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.