What Comes After Digital Government? Looking to the Future (Forum)

4 minute read

Author: Mark Robbins, Senior Researcher

Government has had challenges keeping up with technology for decades, but over the past few years government’s troubled relationship with technology has come to a head and has catalysed action. In 2016, we became aware of the ongoing fiasco that is the Phoenix , and perhaps more importantly, the public became aware of how far government has fallen behind. With these circumstances turning into a public embarrassment, the modernization of public administration became a political issue. This, combined with the ongoing Blueprint 2020 initiative, has proved to be a powerful spur to action.

By 2017, Canada had launched the Canadian Digital Service and a number of related modernization initiatives, which can be viewed in many ways as a remedy to government’s long-standing technological backwardness. By 2018, Canada had its first minister of digital government. While this was not a stand-alone position held by someone other than the president of the Treasury Board, who was the minister of digital government, this new cabinet position has also been a welcome sign of progress. But now it is 2019 and we need to start thinking of where to go next if we are to expect continuous progress.

With an upcoming fall election, 2019 is not an ideal year for more planning and machinery changes; 2019 is a year for demonstrating results and for developing a new long-term vision for the future of government. Some might argue that we have that new vision already: digital government. I would like to make the case that this is not good enough. In 2019, digital government is an operational necessity, not a strategic vision. As our own Ryan Androsoff noted recently in Policy Options, today every policy issue is a digital issue. From a conceptual standpoint this makes the pursuit of digital government somewhat problematic. We seek “digital government” as opposed to what exactly? “Analog government” has not been a viable option or a vision for modernization in over 20 years.

To be sure, we still need operational follow-through with existing initiatives. Kent Aitken has pointed out that much of our recent progress in this area has been siloed, isolated, and dependant on working-level champions. While not ideal, this could conceivably continue indefinitely with high-level policy cover, assuming of course that Government of Canada staff stay in existing positions and policy cover continues indefinitely. While this cannot be taken for granted in the best of circumstances, relying on these conditions while entering an election year would be downright foolhardy.

So, what to do?

Some will be in a position to hunker down and power through 2019, taking measured risks and keeping disparate initiatives afloat under trying circumstances. If you are reading this as one of those people, high fives all around. Those outside of the strictly operational level will have a different challenge entirely: to continue modernizing the vision for 21stcentury government, finding new objectives to stride toward, and contributing to a new and timely paradigm.

When the IOG first launched its Digital Governance Forum conference in 2015, it was forward-thinking and ahead of its time to talk about digital government. In 2019, we are giving this initiative a reboot in keeping with our assessment of the landscape, keeping a close eye on changing circumstances and the imperative to continue looking further into the future. Our new Future Forum conference being held this May 6th and 7th continues in the IOG’s long standing tradition of focusing on questions specific to operational implementation of digital government but has added consideration for emerging technologies (such as AI and biotech) and formalized its mission to generate insights that are always ahead of the curve.

In an age where the economy and society are increasingly driven by information technology, we think that the future of government is increasingly dependent on the ability to be meaningfully and intelligently open. As such, this year’s Future Forum will be digging deep into questions of how open government might work, what the challenges will be, and the degree to which it might help offer a guiding vision for government in the 21stcentury. Our themes, panelists and format have been selected with these objectives in mind. The Future Forum conference has also been designed to help build Canadian expertise in the immediate lead-up to Ottawa’s hosting of the global Open Government Partnership summit later in May since it's part of the IOG’s reason for being to help ensure that the Canadian Public Service can always put its best foot forward.

I’d like to conclude by sharing a short anecdote. A friend and recent immigrant to Canada once told me that part of the reason they chose Canada as their new home is that in this day and age, Canada is one of the few places left where people are able to still look to the future and can reasonably expect it to be better. In an era where much of global politics is smothered by present disharmony, or worse still, remains fixated on the past, the ability to keep looking forward to the future is increasingly a competitive advantage for Canada. We hope to do our part at this year’s Future Forum. Hope to see you there.

Future Forum Cover Art

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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