Defining Westminster Democracy for the Digital Era

3 minute read

Canada is evolving: government must do the same…

Westminster parliamentary democracies like Canada’s are widely credited with a high capacity to adapt to changing societal needs. Their ability to adapt to the realities of a digital society is putting this claim to the test in Canada. Westminster was not designed with the digital era in mind. As we like to put it at the Institute on Governance, “Two forces – digital and governance – are meeting like tectonic plates, shifting the landscape and giving rise to new peaks and valleys around key governance questions that all Canadians need to be concerned about: Who has real power? How should decisions be made? How can all players make their voices heard and ensure that account is rendered?”

These are precisely the kinds of questions that a new partnership of academic, private sector, and public interest institutions from across Canada is seeking to answer, through a national discussion on governance in the digital era. Established by the Institute on Governance, the University of Victoria, OCAD University, Dalhousie University, and MIGHTY Purpose, with the support of a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), this digital governance partnership was formed to lead a large-scale engagement and applied research program focusing on how digital culture and digital tools are transforming governance theory and practice in Westminster systems like Canada’s, be it at the political level, the level of public administration, or of citizen engagement. We believe that digital governance is the central challenge facing governing institutions and societies in the coming decades, where no one owns information, power is dispersed and authority and accountability are being reconceived. As we see it, digital governance is about more than new tools and technologies. It's about how the digital age is reshaping governing institutions and the political landscape we inhabit: creating new pressures and new tensions, but also new opportunities.

To launch this program of activities, the Institute on Governance, with the support of Canadian Government Executive, as well as our partners and key sponsors, will host a large conference in Ottawa, January 28-29, 2015. This digital governance forum will bring together citizens, elected officials, academics, public servants, industry leaders, as well as representatives from political parties, the media and the not-for-profit sector, to expand our network, chart the direction of our activities, and yield practical recommendations in five applied domains: democratic governance, policy-making, service delivery, regulation, and risk and accountability.

Forum participants will explore issues relating to information superabundance, personal data collection, hyper-accountability, the disintermediation of governing institutions, the appearance of new governance actors, the challenges of multi-level governance, and the proliferation of multi-sector delivery models, for example. The forum’s panels will be designed to generate follow-on questions and observations on the state of practice and future directions, and will identify further research themes to be tackled by working groups struck for each of the forum’s applied domains.

Working groups will discuss new ways to: advise leaders; engage citizens and stakeholders; build new cultures in our institutions and polity; define collective interests; share, lever and protect data; and understand and monitor how Westminster governance is working now and could work better in the digital era. Working groups will convene immediately after the two-day conference and will include invited guests, subject matter experts and thought leaders. Working groups will be interdisciplinary and tasked with outlining key deliverables, establishing timelines and identifying additional partners.

Given the scope of the challenges ahead, the partnership’s activities aim to have national impact and visibility, providing evidence based research and engaging Canadians to develop practical solutions to pressing public concerns. As such the forum represents the first step toward a larger and longer-term applied research agenda that will span years but will also introduce new governance insights and approaches into the public sphere on an ongoing basis. The digital governance partnership is committed to balancing long-term thinking with an awareness of the immediate needs for innovative thinking in this domain, and we will look to seize windows of opportunity – such as the upcoming federal election – to generate practical impetus for change.

A full agenda for the digital governance forum in January is available at the partnership’s website:, as is conference registration information and information on early bird pricing, which is in effect until January 9th. If you would like to know more about the partnership, our activities, or how to support our work, please do not hesitate to contact us at

About the author

Davide Cargnello

Davide Cargnello

Vice President & Chief Research Officer

As Vice President and Chief Research Officer, Davide leads the Institute’s research practice. His responsibilities include directing the Institute’s research agenda and programs, building partnerships, and providing advisory services to public sector clients.

Davide has a strong professional and academic background in accountability, risk, institutional and applied ethics, digital governance, and theories of public administration, gained through fifteen years of experience in the academic and public sectors in Canada and the UK.

Current major initiatives include a multi-year applied research and engagement program focusing on the impacts of digital culture and technologies on Westminster governing institutions, an initiative on risk, accountability and innovation in the public sector, research on federalism, decentralization and democratic reform, and a research and engagement project on indigenous governance.

Before joining the Institute, Davide was a lecturer at the University of Oxford and a visiting scholar at McGill University. He completed a doctorate in ethics at the University of Oxford, a master’s in public administration at Carleton University, a master’s in philosophy at the University of Oxford, and a bachelor’s degree at McGill University.

He is fluent in English, French and Italian with working knowledge of Spanish and German.

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