When accessing federal government services, Canadians are looking for digital-first options to get timely information and to process applications conveniently online.

But despite significant investments in digital service delivery, many people are experiencing delays and gaps, such as long lineups for in-person government services, hard-to-navigate websites and frustrating paper-based applications.

Canada has been steadily falling in global digital government rankings. In the United Nations e-government development index, the most comprehensive scorecard of national government digital performance, Canada has tumbled from third place in 2010 to 32nd in 2022.

That’s not only well behind leading digital governments such as Denmark, Finland and South Korea: Canada now also trails Latvia, Ireland and Saudi Arabia.

A report earlier this year from the federal auditor general substantiates the troubling trend. More than 24 years after identifying aging information technology systems as a significant issue, modernization has been very slow. The audit found two-thirds of IT systems in federal departments are in poor health, including essential, citizen-facing programs such as employment insurance.

The findings capture the current zeitgeist around digital transformation in Ottawa: strong ambition, but struggling execution. The recent announcement about the departure of government Chief Information Officer Catherine Luelo only adds to this perception.

If the federal government wants to reverse Canadians’ perceptions of clunky digital-age services and climb back up the global rankings as digital leaders, it’s time for a reboot of the digital transformation agenda.

That demands a whole-of-government effort on several fronts, from improved technology management and digital procurement reform to attracting and upskilling public service digital talent, while ensuring Canadians are properly equipped to access digital services.

This is the central theme of a new report from the Dais think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) and Shift Insights.

Of course, it’s important to put the daunting scale of the federal government’s digital transformation in perspective.

In 2021, there were 265 million applications for 1,375 services across 72 departments and agencies — the equivalent of nearly seven applications for every Canadian. No bank, telco or other large company in Canada approaches this scale and diversity of service offerings.

Nevertheless, there is glaring proof of lagging performance. According to the Dais report, less than one-quarter of federal government services are available online end-to-end and just 61 per cent of those actually meet the government’s own digital service standards.

In surveys of public servants, many report that workplace technology holds back the quality of their work. This comes in addition to recent high-profile examples of federal IT project failures ranging from the Phoenix pay system to the COVID-era ArriveCan app.

The Dais study points to three factors that contribute to lagging digital maturity.

First, the government has struggled to build an internal digital culture that integrates a user-centric approach to the design and delivery of digital services.

There have been positive steps toward supporting digital transformation, including setting up a digital standards playbook for citizen services and creating the Canadian Digital Service to help departments plan and deliver digital projects.

Yet, our research found the federal government lacks a unified approach to IT planning across all departments, has outdated project management methods and relies heavily on large external contractors – all of which have limited the internal development of digital capabilities across the federal public sector. When innovations do occur in pockets, the overall lack of coordination often prevents them from scaling.

The second factor is a digital skills deficit in the federal public service.

Despite an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 workers in digital occupations across the federal public service, there are numerous skills gaps, from foundational digital literacy to cyber security and digital project management skills.

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Outdated HR systems, as well as job classifications that do not reflect modern digital skills and compensation, limit the ability to attract and retain top digital talent. Our research also found that these factors limit the potential to grow digital literacy and skills across the public sector workforce.

Third, the government is behind on enabling digital access for Canadians.

While the government was able to meet surging demand for online access to high-volume services during the pandemic, it is falling short on commitments to make government decisions available online, as well as on the transition from paper to online applications, and in implementing simple user authentication procedures to enable easy, secure logins to services.

Further, while user authentication through digital verification is a prerequisite in providing user-centred government services, the report found inconsistencies in how it is applied. Multiple government departments require unique sign-up processes, resulting in individuals having to recall each of their verification keys and passwords to sign into different departments to access often interrelated services.

Worse, the accessibility of digital services (and participation in digital society generally) is limited for many Canadians by a lack of basic internet connectivity at reasonable speeds and price.

Canada’s persistent lack of equitable access to high-speed internet – resulting from infrastructure network gaps and social and economic barriers – disproportionately affects Indigenous peoples, low-income and older Canadians, and those who live in rural and remote communities.

This diagnostic of Canada’s digital government presents a somewhat gloomy picture, but we are still very early in this transformation journey.

While the ambitious mandate letter for the new federal Minister of Citizens’ Services sends good signals about rebooting a government digital services agenda, reversing Canada’s decline in this area demands much greater focus on execution, outcomes and, most importantly, accountability to citizens.

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André Côté
André Côté is the director of research and leads the secure and responsible tech policy program at the Dais think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Viet Vu
Viet Vu is the manager of economic research at the Dais think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University.

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