Digital transformation is changing society. Governments around the world need to embrace this transformation and actively encourage it. Today, Finland is leading Europe in e-government and transformation.
Years ago, Canada was a leader in e-government. Today, it’s not. But there are opportunities to accelerate our adoption, increase innovation, and chart a future where Canadians are digitally connected to similar programs, services, and opportunities, regardless of where they live.
Section 36 of the Constitution Act 1982 guarantees that Canada and the provincial governments are committed to:
- (a) promoting equal opportunities for the well-being of Canadians;
- (b) furthering economic development to reduce disparity in opportunities; and
- (c) providing essential public services of reasonable quality to all Canadians.”
A national digital strategy on par with Finland’s would go a long way to meeting this constitutional obligation.
According to work done recently by KPMG, new immigrants to Canada from India and China are often surprised by how far our government, and even financial institutions, lag behind in providing digital services.
The federation’s approach to the pandemic provides a disquieting bellwether of Canada’s ability to build a digitally enabled economic recovery.
To serve their citizens, all three levels of government have been mixing different proportions of science, health data, assertions of jurisdictional autonomy, and degrees of co-operation with other levels of government.
The result is at least 14 approaches to responding to COVID-19, with 10 provinces, three territories, and the federal government all providing daily briefings and diverse plans involving bubbles, curfews, and colour-coded, numerical, and phased levels of restrictions and lockdowns.
Vaccine distribution is equally uneven, with some allowing different vaccines for second doses and others not. The result is an equal level of confusion among citizens because their governments don’t appear to be aligned.
By digitally co-operating, jurisdictions could have shared health information and tracked vaccine rollouts more efficiently. It would have made it easier to manage lockdowns and internal borders, thereby instilling confidence in Canadians that their safety and access to vaccines wasn’t geographically determined. One country, one pandemic response.
Canada’s experience with the pandemic provides valuable lessons for first ministers on the inner workings — or not workings — of our federation. The cost of poor co-operation has been variants and talk of a possible fourth wave.
Choosing a more co-operative approach to health outcomes and our economic recovery could determine how fast our economy bounces back, and how sustainable, inclusive, and green it will be in the long term.
A national digital strategy would be one way to pursue a co-operative approach, and would contribute to an economic recovery across the country, rather than an uneven approach analogous to the pandemic response.
Canada’s economic recovery should nudge first ministers toward opportunities to harmonize legislation and regulation. Even an interprovincial free-trade agreement with a digital backbone could lead to streamlined liquor laws, regulation of professions and licensing, and environmental, transportation, construction, and health standards.
Canadians deserve to know where their country is going and how it will get there. The absence of a digital plan among first ministers contributes to a foggy idea of Canada, its economic future, and increased tensions between provinces and territories. Countries around the world are digitally adapting with agility and prowess. Canada should be among them.
On June 10, the Institute on Governance will host an online event, Digital Directions, to contribute to Canada’s digital debate. Topics include Canada’s new digital-operations strategic plan, the prevalence and threat of disinformation, as well as an expert/participant collaboration to give the government practical advice on where to begin.
Stephen Van Dine is senior vice-president of the Institute on Governance.
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