Governance in the digital age

My update six months in

By Kent Aitken, Prime Ministers Fellow, Public Policy Forum. @kentdaitken

On April 20, 2017, we held a panel discussion on Fixing Canada’s Digital Deficit in Toronto. Pictured: Jesse Hirsh, Futurist and Digital Strategist; Charlie Wade,
Senior Vice President of Products and Solutions, Rogers Enterprise Business; Corinne Pohlmann, Senior Vice-President, National Affairs and Partnerships, CFIB; Victoria Lennox, Co-founder and CEO of Startup Canada; Mary-Ellen Anderson, Vice President, Developer Experience & Evangelism, Microsoft Canada (Microsoft Women)

In October 2016 I joined the Public Policy Forum for a year to study and advise on the idea of governance in the digital age. After six months of research, interviews and roundtables on open and digital government, I’d like to provide an update on the project.

A working definition

Let’s start with a working definition for digital-era governance, which could be a very broad topic. After all, this is the digital era, and “governance” is the entire system in which public decisions are made and enacted, including institutions, norms, laws and policies. We might refine it slightly to looking at what impact digital technologies and trends are having — or should have — on governance. This includes the concepts of “digital government,” “open government” and government’s role in addressing how technology is (or isn’t) transforming citizens’ lives. It’s how governments draw on the insight of citizens, how they think about and procure technology and how the trends and technologies of the digital era change public institutions and policymaking.

There are a few different angles within that:

  • Government operations: how advances in technology could disrupt how government works (e.g., information security threats) as well as how government could work better through use of technology.
  • Laws, policies, and regulations: where governments may have to make decisions on governing technologies for public protection or interest (e.g., drones, algorithms, peer-to-peer economies).
  • Society and the economy: where government may have to shift to support changing technologies to create societal or economic value (or at least create a level playing field for them) (e.g., clean technology or Toronto’s new Vector Institute specializing in AI).

The biggest question, however, is at the meta level: how do governments understand the nature and possible impacts of emerging technologies in the first place? Particularly when outside voices will call on government to over- or under-react, how can government make informed, confident decisions, at the right time?

Threads and common themes

One of the early conclusions was that there’s going to be no easy theory of everything. However, there’s a handful of recurring themes:

  • Complexity is a defining feature of the digital era, and we are not adjusting our governance structures to manage it. Just the opposite, in some ways: as authority and information became distributed and hyperconnected, the pressure towards centralized decision-making and message control became stronger. Meanwhile, governments have grown in size and scope, and the overlap between portfolios has grown as well, and accordingly so has the scope for individual managers. What hasn’t grown is the time, tools or resources to deal with boundaryless problems implicating many stakeholders. This question will be at the root of open government and digital government initiatives.
  • Where governments have structured themselves for evidence-based policy-making and empirical rigour for many fields (e.g., environmental monitoring, social programming, public health), we accept far less rigour when talking about governance, technology and innovation. This is partially inevitable: there’s no dataset about the future. But truisms, mythologies and assumptions occupy an astonishing amount of the airtime in our national dialogue about modern governance.
  • Government as change management. There’s a wide range between predictions on workforce automation: Osborne/Frey suggest 47 percent of the U.S. workforce is at risk of automation, whereas the OECD suggests that 9 percent of the workforce across OECD countries is at risk, with up to 50 percent of tasks changing for an additional 25 percent. Regardless, we’re headed for disrupted economies, regular re-skilling of employees and the continued importance of social security. Is this disruption happening at an unprecedented rate? Does it matter if it is? The disruption of industries means the wholesale disruption of citizens’ lives, and even more so if the prescription is that they move for work. The role of governments in change management is a crucial question for economic fairness, quality of life and national productivity and competitiveness.
  • The internet is a platform of platforms where people live, work and play. It’s made of us. But it’s not yet a place where all people live, or where people live on a level playing field. Once seen as a great equalizer, we’ve now realized that the digital divide is as likely to spread inequality; the blogosphere, as it turns out, is slightly whiter and more male than the elitist traditional publishing market. It’s undeniable that the Internet is changing how society functions, but our understanding is lagging: there are significant research gaps in Canada. If we want to take citizen engagement or services to citizens seriously — with the majority of touchpoints now online for both — we have to know how citizens interact through the Internet.

Status and the months to come

The year is about research and convening events. That research will build towards a synthesis in the fall, either as one report or a series. However, I’ll post sections that work as standalone pieces, all of which I welcome discussion on:

For events, we’re having a series of informal brownbag lunch events for PPF members to weigh in on the project. We’ve hosted roundtables on open and digital government with industry, academia, government and civil society, and a session on digital adoption among Canadian businesses as part of the PPF’s annual Testimonial Dinner. And we’re about to launch a series on disruptive technologies and their implications for governance.

An invitation

Please feel free to reach out: I’d love to connect to you or your organization’s work on the topic. And if there’s a topic or question under the “digital-era governance” umbrella that you think merits exploration or events, it’ll help us prioritize which questions to do deep dives on.


Kent Aitken is the 2016–2017 Prime Ministers of Canada Fellow at Canada’s Public Policy Forum, studying and advising on governance in the digital age.

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