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Don’t dismiss the dire need for digital government

By Matthew Gray      

I am convinced that we ignore digital government issues at our peril.

Digital Government Minister Joyce Murray, pictured at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
TORONTO—In recent years, I’ve noticed that every time a cabinet has been struck with a dedicated portfolio for digital government, the reaction of many outside government has been groans, eye rolls, or utter indifference. The Liberal government’s decision to reappoint Joyce Murray as a standalone digital government minister was greeted by many with a similar reaction. After nearly five years of working on this file in the Ontario government—Canada’s first to create a ministerial post and a digital service unit—I am convinced that we ignore digital government issues at our peril.
Now more than ever, we need good faith efforts on digital government. Our governments cannot make progress on addressing spiralling health-care costs, backlogged courts, or the transition towards a digital economy without the tools to do so. Governments are struggling mightily to adapt to the digital age, and badly need to rethink how they build, buy, manage, and use technology. Canada’s long-running Phoenix pay system debacle is just one of dozens of expensive technology failures that have jeopardized government priorities and laid bare the inadequacies of outdated ways of working. Bureaucracies have become ever more risk averse and lost their appetite for innovation in the era of permanent campaigning. Change will require trying new things and taking new risks.
Digital government is not just an agenda for making shiny websites or better databases. It’s about a fundamental re-thinking and re-tooling of how government operates in a world that is deeply interconnected by digital technologies. Advocates aspire to unleash a variant of the creative, disruptive innovation that has shaken up so many industries, but that has so far largely bypassed the public sector. Given its scale, it is scandalous how little attention or money has been invested in driving systemic innovation in the public sector, where many innovation initiatives make do with uncertain funding and teams of a few dozen who struggle to get Wi-Fi, let alone embark on ambitious reforms. Countless politicians have promised that in the future, our governments will do more with less, but many seem totally unwilling to give them the tools to do so.
The Canadian Digital Service and innovation units throughout the federal public service are starting to make progress. Provinces are following suit. But experiences from abroad have shown the precarity of these gains; the status quo quickly reasserts itself when political leadership is lost. The U.K.’s Government Digital Service consolidated hundreds of websites and built open source, cloud-hosted applications, claiming savings of £1.6B and catapulting them to the top of international rankings until the loss of its political champion caused their progress to stall. In the U.S., the United States Digital Service and 18F arose from the failure of healthcare.gov but suffered a similar loss of talent, direction and momentum once the Trump administration took office. 
Progress in Canada has been inconsistent and highly dependent on individual champions, like Scott Brison or Deb Matthews. Opposition critics and their parties have been mostly invisible, asking few questions and putting forward few policy proposals. Fair enough, administrative reforms like digital government are hardly ever sexy or eye-catching, have diffuse constituencies, and are hard to package. 
But there is no shortage of issues and plenty of work to be done. Governments have far too little sense of the value for money achieved by the untold billions they spend on technology every year, much of it concealed in transfer payments to lower levels of government and third parties. Every agency insists on building complicated, duplicative systems that don’t work well with each other, dragging down public sector performance and imposing administrative burdens on the public. As governments adopt new tools like facial recognition or automated decision-making, they raise serious questions about appropriate protections. This is not merely an administrative file to left to bureaucracies; many difficult and inherently political decisions need to be made. 
Instead of dismissing the file as an empty tack-on to their parliamentary roles, the Conservative and New Democratic Party’s critics for digital government and their staff should listen to the growing chorus of technologists, designers, and experts in public administration who are calling for digital government reforms. One hopes that they will embrace their roles in the new Parliament while reflecting on what they might do differently if they were to form government. Perhaps then we can start to get past the shrugs and active indifference, and get to work on building the creative, technologically capable public institutions that we need in the 21st century. 

Matthew Gray helped start Canada’s first digital government initiative in Ontario, which became the Ontario Digital Service, and was led by the first minister responsible for digital government. The federal government is in many ways following in Ontario’s footsteps through the Canadian Digital Service.

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