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AI, eh? Is the Public Service ready for Artificial Intelligence?

6 minute read

Part one of a two-part series.

by Toby Fyfe, IOG President

On December 2nd, Toby Fyfe travelled to Quebec City to deliver the keynote address to the SAS conference Bonne gouvernance, donnée et intelligence artificielle. This is the first part of his speech, adapted into English. Part two will appear in January.

At a time when smart phones, smart homes, smart cities and smart wearable objects are becoming more and more ubiquitous, what will the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) be on government, and how will we ensure good governance in this application?

If the answers are not yet clear, one thing is certain: the field of artificial intelligence, and more generally the development and use of cognitive machines, is progressing at an unprecedented rate. Governments already apply it in a wide range of fields, from health care to transportation, and even to the justice system.

The technological transformation brought about by artificial cognitive machines is already beginning to have considerable, and sometimes unintended, consequences on a scale and at a pace that goes beyond previous industrial revolutions. These machines offer, or make decisions, in a complex way that sometimes escapes human understanding.

The work of the Institute on Governance is increasingly focused on what I like to call ʺthe challenges of public sector governance in the 21st century.ʺ And it’s clear that AI is one of those challenges.

Harper Reed, American entrepreneur, engineer, futurist and self-described ʺhacker,ʺ has said that we need to think of artificial intelligence as an extension of the man rather than his replacement. We could also consider it as an extension of government in the policy and operational spheres.

Polls currently show that citizens’ confidence in all institutions, including government, is declining. This decline is attributed to the acceleration of the pace of change and the slowness of institutions to respond to it. Since many citizens simply believe that their institutions are no longer able to solve their problems, this decline in confidence leads to a rise in populism. In this “post-truth” era, debates focus more on emotions than on objectively verifiable facts. We are witnessing the collapse of fact-based problem solving and an increase in identity-based politics.

Technology is the main driver of the speed of change that governments now face, whereas public sector governance is in many ways rooted in the past as it searches for social consensus. But reaching such consensus takes time. When we try to complete reforms and changes too hastily and without consensus, the population’s discomfort is quickly felt.

Conversely, emerging digital technologies are evolving rapidly. Citizens therefore expect, through these technologies, greater inclusion in decision-making and better consideration of their needs. Klaus Schwab, from the World Economic Forum, says that society is going through the “fourth industrial revolution.” He notes that this emerging era could lead to increased economic disparity, a feeling of injustice, and even social unrest.

From the point of view of government services, rapid advances in the technology sector have significantly altered the expectations of citizens who are influenced by their experiences with Google, Amazon and Facebook. Their interactions with government are increasingly out of sync with the quality, speed and user-experience they have grown accustomed to in other aspects of their lives.

In parallel to this, think of the growing difficulties of governments in the purchase of technologies and the failures of digital projects—the Phoenix pay system comes immediately to mind. Public sector organizational cultures and processes take time to adapt to the more agile approaches that characterize the digital age.

That’s in part why the use of artificial intelligence in public administration poses many challenges. But it also offers unique opportunities.

We all know that discretion and decision-making in the public sector is strongly influenced by the information that is available. However, the capabilities of cognitive machines exceed the capacity of humans in many areas and for many tasks. The improvements that AI can bring have the potential to help improve the quality, cost and speed of administration and services to citizens.

This technology is also changing the nature of risks to good governance in a significant and important way: it is broadening existing threats to governance actors, introducing new threats, and modifying the characteristics of the threats themselves. For example, how does this new technology affect the field of public law, administrative law, human rights and the right to privacy?

The rule of law, in principle, must ensure that the law is administered in a transparent and predictable manner. This provides a form of guarantee to those who are affected by these laws. But what are the legal implications when we use AI for administrative decisions? How can the obligations of procedural fairness be ensured when decisions are automated? How can we defend this kind of decision-making?

The ambivalent side of this technology can involve a series of risks that should not be underestimated. To ask the right questions is not enough; we must also reflect on the frameworks we need in order to use AI wisely.

From a policy point of view, technological changes are a source of disruption and significant pressure, such as the regulation of autonomous vehicles, for example, or the impact of “fake news” on the electoral process, where everything is amplified by social networks.

The increase in the use of AI is one of these disruptive technologies. Its followers see it as the way of the future, a solution for improving services to citizens and for developing evidence-based policies. Others see the potential to reinforce or aggravate existing inequalities in our society if they are not used ethically and responsibly.

I remember the discussions we had 30 years ago about the impact that the Internet would have on government and governance. And 20 years ago, the discussions on the impact of social media. In both cases, some were convinced that these new technologies would transform government and save the world. There were also those who thought it was the beginning of the end.

The reality, as always, is more complex. Over the last two decades, these tools and ʺonline platformsʺ have given us the opportunity to better engage with citizens and make our democratic governance systems more open. We have also seen the disadvantages of misusing them for disinformation and division. The way a new tool is used determines its impact on society, and artificial intelligence is no exception. This raises the fundamental question of governance.

Let’s be honest: in the last two revolutions, the Internet and social media, governments were asleep at the switch. Rather than shaping the future, governments mostly just reacted. And even when they did react, they did so without the awareness and foresight to understand the impact these technologies would have on society and its institutions. In many cases, it was too little too late to think about new regulations or putting new governance systems in place.

We cannot afford to adopt the same approach to artificial intelligence. Our public institutions must be ready now for any governance challenges to come.

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Distributed governance in Canada: The changing nature of public sector governance

3 minute read

The IOG recently released an updated study on Distributed Governance Organizations (DGOs) in the Canadian public sector which demonstrates that such distributed organizational forms continue to account for a considerable portion of public sector expenditures and employment at all levels of government in Canada—an estimated 65% of government spending (federal, provincial and territorial) in 2010 and 66% in 2016-17.

“The role that these DGOs play across jurisdictions in Canada continues to change the nature of public administration,” says Samuel Wells, the study’s principal author. “It appears that the devolution and delegation of power and responsibilities away from core government is now not only a permanent feature of public sector governance, but the new study reveals with certainty that distributed governance is the predominant overall form of public administration in Canada.”

The original study, published in 2012, identified new trends in the design and machinery of government and the resulting changes that occurred to power concentration. In particular, it was noted that there had been a shift from the traditional ministerial design of the Westminster executive branch to the use of organizations that operated at “arm’s length” from their responsible minister—organizations we now refer to as DGOs. At the time of the original study, it was clear that Canada’s public service was moving away from “clear lines of accountability within vertically-integrated organizations” and towards an increasingly complex and interdependent system.

“The evolution of the public sector in this manner entailed a number of consequences, including less direct accountability to elected officials (i.e. ministers) and a greater capacity for the public service to operate independently,” says Karl Salgo, IOG’s Executive Director of Public Governance and a contributor to the 2019 study. Salgo notes that a particular increase in the use of DGOs at the provincial level suggests that distributed governance is increasingly relied upon for service delivery purposes relative to other functions, such as policy-making. “Regardless of function, however, the use of DGOs compels public administrators to take new approaches to matters such as oversight, policy alignment, and the management of risk,” he adds.

As the IOG has noted in the past, the reality that Salgo refers to carries certain risks that must be effectively managed. There is significant financial, operational, reputational, and policy exposure in organizations that have been less subject to traditional government control systems and have not undertaken new approaches to oversight and alignment.

“On the other hand,” says Wells, “government potentially undermines the purpose of DGOs when they subject these organizations to the same level of oversight as core ministries.”

“Hence,” adds Salgo, “a DGO must be managed in a manner that ensures that its operations line up with core government mandates while maintaining an appropriate degree of autonomy over its day-to-day functions, which will vary based on an organization’s roles and responsibilities.”

In the context of other work, including in his advisory practice, Salgo has observed a significant extension of traditional control systems to DGOs in recent years, as well as the increased use of mechanisms to improve policy alignment. These mechanisms include memoranda of understanding, directives, and statements of expectation between ministers and the DGOs for which they are accountable.

“The IOG will continue its work in this area,” says Salgo, “and in particular, we plan to explore the use of funding and accountability agreements with non-government transfer payment recipients as a means of public service delivery.”


Distributed governance—the devolution of public sector responsibilities to organizations with day-to-day independence from core government—is:

  • A predominant characteristic of contemporary public administration.
  • Shown to account for the greatest portion of public sector spending in Canada. Most commonly used for service delivery functions with increasing use being made of partnerships with non-government entities.
  • Raising distinctive issues for the public sector, notably with respect to the management of key risks—financial, operational, and reputational, as well as the risk of misalignment with overall government policy.
  • Now a permanent feature of public sector governance.
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Madeleine Meilleur, IOG’s Senior Advisor, receives the Order of Ottawa

2 minute read

Madeleine Meilleur, Senior Advisor at the IOG, who is leading the gender equality component of the IOG’s major, multi-year project – Fiscal Federalism, Decentralization and Resiliency-Building– for the Government of Iraq, has received the Order of Ottawa.

Established in 2012, the Order of Ottawa recognizes exceptional residents who have made significant professional contributions to city life in the areas of arts and culture, business, community service, education, public service, labour, communications and media, science, medicine, sports and entertainment, or other fields that benefit the residents of Ottawa.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said that Madeleine and the other 2019 Order of Ottawa inductees “are a group of tremendously accomplished residents who have made a positive impact on our city through their professional achievements and philanthropic endeavours. Their leadership, creativity and hard work serve as an inspiration for us all.”

IOG President Toby Fyfe echoed the Mayor’s comments saying “Madeleine brings to the IOG the same dedication, passion and joie de vivre that she brings to everything. She has not only supported, but made friends with, the many Iraqi women with whom she has come in contact. They have benefitted from her intelligence, commitment and presence just as our friends and colleagues have here in Ottawa.”

At the IOG, Madeleine has been working with a group of dedicated Iraqi women to enhance their leadership, advocacy and decision-making abilities to operate in a federal state, and to equip them to occupy positions of power in the decision-making spheres.

Back at home, Madeleine has served the City of Ottawa and Ontario for more than 20 years as a nurse, lawyer, and in elected office. She is known as a champion of the Franco-Ontarian community. As a nurse, she worked with infants and new mothers at the Hôpital Monfort for more than a decade. While working, Madeleine earned a law degree and changed careers to specialize in labour and employment law. She went on to pursue a career as a politician and served both municipally and provincially for more than 25 years. Between 1991 and 2003, she served as a City of Vanier Councillor and a Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton Regional Councillor and worked with her fellow Councillors to create a bilingual policy for the City of Ottawa.

From 2003 to 2016, she served as Member of Provincial Parliament for Ottawa-Vanier where she held various ministry positions. In 2003, Madeleine became the Ontario Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs, a position she held for 13 years. In that capacity, she oversaw investments targeting education and health in francophone communities and played an integral part in creating the Commissioner for French Language Services position. As Attorney General of Ontario from 2014 to 2016, Madeleine focused attention on Indigenous Peoples, increasing French services in provincial courthouses and ensuring bilingualism is considered in the selection of candidates for judicial positions. She appointed the first female Franco-Ontarian Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice.

Madeleine has fought for important projects for Ottawa including the revitalisation of Montreal Road, the Byward Market, light-rail transit, expansions of the Hôpital Montfort and Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, and La Nouvelle Scène Gilles Desjardins theatre. She has supported the Ottawa Carleton Children’s Aid Society, the Champlain District Health Council, Ottawa Carleton District Health Council and the Vanier Housing Corporation, among others.

Congratulations, Madeleine, from your IOG friends!

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Introducing Paula Barrios, IOG’s new Senior Research Analyst

3 minute read

“If Canada is truly serious about climate change, then we need to seriously consider the idea that most of the world’s oil reserves, including Canada’s, need to stay where they are: buried. I am convinced that if we don’t start moving away from carbon-intensive activities now, instead of investing in them for decades to come, we will never break our dependency on our non-renewable resource-based economy, and 50 years from now, our planet, population and economic wellbeing will suffer the consequences.”

That’s Paula Barrios, IOG’s new Senior Analyst, summing up just one conclusion after 16 years of experience conducting research and writing analytical reports on a wide range of sustainable development and environmental issues.

“We need to move to a circular economy,” she says, “and it is time to have a real conversation about how to achieve that in Canada, and to see how we can actually effect the change we need to move us from a resource-intensive economy to a low-carbon one, while leaving no one behind, especially workers in Alberta and other parts of the country.”

With a Master’s degree in international law and a Ph.D in international environmental law, both from UBC, as well as a law degree from the University of Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia, her country of origin, Paula has devoted her working life to researching and reporting on the evolving and worsening state of the global environment.

In addition to her international experience with Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment and various UN programs, offices and conferences, Paula has also contributed to vital and important research here in Canada in the areas of international environmental law and policy, sustainable development, corporate social responsibility, environmentally- and socially-responsible investment, and chemicals and waste.

“When it comes to the wellbeing of the economy and the environment,” she says, “it’s not an either-or proposition. There’s just too much at stake for that approach. To me, it all falls into place when you take a long-term approach, because without a healthy environment, you cannot achieve a healthy economy or have companies that succeed and create real wealth and prosperity over the long term.”

Paula saw first-hand evidence of this tenet while working at SHARE (Shareholder Association for Research and Education), a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to promoting environmentally and socially responsible investment through education, research and dialogues with public companies on behalf of institutional shareholders interested in building a sustainable economy.

“We worked with long-term oriented institutional investors, such as pension plans and charitable foundations, to help them align their investments with their missions and long-term financial objectives by engaging with companies in their portfolios on environmental and other long-term risks,” she explains. “For instance, we worked with a foundation that was interested in protecting Canada’s forests to ensure that the companies it owned were promoting sustainable forestry practices; another investor client, a pension plan, asked us to work with companies in Alberta’s oil sands region to mitigate the risks associated with land and tailings reclamation, and we produced a report to create awareness around such risks; and we worked with several clients to address water pollution risks associated with shale gas extraction.”

Paula says that she came to the IOG because she wants to “contribute to the good quality and credible research the IOG has been producing to promote good governance,” and to use her experience in the environmental field. So, one of her first projects at the IOG will involve developing options for a sound governance model for thePan-Canadian Approach to Wildlife Health, a new strategy adopted by the Federal, Provincial and Territorial governments in June 2018 that aims to improve the management and protection of wildlife health in Canada.

Given her domestic and international experience—and her passion—in these areas, we have no doubt that Paula will help the IOG to continue to make a solid contribution not only to advancing good governance in the environmental sphere, but also to helping address the myriad issues affecting our natural environment, both here in Canada and around the world.

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IOG creates a Science and Innovation Advisory Council

1 minute read

Science and innovation are necessary to address Canada’s grand challenges and to build robust and inclusive prosperity and resiliency in the 21st century. Science and innovation touch every aspect of our daily lives, as individuals and a society.

“To ensure that Canadians and Canada continue to benefit from science and innovation, the IOG is driving an evolution in science and innovation policies and governance,” said Toby Fyfe, IOG President, “I am pleased to announce the creation of a Science and Innovation Advisory Council to support IOG’s new Science and Innovation area of practice.”

The IOG Science and Innovation practice focuses on learning and leadership development, advisory services, and independent research. The Science and Innovation Advisory Council is comprised of leading thinkers and doers in each of these three areas:

  • Sarah Everts, Associate Professor and CTV Chair in Digital Science Journalism, Carleton University
  • Monica Gattinger, Director, Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa
  • Katie Gibbs, Executive Director, Evidence for Democracy
  • Nancy Hamzawi, Assistant Deputy Minister, Science and Technology Branch, Environment and Climate Change Canada (Chair)
  • Rees Kassen, Department of Biology, University of Ottawa (Vice Chair)
  • Janet King, Deputy Minister Champion for Science and Associate DM, Laboratories Canada Procurement and Public Services Canada
  • Jenn Maclean, Director, Collaboration, nGen
  • Eric Meslin, President and CEO, Council of Canadian Academies
  • Pascal Michel, Chief Science Officer, Public Health Agency of Canada
  • Peter Phillips, Distinguished Professor and Founding Director of the Johnson-Shoyama Center for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy, University of Saskatchewan

For more information about Science and Innovation at the IOG, contact Jeff Kinder, Executive Director, Science and Innovation at