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The Digital Government Pyramid: Rethinking our Institutions for the Digital Era

4 minute read

Author: Ryan Androsoff

One of the hottest topics in public administration circles right now is “digital government.” A buzzword to be sure, but one that speaks to something real that is happening in governments around the world. There are many definitions for what ‘digital’ means, but the one that I like best was coined by Tom Loosemore (one of the founders of the UK’s Government Digital Service) in this tweet from 2016:


The digital government discussion is undoubtably driven by advancements in technology. However, in my view it is less about simply adopting those technologies to digitize what government already does, and more about using those technologies to re-engineer how government works at a deeper level. As Loosemore notes in his definition above, the driver for this change is the continuously rising expectations of citizens sparked by those same technological advancements. As former Canadian Minister of Digital Government Scott Brison was fond of saying, “We can’t be a Blockbuster government serving a Netflix citizenry.”

I increasingly think of the challenge we are trying to tackle when it comes to digital government as a three-layered pyramid. The top of the pyramid being the “leadership and policy” or the decision-making layer of government. The middle layer consists of the “platforms and processes” of government – the systems and structural elements of how government operates. And the base of the pyramid is what I call the “people and skills” layer, the raw materials, if you will, that drive the activities of government. Any digital government strategy needs to think about how to tackle all three of these layers in sequence.


Since the start of the digital government movement in the early part of this decade, most of the effort has been focused on the top of the pyramid. This has taken many forms, including work to change policies and regulations, the establishment of senior officials responsible for leading ‘digital’ across the organization, and the creation of dedicated digital government units such as GDS in the UK, 18F and USDS in the United States, or most recently, the Canadian Digital Service (CDS). This is a natural place to start in a hierarchical system, and likely also the right one as having the right leadership and ‘north stars’ or ‘exemplars’ to follow are critical for any large system change to take place. But in an organization as large and complex as government is, it simply isn’t enough.

In the last year there has been an increasing focus here in Canada on tackling the base of the pyramid. A collective recognition that systemic system change can’t happen in a sustainable way without raising the bar for everyone in that system. While we often think of government as a faceless organization, it is ultimately made up of people and therefore real change can only happen on a human level. This is something that we at the IOG have started working on through the creation of our Digital Executive Leadership Program, and is part of a broader network under the umbrella of the federal government’s Digital Academy initiative that is tackling the need to improve digital literacy skills at all levels of public sector organizations.

The final frontier for the digital government movement is perhaps the trickiest, namely the platforms and process layer in the middle. If you want to know where the action is going to be for the digital government movement in the coming years, my suggestion is to keep your eye on that space. It is only by tackling some of these complex and intertwined systems, practices, and structures that we can truly unlock the potential of the “Government as a Platform” vision. Areas that we might see more effort being put toward include solving the digital identity issue in a way that will work in the Canadian context, cleaning up legacy systems and shifting to modern cloud-based infrastructure and services, and modernizing often archaic human resources systems and processes.

Some of this admittedly often unsexy work has already begun in pockets at different levels of government, but it can’t be overstated how important it will be to the eventual evolution of our public sector institutions. Only by tackling all three layers of the pyramid will a truly digital government become reality. I’m encouraged by the efforts that are happening at various levels of the pyramid, and excited to work alongside many others across the country and internationally who are part of this movement. The goal is nothing less than reimagining our governance institutions for the digital era, and the foundations for that lofty vision are being laid today.

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Update on the IOG in Iraq: March 2019

4 minute read

Author: Mike Fleet

In March this year, Toby Fyfe, President of the Institute on Governance (IOG), visited Iraq as part of the IOG’s work on a large 4-year project, “Fiscal Decentralization and Resiliency Building for Iraq,” funded by Global Affairs Canada. The visit included participating in the 6th Annual Suli Forum at the American University in Sulimaniyah, titled “Iraq and its Neighbours: Towards a new Regional Order.” In a panel discussion titled “Protecting Stability: The Role of Governance,” Toby Fyfe spoke about the values of good governance and how the principle of subsidiarity can improve the values of trust and service delivery in a decentralized federal Iraq. The panel, which was moderated by CNN’s Peter Bergen (CNN, New America), included Denise Natali (US Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Conflict Stabilization, Department of State), Qusay Suhail (Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Federal Government of Iraq), Yara Salam (Director of World Bank, Iraq), and Ramon Blecua (EU Ambassador to Iraq).

The Iraq mission also featured a graduation ceremony with 28 Iraqi leaders who have successfully completed IOG training to make them better leaders. In addition to Toby Fyfe (pictured below at podium), the Canadian Ambassador to Iraq, Paul Gibbard, senior Iraq officials and Ministers were on hand to recognize these achievements and congratulate the awardees. These graduates reflect a small but important component of the overall IOG work in increasing the capacities and efficacies of senior public officials operating in a federal state.

As well, the project aims to increase the ability of Iraqi women to lead; to improve the capacity of women in CSO’s to advocate and cooperate with government; and to support the Iraqi government’s inclusion of women’s efforts and perspectives in its decisions, policies, and actions.

The effort over the past three years has resulted in strong relationships between the IOG and the Iraqi government; the training of over 1000 male and female senior officials; the launch of intergovernmental negotiations on roles and responsibilities between the levels of government; and greater knowledge of practices and awareness of the tools (and obligations) that come with operating a federal state. Overall, the project supports implementing this constitutional imperative by helping the various governmental stakeholders to develop a common understanding of fiscal and program decentralization and to assist in fostering a degree of mutual trust. Assisting Iraq in implementing fiscal decentralization is intended to help with stabilization efforts for the country by empowering Iraq’s disparate regions with greater responsibilities in the fiscal administration of the country.

For more information, check out the IOG in the World.

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The Fiscal Year in Review: The Top 5 Issues

4 minute read

The IOG sees over 500 public sector managers yearly in leadership classes and through our advisory services. Given that this is our fiscal year-end newsletter, we thought it would be interesting to reflect on some of the key issues raised by these managers and the implications for governance that pertain to the following dimensions:

  • legitimacy and voice
  • direction and purpose
  • performance (including risk management)
  • accountability and transparency
  • fairness and ethical behaviour

The top 5 issues they raise, in no particular order, include transformation, artificial intelligence and machine learning, complexity, diversity and inclusion, and innovation.

1. Transformation: whether because of digitization, new mandates, or shifting organizational structures, transformation at all levels has been a core issue for many departments and agencies. Key takeaway: Not everything is a transformation. Some changes are developmental, some transitional. It’s a good idea to clearly define what we mean by transformation (usually, it means a significant change to your operating model).

Implications for governance? During transformations, leadership presence is important. From deciding who has voice in determining the new direction, to monitoring progress and celebrating results, strong visible leadership and consistent messaging are critical success factors.

2. Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Machine Learning (ML): It’s on everyone’s agenda, but the terms mean different things to different people, and, although there are pockets of AI & ML initiatives in many organizations, it’s still relatively immature in most. Key takeaway: AI/ML both refer to automating some aspects of cognitive processes in organizations, and they require a lot of data which can represent a significant investment in time. Managers need to be clear about what they are trying to automate and understand the cost-benefit equation for investing in these tools.

Implications for governance? AI & ML can help improve governance effectiveness; think of automating monitoring of performance, risk, and external stakeholder opinions, for example. On the other hand, the use of AI & ML needs to be intelligently governed. Among other critical decisions, managers need to decide who has a voice in how data are used and consider the legitimacy and transparency of algorithmic governance within the broader public sector context.

3. Complexity: This is another term that means different things to different people. A dictionary definition of the term ‘complex’ is “…composed of many interconnected parts.” By that definition, most organizations are becoming increasingly complex. Key takeaway: many interconnected parts that are all evolving at different rates of change complicate results management. Complexity reduces our ability to define outcomes since so many different factors are involved in delivering results.

Implications for governance? Although the key dimensions of governance still apply, the way in which they are accomplished might need a rethink. For example, joint accountability, shared performance results, and ‘fuzzy’ targets might become hallmarks of results management in complex contexts.

4. Diversity and Inclusion: Québec just tabled legislation with measures that would impose a secular dress code on all future teachers, police officers, and other public service workers in positions of authority. Similar conversations, including where and when women can wear the niqab, have also made their way into recent political discourse at the federal level.. Although, we still have to achieve the promise of representation embedded in employment equity legislation and practices for so-called ‘Visible Minorities’, Indigenous peoples and people with a disability or disabilities, proponents of equity and equality have started shifting from representation to Inclusion, which holds the promise of permitting people to “bring their whole selves to work”. Key takeaway: This notion of Inclusion has become central in our evolutionary process of more than forty years of legislated fairness. Inclusion defines the promise of a just society, diversity has become an economic imperative, and a diverse workforce tends to be more creative and innovative. Where does this debate leaves us? Can diversity still be an antidote for populism?

Implications for governance? One of the key questions to address is how do leaders legitimize the many different voices that need to be heard in a highly diverse work environment? In addition, our concepts of leadership, performance, and accountability may need to be revisited as we become a more highly diverse nation.

5. Innovation: Canada’s CEO of the Year, Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar, has noted that, “Innovation is without doubt the single most important factor in driving business competitiveness and prosperity.” Governments around the world have recognized this reality and are in a race to leverage the innovation economy and embrace innovation within their public services. Key takeaway: innovation within government organizations is often equated with digitization. But history has shown that innovations such as new structures, new impact models, and improved processes are as important as the introduction of digital tools. Another key takeaway is that government organizations are service institutions and innovation in a service economy can take many forms, from front-end delivery to back-end administrative processing tasks to the design of modern, collaborative infrastructure. It’s important that we take an inclusive view of innovation to encourage innovative thinking across departments.

Implications for governance? One of the key issues is how to make space for innovation and at the same time maintain delivery of pre-established objectives. Should departments set specific targets for innovation? Is that even possible given the uncertain outcomes associated with innovation initiatives? Departments will likely need to embrace experimentation, conduct innovation audits, and revisit their Departmental Results Frameworks to embed innovation as a core objective and allocate resources accordingly.

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Five things Program Leaders need to know about Communications

2 minute read

Authors: Elizabeth Seymour and Michael A. O’Neill

In a multi-channel operational environment, program leaders and managers need increased awareness and understanding of how communications activities support the realization of program outcomes and results. The following can serve as a guide for program communications:

  1. Not everyone can do communications: Strategic communications requires specific knowledge, skills and competencies. To ensure your program receives the communications support it requires, don’t do it yourself, call the professionals and engage with your organization’s communications branch early on.
  2. Communicate early and communicate often: Work with your communications team to ensure you have a sustained and coherent message about your program and activities. Remember, not communicating is communicating something!
  3. Know your audience: One message seldom fits all. Analyze who makes up your audience and tailor your communications strategies and activities to each audience segment.
  4. Communications is strategy not tactics: Communications activities are critical to ensure your program remains relevant and credible. These activities not only help you shape perceptions of your program, but also provide important insights that will ensure your program meets its expectations. Keep sight of the ‘big picture’ – your program communications influence how your audience perceives government as a whole. Remember, the more complex your program, the greater and more strategic your communications need to be.
  5. Monitor for impact: Communications strategies and activities need to be monitored and evaluated for effectiveness and impact. Find out what works and why, and apply those lessons to correct activities that don’t. Communications that don’t reach the intended audience is just wasted time and money.
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