Last September the federal government announced a small business hiring credit. Asked to justify the policy, finance minister Joe Oliver cited analysis by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), a nonprofit that represents the interests of small and mid-size business owners. It projected that the government’s policy would create 25,000 person-years of employment. By contrast, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that the policy would create 800 jobs.
When journalists asked the finance minister’s office for the department’s analysis, the minister’s office directed them to the CFIB’s study. This case illustrates a shift away from policy development and analysis as the principal purview of public servants. It raises the prospect of broader engagement with civil society and citizens as government develops policy. It also presents challenges related to legitimacy, accountability, and fair representation.
Speaking to these challenges at the Digital Governance Forum, Wikinomics author Don Tapscott signaled two big opportunities for government. The first is to change the business of government. Tapscott argued that bureaucracy was a hot new management term a century ago but that we must now move beyond it. Government should release its treasure troves of data and become a platform for the self-organization of other pillars of society.
The second opportunity involves remodeling governance itself, changing the relationship between citizens and their government. The status quo is a weak public engagement model: citizens vote and leaders govern. The opposite extreme, electronic mob rule on a nightly basis, is no better. According to Tapscott, governance in the digital age should promote a second era of democracy that includes stronger representation, less vested interest and power forces, and more public deliberation and engagement.
At the forum, former federal deputy minister Rob Fonberg said that the role of public servants has shifted from policy development and analysis to policy filtering and advising and the rigid adherence to 20th century accountability structures is at odds with digital era policy analysis.
Chris Froggatt, who has served as chief of staff to federal and provincial ministers, added that the biggest changes are the speed of information flow, new tools that politicians and public leaders have access to, and vast increase in the policy content available to everyone. These developments speak directly to the opportunities identified by Tapscott.
They also highlight the importance of a central topic of discussion at the forum: the dis-intermediation of traditional governing institutions in the digital era. Who should serve as the go-between in conversations among politicians, public servants, journalists, lobbyists, advocates, and citizens? If governance in the digital era has created a dis-intermediated and distributed governance context, how should government institutions adapt? Are other players or platforms better placed to mediate discussions about public policy?
As one might expect, the forum did not settle on a particular way forward. Some argued for incremental change: gradual reform of the Canadian Westminster system and recognition that political parties, public servants, citizens, and others play important but distinct roles in policy decision-making processes. Others insisted that we are on the cusp of a historical revolution, like the shift from the agrarian to the industrial age, and that fundamental change to Canadian governing institutions and practices is required.
Ultimately, argued Ann Pappert, Chief Administrative Officer at the City of Guelph, these are questions about leadership. Pappert believes that government needs to free public servants from their gatekeeping roles. Sharing information and embracing uncertainty may seem counterintuitive to senior leaders who value authority and control, but in the digital era co-production is becoming the norm. Co-production collapses the space between politicians, public servants, and citizens and requires people to leave their traditional view of place-based authorities at the door.
Democracy works because citizens perceive their governments to be legitimate. Public opinion polling and declining voter turnout may soon bring this legitimacy into question, if they have not done so already. The digitally driven governance inflection point about who should lead and how transcends partisan ideology. In a dis-intermediated context, a “status quo” is elusive and the process for developing and determining public policy continues to change.
How should governing institutions respond? These are particularly pertinent questions in the lead up to the 2015 federal election and even more so thereafter. The need for digital age policy development processes will only continue to intensify in the months and years ahead.