The new face of Inter-governmentalism

Discussions at this year’s Lac Carling Congress ( revealed a new form of inter-governmentalism taking shape across the country, one more in tune with the digital age – but not without a new set of challenges.

As service transformation efforts accelerate, so too is a widening interest in new capacities for service integration across all levels of government. A number of pilot initiatives are under way demonstrating the potential, among them the Seniors Portal and integrated business registries. In many key public service areas, such as health care, security and law enforcement, effectiveness rests not only on more convenient service offerings but also more integrated processes across all levels of government to both share information and coordinate action.

What this points to is a requirement for a new infrastructure for inter-governmental relations. Stepping up to provide such a presence are two national bodies – the Public Sector CIO Council (PSCIOC) and the Public Sector Service Delivery Council (PSSDC), whose work is closely aligned with and shaped by the Lac Carling forum. The reality is that, for the time being, we have two competing versions of federalism shaping the public sector. Text As service transformation becomes a shared agenda for all governments, these Councils are laying the groundwork for a new form of federalism based less on independence and more on interdependence.

There is much that is laudable in this new foundation; it intuitively makes sense that in a world of 5 billion people, a country of 30 million should be able to forge a concerted and collaborative set of public sector processes to serve its citizens. There is also much that is innovative in these new working arrangements, as federalism has traditionally been based on a separation of roles and responsibilities.

And here lies the great challenge, as innovation typically meets resistance through either opposition or an inertia created by past (and in many cases wholly sensible) ways of doing things. While there may be little overt hostility to inter-governmental service integration (since senior officials and political leaders regularly espouse such goals as worthy and consistent with what the public wants), it is less clear as to whether this enthusiasm has been or can be translated into a collective will.

In his candid keynote address to Lac Carling delegates Treasury Board President Reg Alcock underscored the reason why: The interest of politicians in the internal machinery of managing government is uneven at best. Bureaucratic inertia is pervasive and systemic change is extraordinarily difficult to engineer in the best of times.

Presumably the Minister is doing his best as President of Treasury Board to overcome such challenges, but the point remains that his focus is primarily on the internal governance of the federal government and not on the public sector as a whole. The new Service Canada initiative is a related case in point: Many provincial officials had pointed questions about the degree to which this new entity will seek to build a culture of collaboration from the outset – meaning today – with like-minded provincial entities.

For many at the provincial level, Government On-Line, and the Secure Channel in particular, represented a predominantly federal effort created without much strategic outreach to other governments. This has slowed attempts to extend the usage of the Secure Channel across jurisdictions.

Not to be forgotten are municipalities, a growing presence at Lac Carling and an important distinguishing trait of a new, more digital inter-governmentalism in extending beyond federal and provincial levels. The Cities of Toronto and Calgary both showcased the 311 telephone information movement building across North America: a simple number and a single window (and portal as channels are aligned) for all non-essential municipal services.

In his closing remarks, Paul Migus, a federal official instrumental in building Service Canada and a member of the Lac Carling Steering Committee, quite rightly pointed to 311 as a wake-up call for provincial and federal governments: What happens when the citizen – with no time for jurisdictional nuance – dials 311 for an issue not exclusively local?

The reality is that, for the time being, we have two competing versions of federalism shaping the public sector. One is rooted in tradition and the familiar political frictions of mayors, premiers and prime ministers jockeying for funding and visibility. The second, now under construction, envisions a more seamless and collaborative approach, based on interoperability and a more collective form of governance for the public sector as a whole.

While public servants deserve much credit for laying the groundwork for the second approach, political action is more firmly rooted in the first one. Ultimately, the public will pass judgment on the pace of this transition, by either tolerating jurisdictional boundaries or demanding change. Only if this latter message becomes loud and clear will politicians take note – and even then these two versions of federalism may well be around for some time.

Jeffrey Roy ( is Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa and Visiting Professor at the University of Victoria.