An essential first step to launching Canada into the 21st century
On December 25th Eugene Lang, BMO Visiting Fellow and Interim Co-Director, Glendon School of Public and International Affairs, York University, wrote an Op-Ed in the Toronto Star calling for new thinking to meet Canada’s challenges. Below the Institute on Governance‘s (IOG) President, Maryantonett Flumian responds to that call and puts it in the broader context of the partnerships digital governance activities.
I am writing to applaud Eugene Lang’s Dec. 25th call for a national commission on the future of policy and governance in Canada, and especially for challenging our prevailing models of thought. As Lang notes, an almost religious devotion to certain established models has seriously limited the range of acceptable policy analysis and debate in our country, and there is great value in revisiting our basic public policy framework about once a generation. In this spirit, I wish to add to his vision of a pan-Canadian conversation about economic development, resources, federalism and the need for a renewed contract between government and citizens.
We are living through a transformational period driven by digital technology and the societal changes it is bringing about. This has implications not only for the economy but also for the role of the state and the very nature of our democracy. Social media has created direct, increasingly personalized lines of communication between citizens and thought leaders of every stripe. Social media-fueled movements like Occupy, Anonymous and Idle No More encourage Canadians to participate directly in an ever-expanding number of causes without the need of intermediating organizations or traditional authority structures. Increasingly, Canadians’ patience for the traditional processes of politics and government is diminishing while their expectations for direct access to decision makers is growing. Political actors and governments have yet to significantly adapt the way they do business, but a continued failure to respond will only serve to radicalize public debate and keep governments increasingly out of touch.
Are traditional forms of representative parliamentary democracy still appropriate in the digital era? As Internet technologies, social media and culture more generally continue to evolve, many traditional intermediaries between the Canadian people and their elected leaders have been diminished or disappeared altogether – a phenomenon that can be described as dis-intermediation (e.g., media, civil society organizations, representational bodies). Arguably, it is companies like Apple, Google and Amazon that influence the way most of us experience the Internet yet governments still understand little about the impact that influence is having on how citizens want to experience their democratic institutions.
Given these seismic tensions playing out, and the absence of a clear roadmap to guide the nation, the Institute on Governance, in partnership with a number of leading Canadian universities and private sector organizations, is launching a “Virtual Royal Commission” on democratic governance in the digital age. This partnership, enabled with the generous support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), will explore in depth how best to facilitate public sector transformation in this digital era. In fact, the partners will host a participatory forum on Jan. 28-29th in Ottawa to further define our research program and hear from leading experts, practitioners, academics, and both elected and appointed officials from the public sector.
Topics being discussed at the forum include:
- The dynamics of policy making in the digital era: how will the roles of key players, such as elected officials, political parties, the public service, business and citizens, need to change?
- Do governments and citizens understand the trade-offs between personalized, responsive service delivery – private or public – and personal privacy and security? The regulatory environment that conditions the kinds of innovations taking place should be the subject of informed debate about these trade-offs. A recent public survey conducted by the Institute on Governance and the Environics Institute found that Canadians want better service and coordination among departments and recognize that this requires information sharing, but at the same time they’re anxious about their privacy. How do governments respond to the growing appetite for integrated service delivery, the release of more public data, and increased transparency in decision-making?
- How do governments respond in the face of new, more efficient service providers emerging within regulated markets? The success, failure and performance of companies like Netflix or Uber in Canada are the result of prior service gaps stemming from of the rules we set for the communications industry.
- Increased economic productivity is a function of updated production, service and process technologies. Consumer-led innovation, websites like Kickstarter and technologies like 3-D printing, are only the most visible symbols of a changing production infrastructure. Governments can facilitate increased productivity by updating their regulations to reflect the nature of the new digital economy. For example, the management of issues surrounding intellectual property, cyber security and net neutrality impacts the speed and extent of Canadian product, service and process innovations. The same is true of government investment in early stage technologies that private firms or venture capitalists are wary of supporting.
How well the public sector adapts to the digital era will be a key factor in shaping our future. The economy, the environment, and even the health of our civic life and democracy depend on it. Reimagining governance in the digital era may be a pre-requisite to the post-carbon economy that Mr. Lang calls for. Undertaking a serious exploration of our increasingly digital era and the policy frontiers it presents, is an essential first step to launching Canada into the 21st century.