Transcript: Contemporary Issues in Canadian Federalism Series: Digital Federalism and Open Government Policies
[The CSPS logo appears onscreen alongside text that reads "Webcast".]
[The screen fades to Éric Champagne in a video chat panel.]
Éric Champagne: Hello, everyone. Hello, everyone, and welcome to this webinar. Welcome to this webinar organized by the Canada School of Public Service. My name is Éric Champagne. I am an Associate Professor in Public Administration at the School of Political Studies, and I'm also the Director of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. And today, I have the great privilege of moderating this event. Actually, this is the seventh event in a series that is ongoing, that is offered through a partnership between the Canada School and the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. And before we start, let me start by acknowledging that the land from which I am talking to you today is the unceded traditional territory of the Kanien'keha:ka community. I recognize that we all work in different places, and therefore you work on a different traditional Indigenous territory. Please take just five seconds to consider the first people and the land that you are in.
I am now pleased to introduce today's event, which is organized as part of the Contemporary Issues in Canadian Federalism series. Our focus today will be on digital federalism and open government policies. The Canada School have turned all the past events in the series into shorter podcasts. So, for those who are interested, you can find these recordings on the CSPS event page. And I encourage you, of course, to go back and listen if you haven't done it yet, including this one that we're going to record today.
Over the course of this series, there are several contemporary issues in federalism that have emerged, and one of them is digital government. A core dynamic of digitalization is that it is affecting all levels of government. Besides, it is at this intersection of many critical areas such as service delivery, communication, cybersecurity, privacy, the use of emerging technologies in governmental operations, transparency and stakeholder engagement, and of course, open government and open data. So, today we will talk about an area that is perhaps sometimes overlooked in Canada, this interplay between digitalization, open government, and the Canadian federal system.
At this point, I just wanted to say a few words on one of our ongoing research projects that I lead with my colleagues, including Professor André Lecours, our Ph.D. candidate Silvana Gomes from the University of Ottawa, and Felix Knüpling from the Forum of Federations. Together, we are currently writing a collective book on digitalization of public administration in federal countries. We are comparing ten federations, including of course Canada, but also Germany, Spain, Australia, India, Mexico, the United States, Austria, and many other countries. And next week, the Centre on Governance will be hosting an international workshop and a public event on the subject, and it's in collaboration with the Canada School, and sure, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
So, I take this opportunity to invite you all to this public event. It's on April 27th at 4:30 on campus, on the University of Ottawa campus. But it's also on Zoom, so it's also online. It's hybrid. So, you can also join us remotely. We will have an international panel discussion of international experts that will bring different perspectives on digital government and federations, the topic we have today. And you can find all the information by going into the Centre on Governance website at the University of Ottawa. And also, you will receive an invitation after this webinar, for all those who have registered. So, this is an invitation. So, if you want to continue that conversation that we will have today, I will be pleased to see you next week.
Now, let me go back to today's event. We have a great discussion that is planned for you today and I want you to have the best experience possible. So, I have a few housekeeping items that I'd like to go over with you. So, today's event is in English, but we have simultaneous interpretation as well as the service of real-time captioning that is available for you if you need it. And I want to follow in the language of your choice, so you can really select this. To access these features, please, you need to click on their respective icons directly from the webcast interface you are viewing right now, and you can refer to the reminder e-mail that was sent to you by the School that provides the instructions if you need it.
So, to optimize your viewing experience, we recommend that you disconnect your VPN if you are using one, or you can also use a personal device to watch the session whenever possible. If you are experiencing technical issues, we recommend that you relaunch the webcast link provided to you, and it's probably going to solve the problem. During the event, you may submit any questions you have at any time, so you can start right now. If you have a question, please use the text bubble icon located on the top right-hand corner of your screen. So, you use that bubble, you post your questions. We only take written questions today. So, we have plans sometimes for you, for the question-and-answer period at the end of the session, so I encourage you to send your questions at any moment, and we can take your questions in French or in English.
I encourage you to send your questions in French or English, depending on your preference.
Now, let me move to our fantastic speakers. First, I would like to welcome Mark Levene.
[Mark Levene appears in a separate video chat panel.]
He's the Director of Innovation and Integration at the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.
[Maria Gintova appears in a separate video chat panel.]
We also have Maria Gintova, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Sciences and Master of Public Policy and Digital Society Program at McMaster University. Here is how we will proceed today. We will have three initial questions that I will ask to our speakers, relating to digitalization, open government, and federalism. And then we will turn to the Q&A session. So, please don't wait. Send us your questions, to the panelists at any time.
So, Mark and Maria, here's my first questions to both of you. In the past few years, as you know, digital government, open government, open government data, they have gained enormous momentum but their connections with the Canadian federal structure are not always part of the conversation. So, in your view, what are the key issues to understand what we call digital federalism and open government policies? I'd like to start with you, Mark.
Mark Levene: Thanks very much, Eric. It's a pleasure to be here, and I'm joining here today from unceded W̱SÁNEĆ territory in the Salish Sea, off the coast of Vancouver Island. First, I'll frame my answer by offering some thoughts on context. So, the digital age is just the latest inflection point in the history of Canadian government, whether provincial or federal or territorial. Prior transformational errors also put into question roles and responsibilities within the federation. So, this includes, among many, the Great Depression, where we had a major constitutional crisis around the division of revenue between the federal government and the provinces and the territories. We had the Second World War, which saw a massive expansion of government and bureaucracy. In the 60s, we had the Glasgow Commission which rewrote the rules of government and its structure. In the 1980s, we saw the introduction of access to information and privacy regimes. The 2000s, we are still living with the fallout from the Gomery Commission and accountability issues. And then we have just emerged from a global pandemic and its aftermath, which has dramatically rewritten the service delivery landscape.
So, government and our ideas of what government should do is always in flux. It's not static and it's not linear. And these changes are driven by internal and external forces, and it's also usually contested terrain. There's not a universal consensus on government. Like other areas of profound change, the digital age crosses borders, national and inter-provincial, and alters how our conceptions of the nation-state works. So, the broad reach of technologies today in digital means, things like artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, digital IDs, all show us how quickly traditional areas of state governance can be disrupted. And the key will be shifting the mindset and the skillset of policymakers to adapt to the demands of the digital age.
We also have to keep in mind that digitization is not going to be a silver bullet for all problems. Digital transformation can introduce new problems, and we've already seen that quite a bit, and it also reinforces old ones. So, the most topical example is the rise of artificial intelligence in decision making, where data used to teach these complex models may contain existing biases that are carried on through the use of artificial technology and machine learning. On the other hand, the automation of some processes in government has the potential to really improve public services for everybody by introducing efficiency into the system. So, the art of the possible is the how, and there's a lot of room for collaboration between governments on this. For me, the central issue in the evolution of digital federalism is the idea that service delivery must adapt to put the user first, so it matters much less to the user or the citizen, which level of government is actually offering the service, the product, or the information.
And so, we have tended to really concentrate on which government is doing it, which department in that government is doing that. But for the user, that's seemingly irrelevant for much of it. Approaches to federalism in the digital age should account for user needs first, with key services that cross boundaries and organized around, for example, life events such as births, marriage, and deaths where one of those happens to your family, you have to go and interact with multiple levels of government, and often, within those governments, multiple departments and agencies. Of course, the behind the curtain question for all of us is, where is the federal government best positioned to set direction and work with the provinces and territories and municipalities? And where is close collaboration needed with our counterparts?
So, here's some quick thoughts from our perspective. So, one, the COVID-19 pandemic response brought this dynamic into stark focus. Health policy and delivery is primarily a provincial responsibility, but federal policy on issues like travels and borders collected flash points that resulted in a lot of discomfort for citizens and a lot of unknowns. And then health care is an area where federalism and digitization interact in increasingly complex ways through governance issues like transfer payments, data sharing, which is highly contested, and evidence-based decision making for health outcomes. So, in the areas of transformation, actors of the federation, whether federal, provincial, territorial, municipal, or Indigenous governments, have the opportunity to approach these challenges in a cooperative or competitive way. And we need to do so in a cooperative way, obviously, and to do so in an open and transparent manner, and using the digital tools we have at our disposal.
This approach is also shaped by urban, rural, remote disparities within our nation, and our nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous communities as well. And these are unique features of the Canadian-style federation. We've often looked to international peers for examples, but the context and the history and the tradition and the culture of Canada is quite starkly different from these other countries as well. And we're deciding what our foundational building blocks for digital are, and what our current priorities are. So, that's my initial response to this question, Éric.
Éric Champagne: Hey, thanks Mark. This is a very good start. Now, let me turn to you, Maria. And I'd like to get your take on the question of digital federalism and open government policies.
Maria Gintova: Thank you so much, Eric, and thank you so much for having me. I am joining today from Dish With One Spoon territory in Toronto. And this is a very interesting question, and similarly to Mark, I think it's good to kind of take a step back and think about different ways to where we are right now with a digital government and open government implementation, and uncover, a little bit, the development of how information technologies and data-related initiatives were actually thought through and getting implemented in Canadian government.
And to start here, I think it's good to think about government initiatives. That's where, they're from 1990s but are still going on right now to a certain degree with broadband, lack of broadband in certain communities, and digital divides across different areas in the country, especially between rural and urban communities, as well as Indigenous communities, and urban communities as well. So, as much as these initiatives were focused on back-office processes and public service delivery and using IP in them, if you think about government websites, that's probably the classic example of those initiatives in 1990s, they still continue to certain degrees today. And even if you look at different international indices, for example, the United Nations Government Index still uses e-government, open government, and digital government as a part of it.
So, having said that, and kind of reflecting on what was happening during this time, I think it's also important to note that these initiatives were pretty much within our own levels of government, as well as kind of focused on a specific service or a specific program, as opposed to looking for cross-governmental, cross level of government collaboration, which probably was a very fair focus, and when it just started and needed some considerations and implementations and so on and so forth. Open government is a concept that came around 2010, I would say, probably the most accurate date for the start around the world. And I would say what was different, and what Mark already mentioned, with open government was that the citizens were the centre for these initiatives and the focus was on citizens' rights, of course not just government information. So, although we can definitely argue that open government is not something that needs information technology to be implemented or to be kind of carried out in a different way, it's still important to understand that the technology that was there and available at the time that is currently used for open data initiatives, that is currently used to a certain degree for public engagement initiatives, was just not available there before.
And finally, last but not the least, is digital government initiatives, which is the most recent initiative, although in my mind, they all overlap and continue to co-exist because obviously different areas of government, at different levels of government, are at different stages of implementation of this. So, with the digital government, the focus now is becoming on improving service deliveries for technology, but definitely with the use of big data and predictive analytics. So, the use of AI, to a certain extent, is becoming even more profound now that ChatGPT is around, for example, and how this will impact the government is still to be determined. So, I think the biggest issue is that these initiatives were developed within the same level of government, and all governments had their own mandate. But for example, this mandate would be aimed at, for example, the implementation of social benefits by federal governments, by socialist systems for provincial and municipal levels. So, there is definitely some room for collaboration and kind of understanding of what potential technologies could be used. It's definitely the same users, so they're the same families. To a certain extent, there is this overlap in userbase, so to say. So, understanding of that can definitely help different levels of government just think about what would be the best way to do proper user-centered design.
Last but not the least, I would say that in my research and experience in working in government, I would say that digital and open government teams do have their own scope of work, and sometimes there are challenges of buying for this initiative within the same level. So, it's really, really hard for those teams to get attention that they really need from broader government within the same level. So, the question, Mark, of how to best do it at the different levels of government, is a real question because I think there is definitely lots of opportunities for collaboration and for the knowledge exchange. So, thank you so much for this question.
Éric Champagne: Yeah, Thanks, Maria. No, that's very interesting. It does set the stage. I must say thank you both for sharing your thought, and Maria for sharing some of your research, thinking around the... especially the concept of how you frame the concept of open government in the digital age, which is a bit different than the overall open government that certainly existed before. But there's certainly, there's something about the digitalization that creates something more important for this concept, so fantastic. Considering all these issues that you raised, both of you, I'd like to explore with you, if you have some concrete examples that you would like to use to illustrate this relationship between digitalization or open government federalism, any concrete example you would like to share with us. And I'll alternate this time, I'll ask Maria to start with that response.
Maria Gintova: Thank you so much, Éric. I would start responding to this probably with an example with which there are lots of lessons learned, and something for Canada to keep thinking about. So, I'll briefly discuss an existing public health surveillance system, which is called Panorama. And this public health surveillance system was envisioned as an integrated public health information system to support public health professionals in management of vaccines, immunization programs, and outbreaks across Canada. It was developed following SARS. However, to this date, some provinces and territories, and to the best of my knowledge, the Public Health Agency of Canada, do not use it or have not been using it prior to COVID-19, although it was operational since 2005 or 2006, I believe.
So, I think this is a very interesting question that brings together digital federalism, open government, to a certain extent, because it's the sharing of information and data, and I would say that's kind of going back to what the issues are. One of the issues that stems from those earlier days of e-government initiatives is that by now, in 2020 to 2023, that's where we live, there is still lack of kind of developed IP infrastructure in certain places, and there are definitely lots of legacy systems still being around that don't talk to each other. There was technical issues with the system itself, so after some testing, some provinces decided that it's not the way that they want to go. Obviously, there are definitely competing priorities in different levels of government, and perhaps some of you might remember that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in Ontario at least, there was some consideration of cutting down of funding for public health. And there, definitely, obviously, different emerging priorities for different governments.
But at the same time, this specific case is super interesting because public health is the responsibility that crosses all three levels of government, and if the system would be in place and operational prior to COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps the rollout of vaccines would be a little bit easier to deliver on because all levels of government would be aware of how many people they would need to vaccinate, just as a very simple example. I think there are lots of lessons learned from this specific case, and right now, it's also with the development of pan-Canadian data strategy on health, it's super important to keep in mind that these issues exist and what the lessons learned from these previous attempts were. I would also say that with the pan-Canadian approach for the data strategy, it's really, really important to include Indigenous data sovereignty principles, and understand how Indigenous communities fit into the overarching initiatives that are carried out by all three levels of government, with respect to implementation considerations but also the capacity, and of course going back to data sovereignty principles.
Last but not the least, I would say that implementation is obviously the key, and careful considerations for implementation of something like this need to be definitely thought through between all three levels of government. So, thank you so much for this question.
Éric Champagne: Thank you, Maria. And now, let me turn to Mark. I'd like to hear from you, Mark. Any concrete example, experience, that you would like to share with us today?
Mark Levene: Sure, I'll raise a couple of examples, Eric. So, I work in the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, in the Office of the Chief Information Officer, I'm in the strategy part of that organization. So, we sort of have a unique perspective on how we work, because as a central agency in the federal government, we set the rules for how departments and agencies in the federal government work, and we do so from a digital perspective in my particular case. I'd like to emphasize that the digital age in government entails sort of a sea change from an analog to a digital mindset from the ground up, and it's not just about putting a digital face on legacy products and processes, but it's about sort of designing and building products and services to be digital by default, and that's quite a big shift. Currently in the federal government, perhaps only 40% of government services can be completed online from end-to-end, meaning you start digital and you end digital without any paper or manual processes in between, and that's a surprisingly small number but it's slightly moving higher and higher. So, our focus shouldn't be necessarily on keeping up with the latest and greatest tech products. Rather, it should be on citizen-centered design that embraces the possibilities and the efficiencies of the digital age.
So, there's a couple of examples, as I said, I'd like to point out. And one is around the move from project management to product management. So, in the past, we have traditionally spent a lot of time on very, very large multi-year, multi-million-dollar IT projects that haven't had a terrific success rate, very public failures in the news, not just in Canada, but in the United States, in Great Britain, in Europe. Large IP-enabled tech projects over ten years don't generally work, so we're slowly and surely trying to shift the government to a more of a nimble product management life cycle where we're thinking smaller, we're delivering in chunks, more small, sort of agile ways. And we're starting to really work with the provinces and territories on this because it's a common problem. It's not unique to the Canadian federal government, it's a universal issue, but there's particular Canadian ways that we can address that.
This especially impacts how citizens can access current and future services on more widespread issues like guidance on accessibility or cybersecurity, that you mentioned at the top of this session. We can adapt and adopt best practices and methods from governments across Canada and incorporate them in how we do work within the federal government. And this can be like supporting communities of practice across the government on topics like product management. And one concrete example is our federal government community of practice, which my team runs, has started to have co-sessions with the community of practice in the province of Ontario. And so, we're merging two communities of practice from two different layers of government and learning from each other. This allows us to talk and learn from our colleagues. No one person, department, or layer of government has all the answers. Our focus should be on coming up with that operating environment that works for us, open government.
But earlier in my career, I played a leading role in the federal government's open data and open government programs. I helped write policies. I wrote the Open Government License with the collaboration of Canadian provinces and territories. I led work on an international open data charter that established an international framework for ethical and practical uses of government open data. We also set up a pan-Canadian working group on open data that we later rewrote into covering all of open government, and I really led a lot of the work on our second and third National Action Plans on open government. I think we're up to five now, but I was involved in two and three. And these are great examples, how we need to work closely with other levels of government. We really learned a lot through these processes from the provinces, the territories, and the municipalities across Canada that informed how we shaped our open government program in the federal government of Canada. There's still lots of work to be done, but as long as we continue to connect with these communities, we'll continue to grow and prosper.
And in the end, as I said earlier, as government employees, we really get obsessed as bureaucrats. But those using our services or trying to access our data or information, whether those are Canadians or immigrants or businesses, they don't care which government, which department, or which level of government is providing that service. They just want the results. They want to get what they're going to the government for, without all the layers of bureaucracy. So, the more we can make this a seamless transition for our constituents, the better we'll be. Thanks.
Éric Champagne: Hey Mark, thank you so much. Really, thanks for sharing your amazing personal and professional experiences with the subject today. I appreciate also how you addressed the issues of failure of big tech projects that is so common in any jurisdictions in any country. But it's also important to learn from all the diversity of experience we have in a federation, I guess, and especially avoiding recreating the same things again and again. So, we need to learn, and I appreciate your take on that.
And before I turn towards my last kick off questions, I'd like to remind everybody to post your question in French or English. You can already have an overview of what we are talking about today. So, please, if you have any questions, I encourage you to post them right away so we can really keep the flow going when we finish this part of the webinar today. So, these are very interesting examples, and thank you very much for sharing these insights and an excellent case study.
Now, to conclude this part of our conversation, I'd like to get your take, your opinion, or your vision on what are the future, or let's say, the outstanding consideration we should take into account if we move forward with digitalization across all levels of government. And I'm going to turn again, to alternate, let's go with Mark first. Mark, what's your take on anything that has to do with future, how you oversee the future of digitalization, or any outstanding consideration you'd like to talk about?
Mark Levene: Thanks, Eric. There's a lot that can be said on this, so I'll start again with sort of the idea that digitalization, it won't be a linear process. And like I've mentioned before, it'll be its own challenges and introduce new challenges in the future, and it's not going to solve everything. There will be progress and there will be regression. So, I think we have to start us out with that foundation that it's a complex journey. At the federal level, from my perspective, there's several considerations that I see shaping policies going forward. So, the first one is environmental sustainability. So, the manufacture, transport, and use of digital devices, digital servers, cloud computing is an enormous tax on our environment. And so, our greenhouse gases are exploding from the mining, construction, transportation, and use of digital devices, and they're consuming quite a lot. And so, this is one project that my team is, in particular, looking forward to and we're working on a three-year project to try and find ways to reduce our environmental impact.
And we're talking to other governments around the world who are also doing this, and I think this is a really emerging issue in tech. One concrete example that is easily thought of for people is, we save hundreds and hundreds of petabytes and terabytes of data on servers and we want to access them immediately. Well, that data on hard drives, whether they were located on premises or in the cloud, are consuming energy, and each time we access them, they're consuming energy. And how much of this data are we actually accessing? How many petabytes of data are sitting on active servers not being used, consuming electricity? These are questions that we're going to have to address in the future.
The other issue very much in the press is the whole idea of value for money in contracting. I won't say too much about it but it's obviously a hot topic in the press about, where do digital skills reside? Do they reside with public employees in the government? Do they reside with consultants and contractors outside? How do you find the right balance? How do you grow the public service and the skills and the capacities within public service? We have a digital talent gap within the federal government, within provincial governments, within territorial and Indigenous governments. And around the world, governments have a huge talent gap. And so, the skills and the fight for skills is a huge element going forward.
I've already mentioned accessibility, but the whole diverse and inclusive landscape is super important as well. My argument always is that we need diverse and inclusive teams building the services, that a diverse and inclusive community uses, and I think there's a steady and necessary connection between the two. Also, and this is a shopping list, I apologize, but there's artificial intelligence in decision making. So, we have already a directive on automated decision making in the federal government. But AI is just exploding out of control. ChatGPT comes to mind, with GPT4, GPT5. There were some interesting remarks from Google yesterday about how they can't control it, and it's providing results that they didn't anticipate. So, that is definitely going to affect our landscape in the short and medium-term as well.
Let me close by referencing two more. So, first is misinformation, and I think Maria's touched on this already. During the pandemic, we saw how misinformation on a virus and vaccines really presented challenges for all levels of governments and for national resiliency. And as part of sort of COVID-19, we have the whole debate over return to office, hybrid modes of working, which comes into real estate footprints, and real estate footprints lead into environmental questions around buildings and consumptions. We have multiple sets of monitors and devices in our home offices, in our work offices, and there's a lot of questions around that.
So, these themes really cover two big areas. So, one is sort of transformations which need to occur with legacy systems. So, we have to adapt all of this to legacy systems and address technical debt, which Maria has already sort of mentioned as well. And we also sort of need to be more operationally resilient going forward with new technologies, and make sure that we're able to support new projects and new programs, and so they don't immediately become technical debt with outdated modes and processes as well. And so, we really have a responsibility as members of the federation to look for common priorities with the provinces and territories, and to collaborate within our respective areas of authority. And our goal should be to see our products and services are there for the citizens, with them, and adapt as the environment changes with us.
Éric Champagne: All right, Mark, thank you so much. It's good to pick your brain on some of the concerns you have, priorities you have, you and your team at the Government of Canada, in terms of all the new, anything that is happening either from the news, and there's so much going on these days, and it's good to see that you are picking on many of them, and that will be really... that will keep you busy for a while, I'm sure of that. Now, Maria, the question is about concrete examples. Anything you'd like to share with us?
Maria Gintova: Sure, thanks so much Eric, and I will... actually, Mark's segue into what I was going to talk about is very good. I was going to talk about remote and hybrid work and the future of work in the public service because this is something that I am going to start to look at as a part of my own research agenda. So, let me start by just saying that this hybrid and remote work is a very unique issue because it's an emerging policy issue for all governments to look at and understand how they can be competitive to attract best talent, not just in Canada but around the world, and you've probably heard about different countries offering visas for people who are having remote work to come and work there. But at the same time, it's also a workforce policy issue for governments as employers. So, this is very interesting, and at the same time, not an interesting time for those folks who supposedly need to adjust their routines and kind of go back into office.
So, what I want to say is that the true experiment of remote work, that obviously unfolded not just in Canada but around the world, also highlighted overall societal inequalities with primary beneficiaries of remote work being white collar workers, while communities of colour were disproportionately impacted. And this, to a certain extent, is the same for governments at all levels, where folks of colour were the one who were providing essential services for governments during the pandemic. I think it's really important to acknowledge that the pandemic also... and we probably didn't talk a lot about it today, but I think it's really important to acknowledge that the pandemic definitely resulted in rapid change that have not been previously seen, government's attempt to digitize things, because a lot of things that were happening, at least at the provincial level, were that you needed to provide the service and you needed to find the solution on how to do it digitally because you couldn't do it in person. So, that's definitely accelerated certain things and certain services or programs. And even in case where folks needed to be on the ground, like doing inspections or doing hearings or providing support for virtual courts, still, there were a lot of things that moved, at least to some extent, for digital service delivery. And as the governments definitely come out of the pandemic, that's what we're looking at right now, one of the things that they would have to account for is how just lessons learned can be incorporated in their own workforce policies, and also a broader thinking in terms of how Canada as a country might be thinking about remote work and benefits and challenges that are associated with that. So, definitely lots of opportunities for collaboration across different levels of government as employers, but also just think about what's there in the future.
I would say that the number one question, probably, that is top of mind of people who have to manage remote teams and still continue to have access to talent that they're hired throughout the pandemic, is understanding of how to make it work in the post-COVID-19 reality, but also how this can potentially be something that could be of interest to other levels of government, just to think through. And I think one of the things that I definitely learned from my own experience being in government, in Ontario government, during the pandemic, and I used to work for the Ministry of Long-Term Care, is how the technology and the platforms that were used for collaboration, such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom, impacted the stakeholders meeting, impacted even the traditional different levels of government meeting, because this is something that was not used to the extent that was used before, and folks who were present at this meeting definitely were interested in carrying this out forward, carrying this forward after this initial crisis stage would be over and continue to build on these relationships.
I think another really important consideration here is definitely public engagement and engagement of different society groups, and different lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, and understanding of stakeholder management, so stakeholder engagement and public engagement, evolved with the additional use of IT technologies for these purposes. But again, going back to kind of my preliminary remarks about equity, this all needs to be saw through the equity lens and who has access to these technologies and opportunities, to even understand what's going on with government and public engagement initiatives. So, this is something that needs to be thoroughly considered as a part of moving forward with this initiative.
I also want to quickly mention a couple of things. As Mark mentioned, I didn't plan to talk about them, but I think definitely AI developments and AI use in decision making, and especially the scrutiny that AI use in decision making is getting these days from the privacy consideration perspectives, from different other aspects, not just privacy, but I would say the simplicity of using it but not understanding what goes into the model, to be able to understand how the results are being presented to you, especially if it's for decision making purposes, for example, it's something that again, is very, very important to be saw through by all three levels of government. And there is definitely lots of room for collaboration there to come up with, perhaps taking into account what already exists in the Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada, and kind of looking at similar principles and approaches across different levels.
But I think another thing is definitely thinking through about potential impact and influence from different levels of government, of federal government legislation. There is obviously Bill C-21, I believe. I'm now doing it at the top of my head, so apologies if I used the wrong bill, but I'm pretty sure it's probably Bill C-21. And especially in terms of misinformation, again, it's an issue that cuts across all levels of government and it is definitely interesting to see what would be different experiences with peddling this misinformation. And going back to my own research agenda, which includes government use of social media, for example, I can definitely say that this problem exists, dealing with misinformation exists not just at the federal government level. It's all levels of governments that are experiencing the misinformation flow from users who are looking into questioning vaccines or looking into questioning some aspects of federal government initiatives, like for example, helping Ukraine. So, to combat all these kind of things, it's great to come up with some sort of similar responses on how to deal with that. So, thank you.
Éric Champagne: Hey, thank you so much. Thanks both, actually for your initial thinking on the subject. This is great. Now, we can move to the Q&A, the question-and-answer period with our audience. We have plenty of time, we have about 40 minutes, so we're doing very well in terms of time. So, we want to have an interaction with you, so please post, take the opportunity to post any of your questions. It's going to go through our system and we will pick it up.
And we actually have one question, initial question to address. So, it's coming from the audience. And the question is, probably we can start with Mark because it's about more the government strategy. So, the question, I'm going to read the question now. What are the government's strategies to foster digital federalism and open data in Canada that promotes inclusion instead of exclusion? Can you elaborate on how the government engages immigrants and equity-deserving groups in this process? And we want some kind of concrete examples. And I know, Mark, you have your overview and you have a good overview of what's going on in the government. Can you give us a few examples, and what's your take on that very interesting question?
Mark Levene: Could you repeat the question? Sorry, my internet connection blipped while you were halfway through. I apologize.
Éric Champagne: Of course, of course, let me repeat it. What are the government's strategies to foster digital federalism and open data in Canada that promotes inclusion instead of exclusion? Can you elaborate on how the government engages immigrants and equity-deserving groups in the process? Any concrete examples?
Mark Levene: Wow, that's a huge question. I'm not sure I have any specific examples. That's a little bit out of the work that I do. But I do know, for example, let me perhaps take it in a different track. As part of every time a government department or agency seeks funding for a project through the machinery of government, governments are required to do what we call gender-based analysis plus, analyses of the new project, and that's where they look at it through the lens of gender diversity and inclusion. We have had quite a bit of discussions around, sort of what are the considerations when you're looking at digitally enabled projects from a gender diversity and inclusivity perspective? Often, departments and agencies tend to just cut and paste examples that they've used before, and they haven't truly engaged with the issues of technology and gender diversity and inclusion.
And so, I think this is a growing area. So, to do this we've had our long-running working group for three years that focuses on digital government and diversity and inclusivity. And we've been working with the Public Service Commission, who's actually come up with a GBA+ checklist for digitally enabled projects that help departments and agencies work through some of these issues. Are you talking to the right people? Are you actually considering the effect of new digital products and services on different communities? Or are you just relying on actually sort of engaging and talking to these communities? So, while I don't have specific examples of the government conducting with different communities, that would be a question for the individual departments and agencies, I do know from a holistic perspective, we're trying to support departments in the process of doing this a little better.
Éric Champagne: Yes, Mark. And actually, I think it does provide some answer to this. There's new guidelines. It's taken to consideration in policy design and new digitalization initiatives. So, I can imagine from a standpoint of Treasury Board that you provide these guidelines, as well, to different departments. Maria, before we move to the next questions, would you like to weigh in on the questions of inclusion? I know you mentioned it a few times in your first initial thought. Any additional ideas you would like to share?
Maria Gintova: Sure, I can just comment really briefly. I think the concrete examples would be even open government... I'm blanking now, what the correct word is. Action plans. Action plans, yes. So, open government action plans do have a specific section where it says considerations for different communities, especially for Indigenous communities. So, there were definitely some attempts to engage with Indigenous communities as a part of open government initiatives. I think of, just from my own professional, and both academic and professional experience, I would say that we definitely need to do better, and GBA+ analysis is definitely a starting point for some of these considerations. But for example, for certain initiatives that disproportionately impact... and I'm talking about social policy initiatives for example, that I used to work on, where you have communities that are disproportionately impacted by government policies, you probably need to go and consult with them, as opposed to consult with everyone and include them as one of the stakeholders. So, that's what my stance on this would be. And last but not the least, I actually did say it wrong. It's not Bill C-21, it's Bill C-27 which has a very, very long title. But basically, it's a digital charter rights implementation act. Thank you.
Éric Champagne: All right, thanks. We have another question that has two parts. I think we addressed the second part, so I'm going to... maybe we can focus on the first part, unless you want to weigh in on the second part. I'll read it and then...
Mark Levene: Éric , sorry. I was just going to add something to Maria's comments, if I might. Sorry.
Éric Champagne: Yeah, please.
Mark Levene: I apologize for the interruption. I think one thing that Maria's response sparked in me as well is, I've been involved in a lot of open government consultations back when I worked in the open government project. And I think one of the biggest issues we had was, you can have as many consultations as you want, but trying to actually engage people and get people to attend the consultations becomes a huge concern. I remember a couple of times where a colleague and I will have traveled across the country to do open government consultations, arrived in the room, and there were two people there. So, no matter how much you advertise, no matter how much you try to engage, getting people to commit their time, thoughts, and efforts to attending a government consultation without stakeholder fatigue becomes a real issue, and there is always a danger of over consultation because you always get the same voices and the same people, and there needs to be strategies to do that. And I know some of the provinces were more successful than us on engaging their residents, and I think we learned quite a bit from that. So, I think that's another sort of area where we can definitely learn and coordinate our efforts because stakeholder fatigue is real and we often end up talking to the same people and hearing the same voices, and that really doesn't advance our policy research. So, I just wanted to interject that because I think it's an important consideration.
Éric Champagne: That's very important. It is most probably an opportunity to use digital tools in order to have this consultation, this participation, to increase participation. But I would like to ask, Mark, has there been any initiative that is using... and is it your argument that using digitalization too can help foster participation, or is there any... have you experimented this or do you know any experiment that would have used that, and with some degree of success?
Mark Levene: Yeah, we've used a combination of in-person and digital communications to do consultation, and I think both have successes and failures. But I think overall, if the communications strategy is right, that asking people on an asynchronous way to provide feedback is pretty useful because people then have time to consider the questions, to consider the context, and frame their responses and submit them. The issues come with whether, from a privacy perspective, on whether or not you're going to ask for anonymous comments or identified comments. And if you use anonymous comments, sometimes you get into the situation like when you read any news article and you read the comments, sometimes there's no connection between the actual question and the comments you get, and then there's bots and trolls, etc. But we've done some very successful online consultations where we've gotten really considerate and thoughtful feedback. And I don't want to completely discount in-person consultations, but you have to have the right communication strategy to get the people in the room. And I found for the federal government, the further you get from the national capital region, the less likely you are to get an engaged audience. And living now temporarily in British Columbia, it's quite different from living in the national capital region bubble where everybody knows about what the federal government does, and they know the different departments, and as soon as you get 150 kilometers outside of Ottawa, that drops off considerably. And that should be part of any thoughtful consultation strategy as well. So, it's a lot of effort to do a good one.
Éric Champagne: No, that's a very interesting observation you were making here. Thank you so much for sharing it. So, let me read now the second question from the audience. And the question is, what are the impacts of digitalization of government on existing structure and policy? And existing structure can mean many things, but for me, that can also mean the human resources and the impact on civil servants. And there's a second part to this question, but I feel like we addressed it already. But maybe if you want to weigh in, it's not too late. How are pre-existing inequalities being addressed through modernization of government? But yeah, it's open to you. Maria, would you want to weigh in? I know you have some experience with the Ontario government, and so now you're a scholar but you've been there, done that on existing structures and policy. What's your take on this?
Maria Gintova: Thank you, Éric. I think it's a really good question, and I think that's also kind of, some thought work that I needed to do for my own research, to what is the impact of existing government structures on actual implementation of digital government. Because there are definitely a number of issues there that prevent, I would say, the disassociation from happening, as much as perhaps folks who are attending this webinar would love to say it more. And there is definitely what we all know as Westminster system, where you have accountability challenges that are there, and you have lots of levels of approvals that you need to go through. And at the same time, you have the agile thinking and ways of doing things as Mark was talking about. So, these two definitely collide, and time will tell how and if it can be resolved to a certain extent. And potentially again, thinking about how kind of we evolved from e-government into open government into digital government. Perhaps there will be some areas that will be still lagging behind and there will be some areas that will be... in my experience, that probably would be more operational, that would be more eager to try new things from a different perspective. But I would say it comes from both the structure of government and the structure of how vertical bureaucracy works, but at the same time, of leadership. But you really need to have a combination of good leadership and understanding that sometimes you don't need to clear all five levels of approvals to get something done, to move things forward. So, I think this is the really important thing to consider.
I would say from the equity considerations, that's definitely another very interesting question because I think that inequalities that are embedded in government decision making, and when it comes to talent management, when it comes to understanding how different initiatives, like with return to office, would impact the groups that perhaps are definitely equity-seeking groups. But I'm also thinking in my head that I'm probably contradicting myself, saying that before, that most of the people of colour are actually in the low-level administrative positions, so they would be working in front-line roles. But at the same time, there are other equity-seeking groups, there are obviously some people of colour working in the positions that are now hybrid or used to be completely remote before. And they will be there in this position for some time. So, how do we actually think about government of future where the structural impact on equity considerations or those equity-seeking groups would be embedded in government decision making? And GBA+ would be a start, but it needs to be not just done for things that are public facing, like public policies. It also needs to be applied to what's happening inside the government, and remote work or hybrid work can be one of the areas of thinking this through. But definitely, and I won't be shy of calling it, there is definitely racism practices in government that prevents certain equity-seeking groups from achieving what they need to achieve.
Éric Champagne: Great, great, Maria. Thank you. And Mark, did you want to weigh in on that, or do you want me to turn to the next question?
Mark Levene: You can go to the next question. That's fine, Éric.
Éric Champagne: Yes, because there's, I think, a follow-up question I'm picking. And thank you to all the participants, the questions are flowing now and I got enough. Not enough, but I have enough for now, questions to keep the conversation going. But please keep sending your questions, we'll take as many as we can until the end of this webinar. And the next question is for you, Mark. I think we'll start with you, and I'm sure Maria has some ideas about it. The question is, to what extent the federal public servants are equipped or not with the knowledge and skills to work in the new area of digitalization and AI? What strategies are adopted to keep everyone on track with the latest developments? Let's start with Mark, and then with Maria, if you want to add something to this.
Mark Levene: Thanks, I think that's a great question, and there's a couple of ways to tackle it. So, first of all, we have the wonderful Canada School of Public Service and their digital academy. They have a digital academy which is focusing on really improving the digital mindset in the Government of Canada, both at the executive level and at the working level. And I think they do great work, and we work very closely with those teams. And so, there are a lot of resources in the digital academy on sort of the digital transformation process. That said, the digital academy tends to focus on less sort of technical digital skills than they do the softer kind of management skills and softer sort of digital mindset skills. And by that, I mean that they don't focus on the latest programing languages on hardware, etc. And so, we really need to have those skillsets brought from outside the government, whether primarily through new employees who are reliable, who have those skill sets, or employees who are seeking those specific type of training elsewhere. And I think that's a delicate balance to maintain because I think one of the big trends in government is that we get all excited around the next bright, shiny object, and we start to bring in a few specialists who know about it and are able to implement it for a program. But then they leave and they go on to another program, and what they leave behind is not always sustainable because you need to keep that expertise and you need to grow that expertise. And I think, not only the federal government but I know it happens a lot in the United States' federal government as well is you get great new work that's done in a department. They set up a new program, they set up a new tool, it works fine, the expertise slowly leaves and goes on to new challenges, and we're left with something that can't be supported by the existing department. And so, I think we need to really build in sustainability models to any new project so that even after it's launched, it's continued to be supported, maintained from a skills perspective. And that's not an easy challenge to overcome. It requires long-term thinking around how are we going to support it financially, as well as from a technical perspective as well. So, that's how I'd respond to that, Éric.
Éric Champagne: Thanks, Mark. Maria, did want to add anything to the question of are federal public servants equipped? And that could be also at the other levels of government, provincial, municipal, to tackle the digitalization and AI at the moment.
Maria Gintova: Thanks, Éric. I would say, and I think Mark already mentioned, that there is definitely a huge gap in digital talent across all levels of government. I would say that, and I'm going to do a little bit of advertisement here, but the Masters of Public Policy in Digital Society program was actually created at McMaster in part to respond to this challenge because definitely there was a lot of conversation that there is not enough folks who are going to work in government out of school who would possess necessary technical, but more importantly, critical thinking skills to understand how to go about digital transformation. Because I guess a lot of folks here know that, and as Mark mentioned, technology is sometimes looked at as some sort of saviour for problems, but actually it's not. And there are definitely lots of considerations that need to get into place to think about the new project and new product, and so on and so forth, and new policy area. And I think with interest in digital issues, and AI being a part of the curriculum, obviously the developments of AI, I don't think anyone could actually imagine the developments of AI that we're seeing right now would be there even six months ago. And now, like even in my own teaching, I have to think about, so what about ChatGPT and how... and I guess Éric can relate to that, and how to potentially use this in teaching and how do we think about preparing students for actual use of the technology in the broader aspects of their careers, and so on and so forth? So, I would say that this is an interesting challenge that exists but there is definitely a need to develop digital talent that will be working for government, both from the policy perspective and from the applied technical perspective. But they need to understand each other, which is also really, really important.
Éric Champagne: Okay, thank you so much, Maria, also for bringing this program, Public Policy in Digital Society program, which is certainly very timely at McMaster University. And it's very important to develop the professional skills and the talents we will need in the context of the reforms in the public sector that is really coming really quickly. But I'm going to follow up with a great question that was sent by one of our participants. It's around the question on government innovation. Yes, we all, and we have all these new tools, and Mark was mentioning this, you get excited about these tools sometimes. And there's a promise, the promise of digitalization's sometimes equal learning and innovative organizations. But at the same time, lots of people view government as risk averse, not necessarily the most innovative place, so there can be a mismatch sometimes. So, the question is, do we meet that promise in the context of the government and public sector organizations?
So, here's the question, how much freedom to innovate do you think individual teams and governments should have to develop and implement service delivery methods or innovative service delivery methods? Do you envision a progress model that lets the sector programs do their own work to see what works across branches and departments? So, I think the question is about, do the context... is adequate to think about innovation and learning organizations? Let me start with Mark.
Mark Levene: Yeah, that's a great question. I have innovation in my title, so obviously my answer is, I think we should super promote innovation in government digital service delivery. Absolutely, to the full extent possible. I think we really need to test different ways of how we deliver government digital services, whether it's the federal government or a province or a territory or a municipality. And we need to try multiple ways to see which ways work best. There's lots of talk that there wasn't a few years ago in the government about even doing simple A/B testing of service delivery methods, and I think we've seen a significant change in the way that the government approaches these issues today, as little as five or six years ago where I think we were much less reluctant to have a user-centric perspective put into that. Part of that is the Government of Canada has a set of digital standards, which are standards in the policy perspective, but are more a set of digital principles where we need to build in user-centricity from design, accessibility from design, privacy, cybersecurity. All of these need to be considered at the beginning of a project, unlike in the traditional model of a few years ago, we would think about privacy or cybersecurity perhaps at the end of the process. We need to bake these in right from the beginning, and there's not going to be one method that's going to survive from the beginning of the process to the end. We need to constantly experiment, innovate, and test before we actually ship a product, and I think the mindset within government is slowly starting to shift. I think there's a long way still to go but I think there's definitely an atmosphere of innovation in the government now, and I think it's being encouraged and enabled.
Éric Champagne: Thanks Mark, for sharing your insights on that question. Maria, do you want to weigh in on the capacity to innovate in the government in the digital era, if you will?
Maria Gintova: Sure, I'll be really brief, I think, although I really want to support Mark's enthusiasm about innovation being more and more engraved in what government does. I would say it really depends on the area and really depends on the leadership. And again, going back to the structure, if you have several levels of approvals to be able to get to the point where you need to get something out of the door, you will kill any innovation from happening because somebody does it once or twice and then they'll be questioning to why am I here? Why won't I go to some other place and try it over? So, I think there is the opportunity for doing this in the pockets of excellence, but there is, I think, also important considerations from this focus of excellence to use their practices, their case studies, their experiences and show to other areas in government to how this could be done, and that, yes, there is obviously a risk associated with not succeeding, but there is also a risk of not trying. So, this is a really important consideration for, I would say, a lot of policy areas because of all the developments and the digital society at large that are happening these days.
Éric Champagne: All right, thank you so much. I'd like to... we received a very excellent question from one of the participants that bring us back a little bit to exclusion, inclusion, diversity, if you will. And it's about the aging population and digitalization. There's a big risk that we can forget some part of the population, and it does have something to do with what you mentioned earlier with the GBA+ analysis. So, the question is the following, does the GBA+ analysis provide separate data for older persons? Have there been any positive practice identified that meets the need of older Canadians who may live rurally or cannot access digital services due to financial limitations? And also, I would add, the capacity to use the new technologies, to access it, and to the literacy for older population that needs to use our computing and internet, and to access public services. Mark, do you want to handle that question?
Mark Levene: Sure, it's a great question. So, there's several ways to approach it. So, first, from a digital literacy perspective, given that education is largely a provincial responsibility, there are not a lot of specific programs within the federal government that directly work on digital literacy, although the federal government does support funding for it. But that's one of those lines between the federal and provincial government that gets murky, particularly on digital literacy. On different segments of the population and how they access government information, tools, and services, definitely demographics is a very important consideration. I'd also say, sort of anecdotally from my perspective, that I think while the rural remote distance and access to services is definitely a reality, I sometimes question the narrative around seniors not being digitally literate because I think many of them are. And like all communities, however we divide the population, there will be pockets of people who are digitally literate and pockets of people that aren't, and I'm loath to just say seniors don't know, because most of them that I know, again, this is anecdotal, not our data, but most seniors that I interact with constantly have an iPad at their fingertips. I'm thinking of my 85 year-old uncle who is never far from his iPad. And so, I don't want to stereotype different communities like that. But that said, that should be part of the analysis on the service. The tool or the information that the government is doing is to identify the audience, who their intended audiences are, and make sure that that audience can consume or use that tool or service.
Éric Champagne: Yes, Mark, and I can say the same about my mother who learned a lot, quite a lot, and was using the internet now too for many transactions she has to do. So, yes, we shouldn't discriminate completely. But yes, thanks for your concern. Maria, did you want to add anything to the questions of GBA+, plus the issue of aging?
Maria Gintova: Maybe really briefly, just to say that I think user-centric design is a key here because this will be definitely one of the user groups to consider. And to your great points, folks can be comfortable using technology, but the problems that they can be experiencing and their needs could be different from rest of the users. So, definitely something to think through, especially in context of accessing a very popular public service outside of urban areas. So, thank you.
Éric Champagne: Lovely. And I got a question that is a bit of a continuity of what we just said, but I think that this question is a great wrap-up question for the main topic of today's webinar. So, the question reads this way, how do you think digitalization affects regional differences in Canadian federalism? Does digitalization exacerbate these differences or mitigate them? Are provincial borders and federal forms of government as important today as they were when a federal form of government was designed in a mean 19th century? I'm going to go first with Mark. What's your take on this?
Mark Levene: That's a very overarching question. How should I respond? So, a couple of thoughts immediately come to mind. So, I definitely think we have closed gaps rather than exacerbated gaps using digital tools and digital communication strategies. I think it's been sort of a very interesting process around it. I do think we have more in common now with the way that provinces and territories and cities work than we perhaps did 20, 30, or even 160 years ago, for sure. I think the immediacy of communication has definitely helped that. During the pandemic, I helped support a federal, provincial, territorial group of CIOs who were responsible for all of their provincial or territorial or federal government departments, to sort of navigate through the technical issues that the pandemic was bringing about, whether or not we had enough VPN licenses, whether everybody was getting the same support from Microsoft to set up Office 365 and Teams for all of their provincial employees or federal employees. And it was very interesting that the conversations, whether from the perspective of Prince Edward Island or Nunavut or the Northwest Territories or Saskatchewan and Alberta, that the issues were all the same. And there were so many sort of commonalities in what was going on within each particular provincial, territorial, or federal government context, that there was really a way that we could work together as a collectivity, as a federation, to address some of the issues and to learn from each other, and help each other a lot.
And I know when there's major cybersecurity incidents as well, there are lots of conversations between the different provinces and territories who have gone through various hacks and ransomware attacks, etc. And we're really learning from each other. So, I definitely think it has closed gaps. I'm sure there are areas where there are still pockets of uniqueness. Obviously, this comes a lot from the political layer, where the political layer often determines the priorities of government in a day. And I think this is where some of the disparities come in, where one provincial government wants to go in a particular direction and wants to prioritize particular projects that might not be in alignment with where eight of the other ten provinces and two of the territories are going. And that sometimes creates tensions and disruptions in the system. And that's just part of the way that the political process that we've designed in Canada works. And I think that's more a source of incongruities right now than it is sort of on the ground on collaboration. And I think it's fair and acceptable for that to happen. I'm not being critical of the way that we have our government set up, but different political parties in power are able to set their own priorities, and those don't necessarily always align with each other.
Éric Champagne: Hey Mark, thanks. That was an extensive answer to that question, and that shows all the experience you have on different groups, intergovernmental groups, that are addressing open government and digitalization. Thank you so much. And Maria, did you want to weigh in on that specific question?
Maria Gintova: I know that we're almost out of time, so I would just say that I think, as Mark mentioned, there are a lot of common problems, and I think there is definitely opportunities to learn from each other's experiences as opposed to learning from bad experiences on one level of government. So, there's definitely some opportunities there. How to move forward with digitalization and strategically thinking about what the future holds can be another great area. And I think that's where a lot of governments struggle with this proactive thinking. So, this is something also to be brought forward in the area of remote work perhaps, or not just that but broader questions of artificial intelligence use in government or combating misinformation. That could be some issues that cross all jurisdictions and can be definitely addressed more effectively when people come together to think through what the potential solutions could be. Thank you.
Éric Champagne: Thank you very much, Maria. And as you said, we're almost out of time. We are reaching out to the end of today's event. First of all, I want to thank our two panelists, Mark and Maria. Thank you very much. You were wonderful and you really were generous in your ideas, thinking over that topic. I also want to thank and address the participants, the participation. Thank you so much for your great questions that you posted online that allowed us to have this great discussion today during this webinar.
If you liked today's webinar, I also invite all the participants to register for the next session of Contemporary Issues in Canadian Federalism series. The next one will be on a view from the territories. It will be on June 30th and I encourage all of you to check onto the CSPS website for any information about the next events, and also to register to any other similar webinar as we had today. I would also invite you to participate to our joint event that we are organizing on the University of Ottawa campus on April 27th. It's a hybrid event on digitalization of public administration in federal countries. We'll have an international panel, so we'll bring... it's going to be a continuity of this discussion today. We'll bring the international perspective. And on that, I would like to thank you for your attention, and I would like to wish you a great day. Thank you so much.
[The CSPS logo appears onscreen.]
[The Government of Canada logo appears onscreen.]