Towards the e-federation?

Several municipalities in Denmark are embracing the concept of a virtual town hall. This vision involves transcending spatial boundaries to achieve joined up administration behind the scenes, while preserving distinct political arenas and a citizen-centric focus in each jurisdiction.

While this movement remains fledgling, the logic behind such experimentation asks whether a state system must have a unique and complete administrative architecture to fulfill the public interest. As within a government where shared services and interoperability may allow for pooling capacity and saving costs, such a model can perhaps include multiple jurisdictions both within and across various levels of government.

Such questions may be timely in light of the recent decision by the premiers of Canada to create a new Council of the Federation. Although details remain sketchy, the objective is a horizontal body to both formalize and better co-ordinate policy and governance decisions across the country. Such a move is long overdue, as the premiers are essentially challenging themselves to move beyond an annual summer fest of fed-bashing and seek common solutions to national questions.

In the short term, this new council is likely to face health care as its primary challenge, particularly as it may or may not align itself easily with the proposed health care council – a separate mechanism envisioned as independent from both federal and provincial governments, reporting directly to Canadians on spending efficiency and service quality.

In the longer term, however, a provincially embedded Council of the Federation may provide a much needed impetus to exploit the nexus between technology and inter-governmental collaboration.

Yet, progress will be slow; there are many pitfalls along such a path. Governments at all levels already face enormous challenges in realizing internally integrated operations, as mixing central direction with autonomy and innovation proves difficult. The Public Sector CIO Council, however, offers an important venue where such dialogues can and are being nurtured. Commendably, this body is making an effort to include the municipal level – unlike the premiers, who seemed determine to by and large ignore the rising prominence of mayors and urbanism across the country.

Like e-government itself, the way forward is much more complex than its deceptively simple rhetoric would have us believe. Nonetheless, 2003 offers a potential turning point for federalism, as the country welcomes a new prime minister and a number of new or freshly re-elected leaders, locally and provincially.

The premiers have made a modest contribution by attempting to shift away from traditional confrontation in favour of a more collaborative tone. Three subsequent conditions must now be met for positive reform to proceed.

First, the premiers must extend this co-operative logic to their own dealings with municipalities. E-government is a useful and valuable place to begin, as all too often provincial decisions pertaining to technology planning and management are insensitive to local concerns.

Secondly, municipalities must collectively act close to home, seeking opportunities for online and offline collaboration with neighbours nearby. Any truly national strategy for reform can only be workable if it builds on a compilation of local and regional success stories.

Finally, the new prime minister must offer a strong political voice, albeit one of a particular and novel manner. This person must answer the premiers with a new model of federalism, one that is collaborative, open and truly inclusive to the contribution of all three layers of government in this country.

Cyber-security provides illustration. A national strategy, to be effective, cannot be federal alone. Actions, policies and resources must be aligned – in some cases integrated – and any unilateral move by the federal government without meaningful public consultation and concerted buy-in by all governments is doomed to fail. Perhaps a new national identity card will test this proposition.

Technology may not reshape federalism today. Yet, the next year or two may well determine this country’s capacity to redesign governance for a more digital and interdependent era.

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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