altering the nature of Canadian federalism, new mechanisms may be needed for the IT and policy management of service delivery initiatives.

Government CIOs, service delivery executives and politicians need to pay more attention to this evolution and ultimately should change their tack on how they go about providing services to Canadians, according to a new study.

The Crossing Boundaries National Council, an Ottawa-based research forum, has published a volume of papers effectively calling for a new approach to federalism in government service delivery. In what the study calls federalism from the bottom-up, it urges governments to focus less on policy and more on how a service is delivered.

Traditionally, governments first and foremost compare their policy ideas in an area to see if they conflict. In “Managing the Federation: A Citizen-Centred Approach,” editors Rona Ambrose, Don Lenihan and John Milloy argue that by starting at the other end of the spectrum, citizen-centred federalism avoids the clash over ideas and policies.

This makes it easier, the study concludes, for governments to find agreement on ways to improve service.

Crossing Boundaries offers what it calls an integration continuum, a model for rolling out intergovernmental services. It starts with the easiest, more practical piece (service delivery) and then tackles the more difficult issues one step at a time. Key to this process is that it’s guided by the citizen-centred principle.

The first step is co-location, where governments identify a range of services that are similar and agree to make them available from a single location. This makes the services more accessible and convenient for users, according to the study.

Municipal, provincial and federal government agencies must then collaborate to streamline their services, effectively harmonizing their regulatory frameworks for simpler administration and lower transaction costs.

In the third stage, the policies that define the service are realigned to promote deeper integration and, finally, new mechanisms must be created for shared governance, where governments can collaborate on things like decision-making, reporting and accountability.

Interdependence vs. entanglement

Classical federalism is founded on a clear separation of jurisdictional roles and responsibilities between governments, note the editors. A growing interdependence, however, has led the two orders of government further into each other’s jurisdictional space, and governments have become entangled in each other’s affairs.

Federal environment minister Ambrose, in her capacity as co-chair of Crossing Boundaries, describes the list of federal and provincial responsibilities as a legal labyrinth, with passageways that criss-cross all over the place. Governments get involved in one another’s jurisdictions for all kinds of reasons, she notes. “Sometimes entanglement is a good thing and sometimes it’s a bad thing. Unfortunately, whether it’s a good thing or bad thing is often in the eye of the beholder.
What looks like a necessary measure to one level of government can look like intrusion to the other.”

With new information and communication technologies, governments could be vastly improving the way they deliver public services. But the interdependence needed between levels of government means the boundaries of federalism must change.

“We have to be willing to redraw some deeply entrenched boundaries around roles and responsibilities and we must be willing to collect, use and share information in new ways,” says Ambrose, a former senior intergovernmental officer for the Alberta government.

New service delivery initiatives, where each government might specialize in a particular service and then share it with others to benefit from economies of scale, would require a lot of co-ordination between these governments. They would have to share all kinds of information and they’d have to plan together to ensure things like training, technology purchases and facilities met their respective needs. Sharing services would also raise questions about which governments paid for which services, adds Ambrose.

“Sorting out these issues would likely require that the governments involved harmonize some of their practices and align some policies. These questions challenge us to decide how committed we are to keeping jurisdictional spaces separate to protect provincial or federal autonomy.”
Holism and harmony

Crossing Boundaries’ research found that organizations like Service New Brunswick and the Canada Revenue Agency were evolving to develop deeper collaborative relationships with other jurisdictions. Similarly, Service Ontario, Service B.C. and Service Canada were experimenting with new ways to work together to better integrate and align their services.

Ambrose proposes three fundamental changes that may help to accommodate the evolution of federalism, governments’ interdependence and entanglement. Concerns over accountability could be addressed by the creation of a new class of intergovernmental agencies. Organizations that are neither federal nor provincial in the traditional sense might provide a platform for finding a balance between integration and diversity, says Ambrose.

There also needs to be a more forceful push to make information a public resource. Information could be used to make governments more transparent and accountable to their citizens, and this would foster more deliberative and evidence-based policy-making, provide better policy and program evaluation and help to create relevant new services, she says.

So far, governments have been very reluctant to share information for a variety of reasons, ranging from concerns over personal privacy to suspicions that the other level of government will use it to compromise them, says Ambrose.

It may also prove worthwhile to revisit governance, she adds, to more actively engage with citizens and stakeholders in setting goals and objectives. Citizen engagement would give governments a common point of reference and may help provide direction in key policy areas. The challenge is to determine how citizens’ views can be used constructively to influence intergovernmental processes and decision-making.

The full research report is available at

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