Interacting digitally with citizens. It’s called digital inclusion and it’s been an aim of many governments for years. It saves them money by enabling agencies to move away from physical, in-person service delivery, which requires trained staff and physical facilities. It increases the efficiency of processes like filing taxes or renewing a driver’s licence, and it’s more convenient for all concerned.
But it’s a moving target too. While governments have been moving to make themselves more accessible online, the digital divide that keeps Canada’s rural and remote communities behind large urban centres isn’t going away, and much more needs to be done to close the gap, writes Jeffrey Roy in Canadian Government Executive.
Canada has been less aggressive than other countries in moving to digital service delivery, Roy says. He notes Great Britain’s “digital by design” online and mobile strategy, and Denmark’s wholehearted move to digitize a huge spectrum of public sector services, leaving in-person channels only for unique cases.
“For Canada, more akin to the British socio-economic landscape than that of Denmark, the advent of mobility and Web 2.0 platforms underscores the tremendous importance of targeting digital inclusion in a strategic and holistic manner, rather than merely anticipating that divides shall naturally diminish,” Roy says. “If anything, the evidence at present points to widening cleavages in many respects and three areas merit attention and action: geography, demographics, and education.”
Roy says Ottawa’s recent increases in funding for rural broadband projects are only a Band-Aid solution as the rural-urban divide continues to deepen. Other forward-thinking governments, such as Australia, have been much more proactive in equalizing digital infrastructure, he says.
“While federal and provincial entities spend billions on their own IT needs, local governments, and smaller communities especially, languish in comparison,” Roy says. “The stark realities of Nova Scotia at present underscore this point, with Halifax growing while several small municipalities have de facto filed for bankruptcy protection from the province. Ontario is similar in this regard: witness Cisco’s massive investments in the Toronto area while many communities in the North remain shackled by uneven and costly broadband options.”
While the federal government continues to prioritize physical infrastructure such as roads, Roy believes bodies like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities could do more to focus attention on the digital deficit plaguing smaller communities. And he sees a private-sector role in developing cloud infrastructure to support service delivery and their back-end IT systems.
Smaller communities are also facing demographic and educational challenges. Young people move to large cities to pursue higher education and job opportunities. And in spite of optimistic assessments that information technology will naturally narrow the disparity between small and large communities, Roy suggests that this convergence isn’t necessarily a natural phenomenon.
“Divides often persist and can even deepen unless explicit and meaningful strategies are undertaken to temper the confluence of markets and urbanization,” Roy concludes. “Canadian governments at all levels must take heed of this lesson and forge collaborative and innovative solutions for digital inclusion both within and across communities large and small.”
Roy is a professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and recently published From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. He also authored a February report on mobile options for government agencies – access it here.