For proponents of digital government, 2020 has been a milestone year. In response to COVID-19, most of the federal public service has moved to a remote working arrangement. Many said such a move was impossible for the government of Canada. Indeed, when COVID-19 hit Canada, much of the basic digital infrastructure, cultural foundations and management protocols needed to support a “distributed” federal public service were absent. (A distributed workforce is one not confined to one geographic environment). Nonetheless, a temporary migration to a remote working environment has taken place in short order, and by most measures this has been a success. The federal government not only continues to hum along, but has been successful in managing the exceptional workload demands of the wider COVID-19 response, such as the creation and rollout of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

It may have taken a crisis to get there, but the government has learned that remote work is a viable option for the public administration. The question now is, “Where to take it from here?” Many leaders within the federal public service are working to make the temporary improvements to workplace practices more systemic, sustainable, and in some cases permanent. Transport Canada, for example, is one government department that has announced that its current work from home arrangements would become the default for most in the department, joining the ranks of big tech firms.

Thanks in part to COVID-19, we are facing the novel prospect of creating a digitally distributed federal government. While exciting, it’s worth taking a pause to consider the extent that such a development is feasible along with the trade-offs that would take place.

Remote-by-default work arrangements are increasingly the norm for competitive and forward-thinking employers. Instead of cubicles for all, employers provide remote working options and tools, co-working spaces with generous amenities, and travel allowances to make the distances between teams more manageable. While distributed workplaces often represent a significant cost saving for the employer, they originated as a way of attracting and retaining top talent in highly competitive industries. This is because a distributed workplace comes with many benefits to employees: it decreases work-related costs for the employee (like transportation), it offers staff greater flexibility, and permits employees to live in different and more affordable jurisdictions.

Sovereign states can unlock special advantages by embracing a distributed workforce. For one, a better geographic distribution of federal employment could improve resilience to economic shocks and reverse the economic declines taking place in rural areas, a policy famously championed in Canada by former prime minister Jean ChrĂ©tien, who came from a small town that faced decline as a result of new technologies. ChrĂ©tien argued that the over-concentration of public sector employment in places like Ottawa was a lost opportunity to support communities navigating the sunsetting of older industries. Against the backdrop of the mounting regionalism that marked his prime ministership, ChrĂ©tien oversaw the move of several federal offices to such economically beleaguered communities, namely in Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Indeed, better distribution of the federal government’s workforce can also help promote Canadian unity and diversity, making the federal government less remote from the citizenry and more representative.

While the government is currently operating almost fully remotely today, it’s spurred on by employee gumption, creativity and a prayer. It is not yet sustainable.

A distributed workforce could also see better integration of policy functions in regional offices. There is a longstanding divide between regional offices, which tend to host more service delivery functions, and federal offices in the National Capital Region, which tend to host more policy functions. Using a move to distributed government as an occasion to better address this gap has a great deal of potential to improve the effectiveness and responsiveness of government programs by better integrating these functions with one another. Others still will note that an over-concentration of public administration within one city-region can leave the federal government vulnerable to local emergencies, such as recent flooding and the 2014 shootings on Parliament Hill. Having state functions more widely distributed across the country instead of concentrated in downtown Ottawa will help to limit the impact of such events on the business of the state. Internationally, such a bold rethinking of public administration would help Canada to be seen as a leader and innovator in public administration among its peers in the digital nations.

Certainly, there are a huge number of benefits that would arise from a distributed federal public service. But even the most optimistic would admit the Government of Canada is far from this in practice. While the government is currently operating almost fully remotely today, it’s spurred on by employee gumption, creativity and a prayer. It is not yet sustainable. To name but one example, dated infrastructure does not allow for all of the public service to access workplace servers remotely at one time. In COVID times, this access has often been rationed. This means that while teams have unfettered access to the core tools necessary to do their jobs, in many cases it has only been for a fraction of the working week. An immediate fix will require investments in infrastructure, training and changes in practices. A longer-term fix that would provide the basis for a distributed government will require a still more visionary investment in digital infrastructure that can support a full migration to a cloud environment.

Aside from the technological challenges, a distributed Government of Canada would need to be underpinned by a cultural shift no less consequential in effort. While the newfound exposure to remote work has helped change attitudes, this is not a strong enough foundation on which to build. There is an existing management culture requiring “bums in seats” that needs to be overcome. In addition to more frequent exposure to successful practices in remote working, there will need to be updates to public service training, and new policies that support a distributed workplace.

When it comes to training specifically, the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS) has been prescient about the need for digital transformation, founding the Digital Academy and creating new digitally native content, all of which are steps in the right direction. However, when it comes to the policies of the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) that govern the workplace in practice, there remains a lot of work to be done.

Careful introspection will also be needed on the issue of workplace bilingualism in a distributed public service.

To pick one example, the “Directive on Telework,” which governs remote working, is still steeped in the perspective that remote working is an oddity that one must occasionally tolerate. It expounds at length on the requirements for being permitted to “telework,” detailing the paperwork that must be signed, authorizations that must be acquired and the ongoing satisfaction of conditions to continue “teleworking.” Meanwhile, it offers little tangible direction on issues that would allow one to do remote work well. This would include establishing whether employees will be reimbursed for costs attributable to a home office retrofit, outlining how remote workers can interact with regional co-working centres and facilities, establishing rules for using private co-working spaces, offering suggestions on the frequency with which in-person meetings are required (or recommended) with managers, providing insights on the inevitable questions surrounding “snitchware,” which monitors and reports on the activities taking place on employees’ computers, and how to manage the inevitable increase in travel requirements between the regions and Ottawa. A full overhaul of the existing policies, guidelines and directives is required before reaching a successfully distributed workplace.

Careful introspection will also be needed on the issue of workplace bilingualism in a distributed public service. That government services should always be made available in both official languages is not in question, but with requirements for functional bilingualism in many policy and managerial positions, much of the senior echelons of the government disproportionately represent the “bilingual belt” of western Quebec, northern/eastern Ontario, and New Brunswick. The argument could be made for a distributed public service loosening these requirements in favour of recruitment from a broader swath of Canadian society, recruiting locally for policy staff. The opposite outcome is also plausible. With a distributed public service, policy staff could find themselves in many more occasions where they interact with unilingual staff of their non-dominant official language, making functional bilingualism even more important than today. The important point is that the development of a distributed federal government will inevitably run up against the highly sensitive issue of language policy, which will need careful thought.

Perhaps the biggest question is “What to do about Ottawa?” The fourth largest city in Canada cannot be stripped of its principal employer without there being significant economic consequences. It is indeed unlikely that the 40 percent of the federal workforce based in the city would voluntarily decide overnight to leave in favour of finding other homes. People have many local ties other than that of their employer, and Ottawa is widely recognized on its own merits as a very nice place to live. That being said, the move to a distributed public service would eliminate one of the more significant barriers that federal public servants face when choosing where they live. The dynamics coming in to play with a distributed federal public service will thus need to be closely managed with other levels of government, namely the National Capital Commission, the City of Ottawa, City of Gatineau, Que., and Ontario and Quebec.

Even when considering a much more modest vision of a distributed government where, say, 30 percent of the workforce never returns to a cubicle downtown, this would still have a major impact on real estate. This would need to be managed carefully, both for its impact on the urban fabric of the city, as well as for the impact on the property market. Regardless of whether the federal government takes a radical or incremental move to a distributed workplace, there needs to be an “Ottawa plan” to navigate the consequences.

Ultimately, the discussion about whether the federal public service should become a distributed employer will likely become a question of how it will rather than whether it will. White-collar workplaces of all kinds are becoming more distributed, or, at the very least, much more distributed than the workplace practices to which the Government of Canada has been accustomed. The federal government can continue to live with the consequences of being a laggard, with the increased costs, decreased efficiency, lack of competitiveness, and decreased resilience. Or, the Government of Canada can take the opportunity presented by the pandemic to be proactive, cultivating new practices, redrafting old policies, planning carefully for the change with other levels of government that will be closely affected and undertaking visionary infrastructure investments that will support this and future capacities for the public service. The road to a distributed government is a long one fraught with difficulty, and while success is not a foregone conclusion, walking the path seems to be inevitable.

Photo: Shutterstock/By Natalya Novella

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Mark Robbins
Mark Robbins is an Ottawa-based researcher, public servant and commentator on issues at the intersections of public policy, government operations and emerging technology.

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