By Winter Fedyk, Associate, Think Digital

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

~ W.B.Yeats

In Canada and around the world, the digital revolution is giving rise to a new society.

In the mid-1990s, governments came alive to the challenge of the internet and online platforms for the first time.

Today, the digital transformation of public services and the institutions of the welfare state is one of the greatest challenges facing federal, provincial, and municipal public servants. They are building a new plane while they fly it.

Although digital governance is likely not top of mind for most Canadians at the ballot box, it will surely become more important in the years ahead as digital products, tools, services, and platforms continue to emerge and combine in ways that redefine the economic, political, and social value that is created, exchanged, and distributed.

The internet of things, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced telepresence, virtual reality, advanced materials, decentralized production technologies, and blockchain technologies are maturing and combining to change the economy and how public services are delivered to Canadians.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital deployment and uptake and forced a channel shift in the way that public services are provided. There is an opportunity for government organizations to leverage the lessons learned over the past two years to serve citizens more efficiently, scale services more cheaply, and adapt to change more quickly.

Of course, government is not the only sector deploying digital tools to improve service to its clients.  In April, Canadian social media took notice of a new virtual cashier system implemented by the healthy fast-food company Freshii in November 2021.

Freshii, whose corporate mission is to help citizens of the world live better by making healthy food convenient and affordable, said the goal of its new “labour optimization program” was to “further assist partners in managing costs and protecting profitability”.

It seems to be working, with the company nearly doubling its revenues in 2021. Angry twitter users were quick to point out how the company’s profits were largely due to outsourcing local Canadian jobs to virtual cashiers in Nicaragua for $3.75 an hour.

Stories like these contrast against ones that highlight the opportunity and potential of digital transformation for improving people’s lives and strengthening public services, like health care enhancements for historically marginalized groups.

Across rural and remote Canada, robots are credited with saving the lives of acutely ill Canadians who would otherwise need to travel great distances for care, burdening them, their families, and the environment.

The juxtaposition of these examples captures the complexity of the challenge faced by policy makers in the digital world, but just at the tip of the iceberg.

Technology and digital tools – especially those that leverage data — change the feasibility, range, and characteristics of the policy instruments available to governments. Applied to public administration, they enable new ways of functioning, engage citizens and civil society at large, and provide service to the public.

But digital transformation also heralds a sea-change in the way society is organized. Changing information flows shift who has power and how they can wield it. Labour that has put food on family dinner tables for generations is quickly being displaced by robots that presently don’t pay income taxes to help fund community services like health care, education, or roads.

A broad public conversation on what this means for Canada can’t come soon enough. While public sector organizations at all levels of government are focused on delivering back-office efficiencies and pursuing service enhancements for citizens, their goals and practices need to evolve to address the meta-level impacts of digital on Westminster policy making and governance.

In this ever-changing and uncertain environment, key questions for policy makers to consider include:

What does policy making in a digital world mean? Does digital help or hinder the policy making ‘knowledge problem’? Are policy making institutions, processes, and cultures flexible enough to tackle ‘wicked problems’ and accommodate the changing and increasing complex environment? In a world of Wikipedia, misinformation, and distributed trust, what is ‘truth to power’?

What is digital governance and what problem does it solve? How do agile principles and practices translate in rigid Westminster systems grounded in tradition and hierarchy? What are the main digital policy pursuits internationally, nationally, sub-nationally, and locally? What key behavioural insights and practices should policy makers consider?

How does digital transformation affect power and who has it? How are the institutions and processes of democracy responding to redesigned information systems and power structures by big data, social media, and other technology tools?

Who are the main policy actors and what are their roles and responsibilities? How can public servants be agile, connected, responsive, user-centric, open, and innovative in the current environment? What best practices exist and how can digital policy risks be managed?

How is Canada faring in the global digital transformation, and what should policy makers focus on for Canadians? What legislative and regulatory priorities need to be addressed? From which ‘burning platforms’ should we leap?

How can policy be future-proofed and what can policy makers do to get ready? What are the key competencies of digital policy leaders and what is their toolkit to become agents of change and transformation?

This is the first in a series of articles that explores these and other questions that consider the governance challenges being surfaced by the digital transformation efforts of policy makers at all levels of government in Canada.

To support policy makers navigating the digital era, Think Digital is developing a new learning program called “Policy Making in a Digital World”. Our aim is to help those working on policy issues at all levels of government to grapple with the questions above and learn about practical tactics and techniques to modernize policy development practices for the digital era.

More information about this new program will be coming soon – including a public survey to get your views on the priorities for training in this area. If you are interested in learning more about this new program as it is developed or have ideas to share, drop us a line at: contact@thinkdigital.ca or subscribe to our mailing list.

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