Three not so little words

Public sector management has traditionally been premised on a command and control regime, where clear rules dictate the behaviour of public servants. However, e-government’s pressures for collaboration and more citizen-centric thinking transcend such traditions. As a result, governance and human resource reform are now inter-related components of the necessity for public service renewal.

What are the implications for managing people? E-government denotes an important shift in the nature of governance, and there are three major sets of issues that must be considered simultaneously: structure, accountability and culture.

In terms of structure, parliamentary regimes are based on a series of primarily functional units, reporting to a single minister who is accountable in turn to the public. This emphasis on vertical reporting means that any action by a public servant is shaped exclusively by the agenda of a single minister.

Yet e-government brings system-wide efforts to forge a shared infrastructure. How can more horizontal forms of coordination be achieved, joining administrative units in a concerted and meaningful manner?

There is a need to define new working relationships that transcend traditional and functional orientations of public administration. E-government will require multi-dimensional agendas and reporting structures within which managers navigate vertical and horizontal issues in ways that are both formally recognized and constantly fluid.

The new structural challenges mean that notions of accountability must also be transformed. Most governments exist in democratic contexts that seek to preserve accountability with an emphasis on process – rather than performance. Parliamentary oversight, independent offices and media scrutiny mean that public servants face constant pressures of probity and transparency.

If such a narrow interpretation of accountability continues, the emergence of e-government brings huge problems. Already, the integrative nature of portals, and how services are delivered through them, point to the need for different and multiple forms of accountability. Otherwise, how will online strategies be gauged from a government-wide perspective?

Accountability begins with resources which are both allocated and measured. Typically, the budget process features a speech of intentions that are much more integrative than subsequent implementation – which then proceeds along the lines of individual units. This dynamic is inherently political, as most ministers seek additional resources for their fiefdoms in order to gain visibility and credit.

Yet collaborative efforts must have an underlying purpose and so, to some degree, the willingness to collaborate must be present within individual units who must see the potential benefit in doing so. This conundrum is at the heart of the accountability challenge facing governments – namely, striking a balance between centralized leadership and decentralized action, both of which must be linked and institutionalized in an effective manner.

With structure and accountability comes an important human dimension – the need for cultural renewal. The challenge begins with the unleashing of creativity that already exists inside of government and nurturing it accordingly.

Doing so requires a much more participatory culture internally – in keeping with the rhetoric of e-government externally: that is a government listening and responding to clients, and partnering more creatively to do so. The Internet facilitates communication across government behind the scenes. The next step is to make use of these channels across government for both organizational and behavioural innovation.

The human resource regime of tomorrow must embrace complexity, providing public servants with guiding principles and the freedom to interpret them as needed. Transparency must shift in a corresponding manner – to emphasize why public servants act.

In realizing the promise of e-government, collaboration begins with the portal and extends to a more holistic challenge of collaborative governance. Careful attention must be accorded to the structural, accountability and cultural dimensions of this renewal. Without simultaneous action on all three fronts, the vision of public sector excellence will remain just that.

Jeffrey Roy is Managing Director of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. He may be reached at Please visit the Centre at