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The article seeks to further discussion on the evolution of Canadian federalism in a digital context and can be found in its full-length format here. The journal Canadian Public Administration’s 2017 special edition on Governance in the Digital Era has been made available in Open Access.
Canada may be well-known for its sound and stable governing system, but these traditional strengths alone will not be enough to make Canadian public institutions leaders in the digital age. With fundamental changes sweeping across the global social and political landscape, Canada’s governing institutions are due for a digital transformation. The next iterations of our federal Westminster system will need to take into account the rise of digital culture, the disintermediation of traditional authorities, and the increasingly distributed and shared nature of governance today. How will Canada’s federal Westminster system evolve for the digital age?
The digital revolution is not just a function of technology, but of the changing expectations, values and relationships that come with it. The disruptive changes occurring today are tantamount to a new Renaissance era in the magnitude of their significance, and few social institutions will emerge from this process unaffected. This ongoing disruption has important implications both for governments and the areas they regulate.
The effects of the digital revolution in turn contribute to further disintermediation – which can be understood as the changing and often diminishing role of traditional authorities. The possibility of instantaneous connectedness that features so heavily in the digital age is partly responsible for this disintermediation, a development which favours peer-to-peer networks over command-and-control hierarchies. The past thirty years have also been accompanied by the increasing distribution of governance functions beyond the formal realm of government control, a trend which has accelerated with new technologies that make distributed governance more feasible and practical.
These three trends create considerable challenges given the federal nature of Canada’s governance system, which is sustained by a fine balance of institutions and relationships that are now facing disruption. Rather than continuing to operate under traditional models of federalism (marked by clear institutional pathways and mutually exclusive jurisdictions), Canada may need to begin examining ways to incorporate elements of alternative approaches to multi-level governance, approaches that harness new governance realities, like the increasing need for collaboration and horizontality, resistance to traditional hierarchies, and the possibility of intersecting jurisdictional memberships.
Some argue that this transition could result in a hollowing-out of democracy or a trivialization of our governing institutions, but this need not be the case. In any case, given declining levels of trust in government, digging in our heels is not a realistic option. New approaches that are better-suited to our emerging reality will have to be examined soon if our governing institutions are to navigate the digital age effectively.