The death of deference and beyond – Canadian Government Executive

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Change Management
May 7, 2012

The death of deference and beyond

CGE Vol.13 No.3 March 2007

Consider the following recent history:

  • Ontario Premier-designate Dalton McGuinty, being shown the cabinet room for the first time, has to request that Powerpoint facilities be provided. Ten months later, Premier McGuinty has to request that ministers and central agency staff turn off their BlackBerries in cabinet meetings.
  • Justice Gomery restricts the dissemination of testimony at some hearings of his Commission of Inquiry. He is circumvented, with impunity, by a Minnesota-based website.
  • MP Garth Turner is expelled from the Conservative caucus for using his blog to post confidential information and criticize the party.
  • Bloggers criticize Liberal MP Sarmite Bulte for aligning herself too closely with the entertainment industry position on copyright. She subsequently loses her safe Toronto seat in the 2006 election.

Information technology facilitates immediacy (Dalton McGuinty’s problem), transparency (Justice Gomery’s problem), free agency (Garth Turner’s gain, Stephen Harper’s problem), and mobilization (Sarmite Bulte’s problem). All are part of a transformation of government and politics that is leading to many such surprises and anomalies.

Put more broadly, not only is information technology responsible for the deaths of time and distance, but also of deference. It’s a demise that challenges fundamental operating assumptions in both politics and government.

The new book Digital State at the Leading Edge, charts, and explains, how IT is changing government and politics. Because transformation never happens overnight, the book is based on longitudinal research from 2000 to 2005 on the impact of IT on, and the management of IT in, the federal and Ontario governments – two jurisdictions widely considered to be at the leading edge. It also includes comparative chapters on the US and UK governments.

The transformation we track is not in the essence of politics (seeking office and exercising power) or government (implementing policy and delivering service), but rather in how these activities are understood and performed.

What are the drivers?
     Our book identifies the following four drivers of change:

  • Channel Choice: The electronic channel has emerged as an alternative to traditional channels for service delivery and political participation. We, as users of services, or as citizens participating in the political process and in policy development, choose among the channels available. Our choices are affected by channel availability and characteristics, which government determines on the basis of both economic considerations (comparative channel cost) and political calculations (visibility to constituents).
  • IT-enabled integration: IT can break down traditional political and bureaucratic departmentalism by integrating frontline service (for example, on government-wide portals or call centres), support services (for example, government-wide administrative applications), and policy development.
  • Procurement markets: The application of IT requires procurement of hardware, software, systems and expertise. The characteristics of procurement markets influence government decisions about internal production versus outsourcing; government’s effectiveness as project manager determines whether or not IT systems will deliver promised efficiencies and service improvements.
  • Digital Leadership: Transformation, especially for governments at the leading edge, is not inevitable, but rather the result of public servants and politicians who “get it” convincing their colleagues to put the technology in place. That is why Digital State at the Leading Edge incorporates a set of profiles of digital leaders in politics, the senior public service, and at the frontlines.


So what’s changed?

The answer is a lot, especially if we look back to our study’s starting point of 2000. The public service has become a fully electronic workplace in terms of the availability and use of IT, and now the political world has caught up: we surveyed federal MPs and Ontario MLAs and over 90% now use their email daily. While few Canadians use party websites as their main source of political information during election campaigns, these websites have become the main medium of communication between the parties and the media. The internet has also become a key forum for political debate, partially through blogging, and partially as the best place for finding, posting, and disseminating information damaging to one’s opponents. Five years ago, government departments were hesitant to get involved in online consultation; they have now overcome their reluctance, have made the electronic channel available for virtually every consultation, and have created online consultation portals.

On the service side, the online channel has now become the overwhelmingly predominant channel for making government information available, and an increasing proportion of users of transactional services are choosing the online channel when it is provided. Finally, the number of integrated service delivery initiatives is growing steadily, and the shape of government is starting to reflect the new emphasis on IT-enabled integration. Ontario’s Ministry of Government Services, which combines integrated frontline service (ServiceOntario), integrated support service (Ontario Shared Services), the IT organization, and the human resources organization is the most ambitious venture in this area, and the harbinger of things to come.

But is it a transformation?
In our view, these changes do represent a transformation, though not the kind heralded by management consultants and the IT industry, namely a vast reduction in the cost of government. Overhead, the cost of running the government, accounts for only 20% of public spending, and the increased use of IT affects only a portion of that 20%. While the per unit cost of online service is substantially lower than the per unit cost of traditional channels, putting services online requires investments in major projects, which often experience substantial cost overruns (for example, the federal government’s Firearms Registry and Secure Channel). The transformation is due to other key factors:

  • increased transparency – as governments put more information online, citizens demand more information be put online, and then citizens begin searching and manipulating the information to inform their participation in the political and policy-making processes;
  • the heightened immediacy of political and bureaucratic life, now BlackBerry driven, and the greater accessibility of politicians and public servants to a public that now expects them to respond quickly;
  • the restructuring of the public sector workforce through substitution of IT capital for relatively untrained (for example, clerical and secretarial) labour and the growing importance of IT workers in particular and knowledge workers in general; and
  • the advent of organizational restructuring as a result of the establishment of integrated service delivery and support organizations.

So what can you do about it?
Digital State at the Leading Edge concludes with practical advice to a variety of public sector players concerned with the application of IT to their w

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