The assumption that digital government will strengthen democracy is both empirically inaccurate and dangerous, and deserves much more scrutiny.

(This article has been translated into French.)

In 2006, Time’s person of the year was “You,” published with the explanation “Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world.” The cover story reflected a relatively broad societal consensus a decade ago that the Internet and social media were vehicles of unstoppable citizen empowerment. Oh, how quaint this consensus appears today. Amid Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, digital misinformation campaigns, the decline of traditional media and the rise of a select group of tech firms as today’s information gatekeepers, it’s difficult to find anyone willing to associate the digital age with democratic empowerment. Digital government is one important exception.

Digital government — the use of digital tools and approaches within the public service — is a rare bastion of cyber-enthusiasm in this age of digital skepticism. Attend a digital government conference or listen to a minister’s speech on digital government, and you are sure to hear a hopeful message: as governments use digital technologies to design policies, deliver services and interact with the public, citizens are placed at the centre of government, and democracy is strengthened.

Digital government is framed as an inherently good thing, and that goodness, among other outputs (cost savings, improved services), is manifest in its contributions to democratic renewal. But this unchecked assumption, which unequivocally ties digital government to strengthened democracy, is both empirically inaccurate and dangerous, and deserves much more scrutiny than we currently give it.

Governments have historically structured IT procurement in ways that undermined rather than strengthened democratic governance.

Despite all the rosy rhetoric around crowdsourcing policy, hackathons and citizen engagement invoked by digital government advocates, it bears underscoring that most of the digital things governments do are managed by private sector technology firms, not by an ecosystem of citizen volunteers and engaged civic technology groups. To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with governments contracting private firms to build digital services, conduct data analysis or build back-end digital infrastructure. It is both inevitable and prudent for government to work with private tech firms for many of these activities. The issue is instead that governments have historically structured IT procurement in ways that undermined rather than strengthened democratic governance.

In particular, by contracting out the design and management of digital service delivery to private firms, governments also contracted out ownership of the data collected through citizens’ interactions with these services. For example, many city governments have contracted private vendors to install and manage sensors on public transportation and parking garages, but failed to specify that the data collected by these sensors would be owned by government, not the private firm collecting them. In these cases, the question of who owns these data becomes hugely relevant, given the governance issues that such data raise. For example, how should these data be used to inform government policies and services? Should these data be released under open data commitments? Under what terms and by whom can the data be repurposed and monetized, and who should benefit from these applications? Do citizens even want these data to be collected in the first place?

These are important questions with weighty implications for government accountability, citizen trust and broader societal well-being. But governments don’t even have the chance to answer and act on these questions if the data generated from their services and infrastructure are owned and managed by private firms. This is a central issue in the controversial Sidewalk Toronto smart city development, and one that clearly illustrates the folly of those who associate all things digital in government with democratic governance

One might argue that service delivery was never the space in which digital government’s democratic promise was going to be realized, and that it is open government programs instead that democratize public administration in the digital age. It is certainly true that open data and online citizen engagement have become accepted norms of good governance. This is a notable change from even 10 years ago, when open government advocates began the arduous task of convincing skeptical public servants and elected officials that there was value in opening their institutions, decision-making processes and services up to greater scrutiny and citizen participation.

Nonetheless, today’s open government programs are plagued by undeniable contradictions. Most obviously, many jurisdictions continue to release data and espouse the virtues of transparency without properly resourcing and modernizing their access to information regimes, a criticism for which the federal government has been particularly targeted.

In other respects, open government commitments are undermined by other digital government initiatives that have competing objectives. This conflict is apparent in the design of government websites, which are often deliberately bereft of well-maintained and easily searchable archives of policy-relevant information (ministerial speeches, departmental reports, press releases, etc.) because service delivery gets priority.

Researchers, journalists, and advocacy groups — key sources of government audit and accountability — are starved of information by the web strategies of today’s supposedly open governments.

In the early 2010s, I interviewed UK web developers who explained that policy information was absent or deprioritized in the British government’s service-centred website, gov.uk, because, as they argued, the public doesn’t care about policy or holding the government to account: users just want to “get in and get out,” — pay their fine, apply for a passport, etc., and move on to Facebook. At the time, I was a researcher who was reliant on these very online resources, and struggling to retrieve them before they were removed from the Web or hidden away in unsearchable repositories, so the irony was not lost on me.

The same problem is evident on our home turf. Many of the Canadian government documents I reference in my research were once accessible online but have now disappeared, leaving behind only a trail of dead weblinks in my bibliographies. You’ll have to take my word that I’m citing these documents accurately, since at this point there’s no way to check whether they ever even existed. Researchers, journalists and advocacy groups — key sources of government audit and accountability — are starved of information by the Web strategies of today’s supposedly open governments.

At a more fundamental level, there are notable tensions between mainstream digital government orthodoxy and the principles and practices of democratic governance, in particular in Canada’s Westminster system. Most theories of digital government begin from the premise that traditional public administration is fundamentally broken and ripe for disruption. This disruption would see governments operate more like tech firms: nimble, less hierarchical and siloed, suffering fewer approvals and central controls, and staffed with entrepreneurial, outspoken public servants. To be sure, this premise is in line with a rich tradition in public administration, which has long criticized the silos, hierarchies and risk aversion at play in government. Take a look, for instance, at reports from federal Clerks of the Privy Council, which for decades have echoed the concerns driving today’s digital government reforms. But in turning to tech firms as a model for public sector reform, mainstream theories of digital government suffer from a rather thin appreciation for the unique constraints and practical realities that must be factored in when redesigning government institutions.

Bureaucratic silos and hierarchies, while overgrown in many governments today, nonetheless retain their value in ensuring clear lines of accountability and coordination in complex government systems, and are particularly key to the principle of ministerial responsibility at the heart of the Westminster system. Top-down approvals and oversight may slow the business of government, but they also ensure that governments uphold standards of equity, transparency and responsible stewardship of public funds. And opening up the relationship between civil servants and the public raises a raft of questions about how these interactions can be squared with the principles of neutrality and anonymity that are core to the public service bargain between ministers and bureaucrats.

Mainstream theories of digital government propagated by academics, consultants and “digital thought leaders” exhibit a naive enthusiasm for the practices and principles of private sector tech firms.

I raise these concerns not to defend the status quo. Government’s excessive hierarchies, risk-averse approval processes and dated communications practices are ripe for reform and certainly can stand in the way of much-needed government innovation. The point is rather that tech-sector-inspired theories of government propagated by academics, consultants and “digital thought leaders” don’t do the hard work of explaining how governments can reform their hierarchies, manage risk and become more open while still satisfying core principles of Westminster democratic governance. In this sense, mainstream theories of digital government are at best of little practical use to the policy-makers meant to implement them and, at worst, irresponsible approaches to public management.

Fortunately, a movement is afoot to democratize digital government. At the municipal level, activists and government administrators are redefining the terms of their smart city initiatives and demanding more meaningful public influence over digital services and data governance. Certain governments are reforming their procurement processes to foster a more diverse ecosystem of digital service providers (versus just favouring a select group of large tech firms). Governments are also imposing new standards in contracts for digital service delivery, such as requiring that firms make public the algorithms their decisions rely on. It may be that better service delivery using technology, although not directly relevant to bolstering democracy, is an indirect driver of democratic renewal. By this logic, as government digital services better meet citizens’ expectations, the public’s trust in government is bolstered.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Still, this proposition should be taken with a grain of salt. If the public disagrees with the policies underpinning a service, it doesn’t matter how easy to use that digital service is at the point of transaction. User needs don’t begin and end with a slick digital interface. Case in point: the Ontario government has been working for the past couple of years to make the Ontario Student Assistance Program more user-centred and digital-friendly, but for many, such claims will now appear laughable given the Ford government’s recent cuts to the program. Claims to empathetic, human-centred digital services may simply fuel citizens’ mistrust of the state where they are layered on top of policies that show little regard for the preferences and deeper needs of the societies they serve.

And this is precisely why it is dangerous to uncritically assume that digital government necessarily equates with democratic government. Instead, we need to put digital government on the table as we engage in broader collective debates on the state of our democracy in the digital age. So far, this work has primarily targeted elections, political parties and the media, fuelled by our realization that we have been too naive in assuming these institutions would survive in the digital age without concerted efforts to defend them. These efforts will invariably fall short unless we ensure that the digital reforms shaping our public sector institutions also satisfy the robust standards of democratic governance that are essential to rebuilding citizen trust in the digital age.

This article is part of the Wiring Public Policy for Digital Government special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock / By Yanik Chauvin


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