It’s been a year since the Government of Canada, like every other organization, household and individual, was forced to move its work to the web in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When this shift first took hold, many predicted that the digital demands of the crisis would provide the push the government needed to finally give its workforce access to modern digital tools (Slack, Google Drive, etc.), to design online services that actually work, and to effectively harness data for public good. By this logic, the pandemic would step in to close the deal on the elusive goal of “digital government transformation,” where digital strategies, chief information officers and high-level political commitments had failed.
Of course, this was a ridiculous prediction. This early enthusiasm was rightfully checked by a series of thoughtful analyses that reminded us that a COVID-induced digital government transformation would not arise simply because the public service faced immediate pressures to shift its workforce online and to expand its digital services. Existing research underscores that digital government transformation requires significant structural and cultural reforms within the public service and a slate of legislative and policy changes. Without this groundwork, any apparent advances ushered in by the pandemic will at best be ephemeral wins, and at worst, shiny distractions that obscure the reality of a federal public service that has been cycling through failed renewal exercises for decades.
With this in mind, now that we are at the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, I asked a group of federal public servants leading digital government efforts if COVID-19 is triggering the kinds of administrative reforms needed to meaningfully update the Government of Canada for the realities of the digital age.
The answer, universally, without even a moment of hesitation: No.
To be sure, this isn’t to say that those I spoke with were strictly critical of the efforts made by the federal government in response to the pandemic over the past year. Several applauded the government for setting up its 300,000-person workforce for remote work in a relatively quick timeframe, notwithstanding early shortfalls in phone and network capacity. The impressively speedy and remarkably smooth initial rollout of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the 45-day turnaround time that led to the launch of the COVID Alert exposure notification app by the Canadian Digital Service were also cited as evidence that the public service can deliver user-friendly digital services on short order.
The red tape, hierarchical approvals, reporting burden and meeting overload that have long been criticized as barriers to innovation in the federal government remain intact, only now they take place online.
But alongside these successes, those I spoke with underscored that the structures, culture and governance of the federal government largely rolled on as usual over the past year. For example, while public servants now work remotely, there’s no evidence to suggest that the federal workforce is re-evaluating how they should use digital tools and approaches to better collaborate across the organization, to streamline approval processes, or to manage teams more effectively. The red tape, hierarchical approvals, reporting burden and meeting overload that have long been criticized as barriers to innovation in the federal government remain intact, only now they take place online.
Moreover, where the federal government is committing to meaningful reforms, it’s on projects that were already underway before the pandemic. For instance, Employment and Social Development Canada has built an impressive team of digital government leaders to rebuild its digital service offerings through modern user-centred service design, starting with Employment Insurance (EI) benefits. This is part of a larger initiative – Benefits Delivery Modernization – that includes EI and two other key income support programs, Old Age Security and the Canada Pension Plan. As the Auditor General of Canada has long warned, the legacy IT systems underpinning these programs are so fragile that they raise the very real risk that the wider public reliant on federal income support could experience the same kinds of inaccurate and missing payments as the thousands of public servants dealing with the error-plagued Phoenix pay system.
Yet, these benefits delivery reforms, along with initiatives being led by the Canadian Digital Service and other digital teams emerging in select departments, are exceptions. User-centred design, iterative learning, sophisticated but careful use of data – all now accepted as best practice in modern service delivery – are far from standard in the Government of Canada. The small group of public servants advancing these approaches are fighting an exhausting uphill battle to reform a bureaucratic machine that defaults to complex, siloed administrative processes; long-term, big budget projects that are bound to disappoint; and ad hoc or non-existent data stewardship. This was the case before the pandemic, and it has remained so throughout the pandemic.
In other cases, good work that was emerging before the pandemic has stalled. For example, prior to the pandemic, the federal government had initiated conversations on responsible data collection and use, evident for instance in its (albeit imperfect) standards on the use of automated decision-making, and more vaguely captured in its proposed Digital Charter. According to the public servants I checked in with, conversations on data governance and digital rights are, as one official put it, “on ice” at present.
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The pandemic is in some cases reinforcing the influence of tech vendors and management consultants on government digital projects. Ministers’ offices are regularly targeted, and enamoured, by tech vendors promising dazzling new technological solutions to their problems…
On the procurement front, some signs suggest that the federal public service may actually be moving in the wrong direction. Prior to the pandemic, a growing global orthodoxy underscored the need to invest in in-house digital expertise in government, challenging the historical practice of blindly contracting public sector digital projects to the private sector. In Canada, this inspired the creation of the Digital Academy within the Canada School of Public Service and some early efforts to recruit tech talent though the Canadian Digital Service and via short-term assignments facilitated by the non-profit Code for Canada.
In tension with this movement, the pandemic is in some cases reinforcing the influence of tech vendors and management consultants on government digital projects. Ministers’ offices are regularly targeted, and enamoured, by tech vendors promising dazzling new technological solutions to their problems, and during the pandemic, this has meant a new onslaught of pitches for health-related apps and digital transformation strategies of dubious value.
Alongside tech vendors, large consulting firms have proven themselves as effective pandemic profiteers, having picked up numerous contracts with governments in Canada and elsewhere, often on sole-source bases. In a move that irked several of the public servants I spoke with, the federal government invited a select group of large firms to bid on its vaccine tracking system, eventually awarding a $16-million contract to Deloitte. The federal government has not shared information on how this system will work, but has instead only offered vague reassurances that it won’t fail in the same way that Deloitte’s U.S.-based vaccine system did. Here it is worth underscoring that the fingerprints of major tech firms and management consultancies are all over the government digital strategies and IT projects that have landed the federal government in the digital mess it is in today. That these firms retain, and may actually be emboldening, their influence on the federal government, severely undermines any predictions that the pandemic is driving welcome digital reforms in the Government of Canada.
It’s also important to remember that public servants are human, and like the rest of the country, they too faced immense domestic strains, health risks and emotional trauma over the past year.
To be sure, it’s important to underscore that it’s actually entirely reasonable that the federal government hasn’t made notable advances in its digital modernization efforts over the past year. Those who predicted pandemic-driven administrative renewal ignored the immediate firefighting that would justifiably occupy the federal government’s attention in the first year of this crisis. It’s also important to remember that public servants are human, and like the rest of the country, they too faced immense domestic strains, health risks and emotional trauma over the past year. Given this, the pandemic laid out what are quite possibly the worst set of conditions to launch the hard-to-achieve administrative reforms needed to modernize the federal government.
These reforms require careful thought, public input, political scrutiny, financial investment, new legislation, changes to the federal budgetary process, negotiations with public sector unions, an overhaul of Treasury Board policies, and an injection of tech expertise in the senior ranks of the public service. In what universe would a pandemic be an ideal time to take on these unsexy, complex, time-consuming, but essential tasks?
With this in mind, we should now firmly reject any claims that the pandemic has or will necessarily drive meaningful digital renewal in the Government of Canada. Experience over the past year equally suggests that we need to scrutinize the activities of private firms that may be seizing this crisis as an opportunity to grow their profits at the expense of important digital renewal that was underway prior to the crisis. Re-framed in this way, the COVID-19 pandemic should at most be viewed as a reminder of the importance of public sector digital capacity, but not necessarily an event that will build this capacity. Instead, in the years following the pandemic, “building back better” on the digital file will look much as it did before the crisis took hold: difficult, resource-intensive, too often ignored, but ultimately essential to the long-term viability of federal public services.