The digital governance dilemma Canada’s public sector must confront

Not long ago, Sandford Borins went to a federal government Web site to see what level of digital interaction he could have with Canada’s political leaders. He found the page for the Pre-Budget Online Consultation. There were five questions relating to the various consultation themes.

It was at this point, digitally speaking, Borins started to discover little room to maneuver.

“You were given a box and told you can write up to 200 words. Then, later, there was a sixth box for other comments,” Borins, professor of Strategic Management, Department of Management, University of Toronto Scarborough, recalled. “This seems to me to be as primitive an example of online consultation as one could imagine. There was no interactivity, no sharing of information, absolutely no imagination of how the consultation is done.”

Borins told this story as part of a panel discussion held last month as part of Digital Governance Forum: Transforming Government Practice in a Digital Era, which was produced by the Institute on Governance in Ottawa. Although I wasn’t on site personally, video footage of several sessions is now available on CPAC. They are conversations that highlight some of the ongoing challenges for our country’s public sector, particularly CIOs who want to make service delivery easier, more engaging and valuable.

What happened? 

Fifteen years ago, Borins said, he conducted a research project on digital governance that lead to the book Digital State at the Leading Edge. Back then, he said he was mainly complimentary to the Canadian government, which was winning recognition from firms like Accenture for its Government On-Line initiative. Those days, he suggested, are long past.

“The Canada (government) site is full of rabbit holes. It will take you down into the world of government marketing,” he said. “(It is) is part of the marketing campaign of a government that is constantly on ‘transmit’ rather than on “receive.’”

To be fair, many individual politicians are using digital tools to be more transparent and available to citizens. Chrystia Freeland (Liberal MP, Toronto Centre), said the potential of technology is not something that should be overlooked.

“It’s hard, because you have to be more careful in politics, but I think it’s something we need to be doing,” she said.

Back To the Future (Redux)

Government also tends to move slowly, and from a governance perspective that might sometimes be for the best. Samantha Liscio, managing director at Accenture (and former CIO for the Ontario government’s Central Agencies Cluster), moderated the panel discussion and pointed out that much of how we envision digital interaction in films like Back to the Future (which took its hero to what was then the far-off year 2015) doesn’t turn out as we expect.

“We have to temper our enthusiasm to make sure the models we have for operating, and the institutional architectures . . . aren’t limiting our thinking about what the capabilities and capacities might look like,” she said.

Even as they use available technology, the public sector often needs to pay better attention to private sector best practices, said Geoff Mulgan chief executive of a U.K. based “innovation agency” called Nesta.

“Governments aren’t very good at customer segmentation, which businesses do very well,” he said by way of example. “There’s a big mismatch between the spirit of digital media and the reality of government . . . to send an e-mail to the prime minister and get a response back obviously isn’t very realistic.”

‘Big wrong turns’

Mulgan said many governments still haven’t scratched the surface of what’s possible with predictive analytics and machine learning, and instead have been careless with citizen data and “over-engineering” some IT projects where they could have use more readily-available templates and “cheats” instead.

“There have been a number of big wrong turns,” he said. “There was a lot of outsourcing of IT that led to the de-skilling of government. There were so many bad deals and wasted money.”

If governments want to better prioritize their digital strategy, they could start by looking carefully at issues of access, and how well citizens trust the public sector to manage digital information. That was the recommendation from Fen Osler Hampson, director of CIGI’s Global Security & Politics based in Waterloo, Ont.

“If you’re not online and you don’t have access to the Internet, it’s going to further immiserate those who will fall behind in an increasingly digital world,” he said. “That’s not what gets talked about at Davos, but it’s a huge challenge.”

For those citizens who are online today, there is increasing concern about the security of their virtual identities, Hampson said, and the potential fragmentation of the Internet among authoritarian regimes and rules that restrict how data can be shared between companies.

The hour-long video discussion, called “Digital Governance For a Digital Country and a Digital World,” is worth watching in its hour-long entirety. Other sessions of interest include keynotes from Don Tapscott, panels on big data/open data and the future of democracy in a digital age.

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Shane Schick
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