Cities, countries and continents – the new politics of security

Only a few years ago, the Internet sparked the advent of e-government and better service delivery became the mantra of public sector reform. Today, in a post-Sept. 11th United States, security is now the dominant lens through which all else must be viewed.

The new politics of security is a nexus of shifting values, new technologies and old bureaucracies. The holistic goal of making America a safer place at home, and acting pre-emptively abroad in doing so, is reshaping both international and domestic priorities and driving a rare and significant transformation of U.S. governance.

Although senior officials from the three NAFTA countries recently gathered to discuss their common e-government agendas, the continental fabric is under tremendous strain. A technological refurbishing of the public sector within each country could do much to facilitate more secure and open borders, shared information systems and a gradual shift to a seamless form of continental governance, but the politics are simply not aligned in such a manner.

Canada can feel a certain affinity with Mexico, whose ill-timed presence on the UN Security Council brought awkward attempts to avoid a public position on U.S.-led military action in Iraq.

The United States will not seek to explicitly extract revenge on those countries in North America – and Europe – opting out of the “coalition of the willing.” But Canadian businesses, and many cross-border ethnic communities, are right to be concerned that their interests in a more open continent are now secondary at best.

Such tensions reflect the changing face of e-government in the United States. The U.S. federal government now spends US$50-60 billion a year on information technology.

Still, this figure pales against a defence budget expected to surpass US$500 billion next year. While the Department of Defense struggles to spend, the Senate recently clawed back much of a proposed – and very modest – funding pool for new e-government initiatives centred on better service delivery.

In addition, the federal government is now engaged in arguably its most ambitious overhaul ever: the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, an awesome attempt at bureaucratic fusion across more than 20 previously autonomous organizations.

This dramatic shift in energies and thinking can hardly be exaggerated. Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. and state governments led a trend toward devolved accountability and flexible and more customer-friendly management. The arrival of e-government meant making use of online channels and better coordination of such efforts.

When better service gives way to stronger security, however, incentives and actions alter accordingly. Who will preach risk-taking and a tolerance of failure during a time of conflict and terrorism?

Alongside with Homeland Security is a resurgent American military. The result is a shared and over-arching agenda of security, encompassing these separate but related bureaucratic struggles, which vastly overshadows the political energies engaged in faster, friendlier service. More citizen-centric government remains a goal, but with new meaning.

The new politics of security also presents daunting challenges for local governments – who remain on the front line of the homeland security effort. At a time when a softening economy, the aforementioned federal priorities and tax cuts create acute budgetary shortages, cities are asked to do more.

This localizing convergence of pressures may spark new collaborative responses. For example, San Diego’s recent Super Bowl featured a lesser-known Shadow Bowl, the first region-wide effort joining government, business, academe and volunteers in both online and offline operations designed to monitor every action and every move on this particular day of heightened concern.

In the United States, debates about devolution are over. Local governance will increasingly comprise complex networks of companies and civic groups – and multiple layers of government. It is hard to be optimistic that inter-governmental capacities for cooperation will win out over bureaucratic infighting across state and federal levels.

Such is the new face of America’s e-government. Canadian governments at all levels must think carefully – and concertedly – about the extent to which this depiction holds true at home.

Jeffrey Roy ( [email protected]) is a Senior Research Fellow of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa and a Visiting Scholar at San Diego State University.

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