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“Being digital” won’t just help us get better tools. It’ll help us with reconciliation

There’s a lot of talk about “digital transformation” these days. I am pretty sure that by now most of us know that we as a public service (if not as a country) are transitioning towards new systems, processes, and tools.

However, for all the discussion surrounding this critical need, we sometimes forget that “transformation” is value-neutral — there’s no guarantee that a change will be any better than what has come before. And in a modern British Columbia, there are no more gold stars for turning a paper form into a PDF! We need to push deeper and find ways that serve citizens’ increasing expectations, not just their basic needs.

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

We need to do more — for citizens and for ourselves. If deployed correctly, the momentum towards digital transformation has the potential to help us address complex social issues and inequalities in our communities and society at large.

We can, and we must, talk about equity when we talk about digital — reconciliation, accessibility, GBA+, and systemic racism, just to name a few. I don’t just mean from an access perspective (though, of course, I mean that, too). I mean that many of the same principles and conversations that drive equity are the same drivers in digital.

Data is probably the clearest example of how digital and equity are working hand in hand, and we’re seeing this time and time again across BC Government:

  • Disaggregated Demographic Collection in British Columbia: The Grandmother Perspective is a 2020 report from British Columbia’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner (BCOHRC) that exemplifies how disaggregated data (particularly when paired with a relationship-based engagement process) can help address systemic racism.
  • BC is currently hiring a Director of Indigenous Data Governance. Open only to Indigenous applicants, the role is explicitly meant to “address the damaging history of colonialism and the negative impacts that the government’s data collection and use has had on Indigenous Peoples.”
  • In January, BC concluded its public consultation to help shape upcoming anti-racism data legislation. There were more than 2,900 online submissions and 175 community-led events during this four-month engagement.

Each of these examples acknowledge that data is a resource over which marginalized communities can and should have control. They also underline the fact that data is never neutral. How it is collected, who is involved, what questions are asked, and how it is interpreted can create — or challenge — systemic bias. The push to disaggregated data is great step to make visible bias in data.

Quick reminder: disaggregated data is data that is broken down into different segments to see variations across difference. For example, aggregated data would tell us test scores for an entire school population. Disaggregated data would let us see test stores for students from various racial backgrounds. The power of disaggregated data is that it can help us see patterns, name problems, and provide evidence to help shape solutions.

But digital is so much more than data. It’s also about technology, process, and culture. Here, too, we can see the overlap with equity.

The Province’s push towards common components is based on the idea of “build once, use often,” but there’s a more succinct principle that underlies this idea: interconnection. There’s no denying that the drivers pushing us toward expansion of common components are primarily practical; the wasted resources spent reproducing the same technologies across different program areas creates a vacuum of innovation, one in which we consistently create but produce nothing new. But what we don’t often talk about is the way common components create links between seemingly unrelated initiatives and program areas.

If we can think about how seemingly disparate software pieces can be connected, we can do the same for people. It leads us to think about applying a gender lens to budgeting. It encourages us to think about how to apply the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s Act to all business areas across the province. Systems thinking and meditation on how things are interconnected rather than separate is key to solving many of our most complex challenges.

And there is no end to emerging complex challenges.

Take the bedrock of everything digital: the internet. Despite its myriad benefits, the internet is a largely ungoverned arena where hate speech, bias, and systemic inequality currently find unchecked space to flourish. What role government needs to play in managing digital public space remains to be seen. However, if governments can’t figure out how to navigate a transition to digital internally, there isn’t much hope we can tackle something like wider accessibility, support, and safety for British Columbians in a digital era.

I want to be clear: none of the above is meant to suggest that digital is inherently about equity. It’s not. It can easily be used to uphold our current structures that harm and marginalize citizens. But we’re never going to be fully digital unless we’re also thinking about equity and reconciliation and GBA+ and accessibility. At the end of the day, these are all pieces of the same conversation.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Indeed, we are already on this path: BC’s Digital Principles lays much of this out. The first principle is to “cultivate trust.” The introductory pages of the BCOHRC report remind us that, “relationship change precipitates systems change.” As public servants and as citizens of BC, we are being called to renew our relationships — with each other, with our systems, and with the ways that we work. None of this is easy, but we have already started. Let us maintain the courage to keep going.

Ashley Dryburgh

Ashley Dryburgh, Digital Era Strategist, Strategic Design & Delivery, Ministry of Citizens’ Services

A queer, anti-racist feminist, Ashley works at the intersection of innovation, digital, and equity. She is a co-founder of the Edmonton Shift Lab, a social innovation lab focused on anti-racist behavior change. During her day job, Ashley helps public servants get better at working in complexity. During her night job, she makes macramé and fights a losing battle against cat hair.

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