”œIt’s the information, stupid!”

”” a friend

Although the language of exclusive jurisdictional cat- egories continues to dominate the political dis- course around federalism, it is being enriched and transformed by the new language of seamless service and cit- izen-centered government. For example, in the last federal election Prime Minister Paul Martin declared the issue of waiting times for certain health services to be the defining issue of the federal campaign. Many people wondered why. Martin seems to have been gesturing in a new direction. His subsequent effort at the September First Ministers Meeting to commit the provinces to national performance reports in exchange for federal dollars further confirms this. But why launch a national debate over service standards now?

The answer is that information sharing has become a critical new area of federal-provincial ”” and, indeed, municipal ”” relations. It is now on the front lines of fed- eralism. Waiting times are the thin edge of a very big wedge. A national commitment on the part of provincial governments to improve them will lead, slowly but surely, to a discussion of the need to organize, share and use information in ways that could significantly enhance health services through the use of new tools, such as inte- grated patient records.

Nevertheless, Martin failed to convince many commen- tators of the appropriateness of his demands. On the con- trary, the focus on waiting times was seen as just the latest incursion into provincial territory. Although the provinces recognize that a commit- ment to improve the way they share, manage and use information is neces- sary to improve services, they are con- cerned that it could also limit their freedom to make new policy choices or reject old ones. In this view, seamless service could become a straitjacket on federalism.

Coming to terms with this con- cern may be the political challenge of the decade. To see why, first we will sketch the changes under way in gov- ernments across the country; then we will return to the question of what it means for federalism.

Citizen-centered government is about how governments are using the new information and communi- cations technologies (ICTs) to make their services more seamless. In this view, governments have evolved in ways that often ignore the burden they place on their ”œclients” in the delivery of public services. Instead, they have organized around their own priorities, ranging from adminis- trative convenience to jurisdictional interests. As a result, government has become an increasingly impenetrable maze to citizens. In a famous case, a client had to visit over a dozen gov- ernment offices from all three orders of government to get a business license! A client- or, as it is called in government, citizen-centered approach reverses this trend by declaring that governments exist to serve citizens, rather than the other way around. They should make serv- ices as user-friendly as possible by reorganizing them around citizens. Seamless service provides the model.

In a seamless world, services in areas ranging from health care to motor vehicles would be reorganized and integrated around citizens and their needs. Ideally, transactions associated with them would be com- pleted at a single work station, such as a doctor’s office, a government Web site or a conventional service counter. For this to happen, informa- tion must move across organization- al boundaries easily and efficiently, allowing, for example, a government call centre to provide students with complete and up-to-date informa- tion on the state of their loans. The goal is to allow citizens to encounter government as a single, seamless web of connections ”” a network. Seamless government is now an indispensable part of any workable vision of government ”” and of federalism ”” for the 21st century.

The Canadian Seniors Partnership (CSP) provides an example. According to a recent backgrounder, it is an ”œasso- ciation of organizations ”” from the volunteer sector to all levels of govern- ment ”” that are committed to trans- forming and improving the way in which Canadian seniors, their fami- lies, care givers and supporting service organizations access programs and services to meet their needs. Since 2001, members have been working to explore ways in which governments and non-governmental organizations can integrate their programs and serv- ices, in a supportive and collaborative environment. It exists to provide sen- iors, their families, caregivers and serv- ice providers with easily accessible, integrated and seamless program and service delivery.”

CSP will achieve this by:

  • encouraging and fostering collaboration between non-government organizations and all levels of gov- ernment in the building of new service delivery partnerships to meet seniors’ needs in the 21st century;

  • establishing a forum: a communi- ty of interest that explores ways to collaborate, share understanding and experiences, and promote Partnership activities;

  • working toward service integra- tion, particularly through collabo- rative pilot projects; and

  • pursuing common approaches to achieve integrated multi-channel service delivery.

CSP is a good example of how governments are working together to reor- ganize their services ”” along with those of the pri- vate and voluntary sectors ”” around citizens. Over the last decade, many govern- ments have made big investments in such proj- ects. In Canada, for exam- ple, the federal government intends to have all its serv- ices linked so that they are available through a single point of access by the year 2005. A number of other OECD coun- tries have made similar commitments, including the United States, Great Britain and Australia.

If information sharing is the lifeblood of seamless service, the new information and communications technologies are the arteries through which it flows. They allow govern- ments to make a quantum leap in their ability to use information effectively across a much larger space. They pro- vide the new machinery that allows governments to rethink how services and backroom operations should be organized and executed to make the delivery of health care, student loans, distance education and the issuing of permits and licenses more citizen-cen- tered and seamless.

But, as the CSP example makes clear, the vision requires much higher levels of coordination and collabora- tion between departments, govern- ments and other service providers than now exist. Nevertheless, citizens want governments to work together to make it happen. A stream of studies over the past decade shows that they are not interested in jurisdictional dis- putes over which order of government should deliver which service. Their concern is that it be accessible, timely, reliable and of high quality. As a result, increasingly they will not only expect, they will demand seamless services.

At first blush, there is an arresting conclusion that seems to follow from these reflections: The more seamless services become, the less room there is for planning and action by individual gov- ernments. The political space for differ- ence, experimentation, local control, change and innovation narrows quickly. In this view, new technologies may increase governments’ capacities for the management and sharing of information, which, in turn, allows them to make serv- ices more efficient. But it also puts pres- sure on them to harmonize standards, align policies, and share governance and accountability. According to some, this raises the specter of a major consolidation of intergovernmental space that would erode jurisdictional autonomy.

If this were true, it would have worrying consequences indeed for federalism. Understandably, many gov- ernments would fear the implication and try to shield themselves from it by refusing to participate. But is it really the right picture? A growing body of research suggests that it is not, for at least two reasons.

First, when powerful new ”œtransfor- mative” technologies such as the steam engine were introduced, the tendency was to use them to improve existing processes rather than to capitalize on their capacity to drive change and inno- vation. According to the research, it often takes years before their real trans- formative potential is recognized. Thus, for the first couple of decades after its invention, the locomotive was seen mainly as a powerful new workhorse for hauling heavy loads. Only later did entrepreneurs begin to recognize its potential as a new means of mass trans- portation, which was then used to open up the West.

Canadian governments appear to be at a similar stage in their use of the new technologies. Until now, they have tend- ed to use them to improve existing processes ”” say, by streamlining or automating them ”” rather than to change how the business of government is carried out. Suppose that Canadian governments agreed to extend this work by collaborating to streamline and auto- mate much of their machinery. Such a strategy would increase efficiency, but it would also erode the capacity of differ- ent governments to do different things, as existing tasks were consolidated with- in a single space. The overall result might well be greater centralization.

Increasingly, however, the language of transformation and fundamental, system-wide change is heard. There is growing interest in the trans- formative potential of the new tech- nologies ”” that is, in their ability to support whole new approaches to gov- ernment. We are still a long way from being clear on how to use the new capacity to redefine, share or separate various roles in this emerging system but, as noted below, important lessons have already been learned.

Second, there is a growing body of evidence that, in fact, the new tech- nology inclines us toward a very different kind of organizational model. It suggests that, far from being centralizing in nature, the technology is the reverse. In this view, the new technologies are thought to facilitate the kind of ”œdecentraliza- tion” that underpins, for example, the new trend toward networked organizational structures in the pri- vate sector. In those circles, it is wide- ly recognized that internet technologies are the critical enablers that have made possible a shift away from conventional, hierarchical and centralized management models toward more collaborative or partner- ships approaches. There are a couple of important lessons here for govern- ments as they consider how to adjust federalism for the 21st century.

One lesson is that, in trying to understand how the technology will change us, we should not become obsessed with making everything conform to the division of powers in the Constitution. It is not a peerless guide to how our governments should work in the 21st century. The Fathers of Confederation could hardly have prepared us for the Information Age. Thus the Constitution conceives of municipalities, provinces and federal governments as three generic instru- ments. In a seamless world, govern- ments should be increasingly willing to take on diverging roles through various kinds of partnerships. Instead of constructing fences around a generic list of tasks, governments from all levels should be looking to complement one another’s activities in ways that produce better services for their citizens.

For example, suppose that federal, provincial and territorial governments agreed that they wanted to provide better service to students with loans through greater information sharing ”” a benefit that students clearly want. In the Information Age, one government might host and operate large parts of such a system. We don’t need 14 govern- ments doing all of the work. The geographic location of the host is increasingly irrelevant to the quality of the service. Alternatively, each government might agree to build and oper- ate some part of the system. This does not mean that there would be a single, integrated student loan system, from a policy viewpoint. Different governments may have differ- ent programs and different pro- gram relationships with one another. It does mean that information could be shared more effectively to provide seamless service to students and to support such asymmetrical arrangements, while providing seamless service to citizens.

A second lesson is that, in a seamless system, govern- ments would decide many of their respective roles through negotiation, based on a consider- ation of which ones they are well-placed to play, and where they could make their best contribu- tions to improving service. As just indi- cated, in such a world, the roles of different governments might be ”” probably would be ”” highly asymmetrical. But in this system, asymmetry is not just the idea that one government opts out of arrangements that others agree to respect. It is more like allowing everyone to find their own place within a dynamic network of actors, such as the health sector. That a government such as Quebec might have a very different set of roles and relation- ships than, say, Prince Edward Island is entirely possible. The emphasis here is not on having everybody do the same thing. It is on finding ways for various governments to work together to improve services to citizens. In this respect, the technology is highly flexible and a huge enabler.

So the view that ICTs are centraliz- ing in a way that may weaken federal- ism is, at the very least, premature, if not misguided. Failing to recognize this only reduces the chance to take full advantage of the opportunities. What is clear is that citizen-centered government requires a refocusing of intergovernmental attention. Over the last half-century, the main debate has been over who should run which programs and services in which policy fields. The next phase of federalism should be about how to share, inte- grate, manage and use information and knowledge of all sorts.

Finally, something should be said about the impact on our political cul- ture. In theory, parliamentary democ- racy works like this: Political parties propose platforms. If elected, they have a mandate to implement them. In fact, as the world has become more complex and fast-paced, governments have found it increasingly difficult to plan and implement major policy initiatives. Too many players are often involved and too many things can change. As a result, party platforms are increasingly vague and broad ”” more like a set of goals.

The more networked the world becomes, the truer this will be. The ability to com- mand-and-control or to ”œgov- ern from the centre” is eroding. A networked world is a collabo- rative one where, increasingly, goals must be achieved togeth- er, through discussion, negotia- tion and compromise. Political leaders must come to terms with this. They must recognize and accept the limits it places on their ability to act unilater- ally. They must become more circumspect about the tenden- cy to promise what they may not be able to deliver.

In keeping with this, the old federalist debate between centralization and decentral- ization should be recast. In fact, in that debate, authority was always centralized. The issue was really over whether it should be exer- cised from Ottawa or the provincial capitals. The new federalism is based on a different contrast between cen- tralized, command-and-control sys- tems ”” whether in Ottawa or the provinces ”” and more collaborative ones. Rather than saying that collab- orative systems decentralize power, it may be more accurate to speak of them as de-concentrating it.

We are entering the Information Age. As we move forward along the path, our governments must reorganize to suit the times, as must the society they govern ”” and that will change us. A smooth transi- tion will depend largely on our will- ingness and capacity to be visionary, creative and open-minded about how the new technology connects us in new ways. Like the printing press, the automobile or other transformative technologies, it has its own dynamic and logic.

A key challenge for Canadians will be to situate federalism more comfortably within an increasingly networked world ”” and to do so effectively and fairly. We do not have a clear vision of how it should be done, one that speaks compellingly to how information technology and seamless service are changing the fed- eration; that speaks to how, for example, we will distinguish national goals and tasks from provincial and municipal ones. We must develop such a vision. It will not be easy to square with the model of federalism set out in the Constitution. The 19th century is not the 21st. While that document will remain a critical sign- post, governments must also be will- ing to look to the future ”” we must respond creatively and imaginatively to the challenge.

In particular, major new tasks and interests will arise around the control and use of public informa- tion. Information and knowledge are to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th. They will be a critical public resource that governments and citi- zens alike will need to prosper. They must be allowed to flow freely through the system. Efforts to deny or reverse the trend are at best parochial and, in the end, will amount to little more than cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

It is therefore time to acknowl- edge citizen-centered government as a critical new principle that will help define the new machinery of federal- ism. Canadians need to know that the federal-provincial and, indeed, municipal dance is moving into a new arena. We should become better acquainted with it.

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