Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, services within the Canadian public sector changed by leaps and bounds, in ways that seemed unfathomable just 10 years ago. Over the past two years, public sector services such as classroom education, citizenship ceremonies, medical appointments and even court appearances have all been conducted virtually. As society optimistically looks to resume a ‘new normal’ in the not-too-distant future, are these evolutions here to stay? 

An important part of the answer to this question ultimately comes down to the ability of the country to narrow the Digital Divide. The Digital Divide is best summarized as the gap between ‘the haves and have-nots’ in an increasingly technologically driven society. Throughout the pandemic this divide grew, as services such as education, healthcare, and justice rapidly transitioned to online at a speed that outpaced the expansion of the connectivity required to access them. Addressing this divide will be critical to supporting a society that clearly wants to perpetuate and expand virtual services.

Exponential growth in virtual services

Leading up to COVID-19, only four per cent of educational institutions were serving online students through scaled online programs. That reality was upended in the space of a few weeks as everyone moved to remote learning. Now, close to 100 per cent of students and teachers have experienced online learning. With students returning to the classroom this fall while expecting the availability of online services, a new era of pervasively hybrid education has been introduced. 

From a healthcare perspective,  according to the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) roughly two-thirds of Canadians were interested in virtual health services in 2019, but adoption did not significantly materialize. However, as COVID-19 unfolded, the system was forced to deploy virtual care overnight, and rigid obstacles were overcome or simply dissolved. A follow-up survey by the CMA found that almost half of all Canadians have accessed a physician using virtual care options and are highly satisfied with the results. Now, we may never go back to where we were pre-pandemic, as the healthcare ecosystem is witnessing the benefits of virtual health. 

Sectors seeing a radical acceleration in virtualization

Despite considerable deliberations regarding technological modernization, the Canadian Justice system hadn’t changed much over the course of the century. This all shifted in 2020. With lockdowns and stay at home orders across the country, there was no way to maintain the ‘old’ way of doing things, and the system had to turn on a dime. Provinces, judges, attorneys, and correctional services now recognize the benefits of digital justice, and are seeking ways to perpetuate and even expand virtual approaches. 

Education, health and justice are three sectors that clearly experienced a radical acceleration in the virtualization of their services. However, disruption is not limited to these sectors; and other areas of citizen services have been and could be impacted as well. For example, think of the transactions that occur every day in-person at Service Canada or Service Ontario centres and how these services could be virtualized. Or, how Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada pivoted permanent residency exams and asylum applications to online. 

The future of a technologically driven society

Given these changes, what does the future look like? Will hospital waiting rooms and school classrooms become obsolete? Will the Government get rid of all its real estate? Probably not, at least not in the near future.  A core reason being, that the Digital Divide persists in Canada. 

Not every Canadian can afford a smart phone with unlimited data and, in many cases, high speed internet is limited or unavailable outside of some of Canada’s major cities, let alone remote areas. For the time being, digital services are just not equally accessible to all Canadians.  

What does this mean? Despite the progress that organizations have made to virtualize services, these services must be accessible equally for all citizens before governments can entirely rely on delivering them digitally. For this reason, the broadband related commitments that political parties pledged in the 2021 Canadian federal election, the recent $1.44-billion investment that the Government of Canada committed to develop Telesat’s Low Earth Orbit satellite project, and parallel efforts by SpaceX are particularly important. The expansion of equal access connectivity that these projects promise have the potential to narrow the Digital Divide and perpetuate the digitally connected society that we have all achieved over the past two years.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
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Joel Marchildon and Anant Gadia
***Joel Marchildon is a Managing Director for the Canadian Public Sector at Accenture. His 25-year career has been spent assisting large Public Sector entities with their most important and ambitious transformation programs that often impact the core services that Canadians depend on for their well-being. In working on these projects, Joel’s goal is to help organizations take advantage of the latest innovations in technology and digital solutions to improve service delivery to Canadian citizens and businesses, while ensuring they make the most effective use of their resources. Originally from the shores of southern Georgian Bay Ontario, Joel has been in Ottawa since enrolling at the University of Ottawa in 1991. Joel is active in the community as a longtime supporter and volunteer with the United Way and several youth sport organizations. ***Anant Gadia is Managing Director, Strategy & Consulting for the Canadian Public Service at Accenture. Over the past decade, Anant has had the pleasure of partnering with public service organizations and financial institutions across Canada and the US in leading many enterprise digital strategy and transformation initiatives. This includes technology-powered business transformation, cloud strategy and transformation, as well as emerging technology and innovation accelerators. These transformations have driven enhanced experiences for citizens, customers, and employees. Over Anant’s career, he has focused on building and sustaining relationships with clients as a trusted transformation leader and partner throughout their digital journey and has found that being genuine, authentic, and transparent is critical to being a valuable advisor. Living in the Greater Toronto Area, Anant is passionate about the community in which he lives and works. He is involved in several corporate citizenship initiatives, including United Way / Giving campaigns, housing / homelessness initiatives, as well as social innovation and sustainability projects.