Shifting toward Federalism 2.0


With almost everything shifting to version 2.0, perhaps it’s time to do the same with Canadian federalism. I’ve written before on Canadian struggles, with two mindsets: autonomy and formal co-operation, when necessary, versus an emerging imperative for more systemic collaboration, especially in the realm of delivering service. Is there a workable blueprint for this latter approach, federalism’s 2.0?

Probably not, but there are growing signs that governments at all levels are getting serious about finding one. The challenge is daunting since one irony of the digital age is that countries that are not federations politically may have an easier time embracing the logic of seamless service architectures.

This is not to imply that jurisdictional divisions are always detrimental to public sector performance. Many rationales that gave birth to federalism continue to be relevant: geographic and linguistic diversities, historical identities and a more operational belief that smaller government, closer to citizens, is better than a single, more centralized governing model.

As such, Canadians may benefit from a layering of service transformation models. The key design question thus becomes: how to retain the benefits of political federalism while creating additional value for the citizen through more collaborative service delivery mechanisms where appropriate.

The deceptively simple answer is to respect political choices and policy jurisdictions while fostering integrative delivery mechanisms. The Crossing Boundaries National Council has called for a more citizen-centric federalism through a four-stage “integrative continuum” meant to shift from the least to most complex of tasks; i) co-location of services; ii) streamlining services; iii) service policy alignment; and iv) collaborative governance arrangements for integrated services.

It’s important to note that the heightened complexity of each stage cannot be viewed purely through the lens of administrative innovation. The third and fourth stages in particular are dependent on political leaders putting in place new structures and new cultures suitable for an environment of interdependence.

Accenture’s recent report, “Leadership in Customer Service: Delivering on the Promise,” portrays this evolution as less a choice than necessity in not only improving service but also in placing service delivery in a broader mosaic of networks and objectives, aimed at satisfying citizens and strengthening communities.

In Canada, cross-jurisdictional initiatives designed to better share or integrate information are growing: seniors portals, business information via BizPaL, and information sharing such as the newborn registration service launched by Service Ontario and Service Canada for birth certificates and social insurance numbers.

The need for genuinely collaborative governance explains the recent protocol on public sector renewal signed by the respective heads of the Canadian and Ontario governments. With respect to service delivery, both parties commit to expanding collaboration in citizen and business facing services; forging a common information technology infrastructure and backbone; establishing a protocol on the exchange of protected or sensitive information; exploring possibilities for service integration; and improving relationships with third party agencies.

This agreement explicitly codifies high-level support for pursuing collaborative opportunities. Nonetheless, Service Canada and Service Ontario now must figure out how to transform such support into innovation, a step requiring not only interoperable infrastructures for sharing information, but also a collective will for undertaking transformational change on this wider plane.

Richard Steele, assistant deputy minister for business development at Service Ontario, sees the process as evolutionary. The biggest challenge, he points out, is not identifying opportunities in theory, but rather to create a clear, compelling business case with benefits for all partners.

High-level commitment and goodwill must translate into tangible and measurable results underpinned by a roadmap for success; otherwise, the basis for sustaining change will not be there.

Beyond any single province, the implications for federalism are national in scope. Would an integrated service architecture for all jurisdictions be desirable, even feasible? What mix of bilateral and national agreements would best serve the interests of the citizen?

Facilitated by the work of the Public Sector Service Delivery and CIO Councils, this sort of dialogue is beginning to take shape. Nova Scotia in November will host the latest in a series of federal-provincial-territorial meetings of deputy ministers to further the conversation.

Prior to this meeting, Dalhousie University and IPAC Nova Scotia are hosting a symposium on service transformation, with inter-jurisdictional partnering among the themes. This two-day event in Halifax, a partnership between Service Canada and Service Nova Scotia, provides an opportune learning forum with keynote, plenary and workshop sessions. For more details visit

Jeffrey Roy is associate professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University. He can be reached at [email protected]

Related content:

The future of federation

Redoing federalism via service delivery

The new face of inter-governmentalism

The European advantage

A mesh for new machinery

A thousand points of light

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