Inflection Point Towards a Modern and Digital Government
Not long ago, getting married in Halifax or designing a new addition to your house in Sherbrooke meant a trip down to city hall to fill out forms and pay for a license in person. As recently as 2019, less than 10% of doctor visits were done on-line, but according to a Canadian Medical Association study, close to 70% of survey respondents said they had seen their physician virtually in the second half of 2020. Broadscale remote education wasn't even part of the plan for most school boards across Canada, but from March to June of last year, everything from fifth-grade English, high-school algebra to university psych courses were taught on-line.
The switch that was flipped in mid-March saw close to one million government employees across all levels from municipal to federal working remotely. While COVID-19 forced the shuttering of offices and the closure of industries such as fitness clubs and restaurants, there was hardly a pause for the government. 2020 could very well mark an inflection point from the 20th-century style of government towards a modern, digital way of governing.
The biggest step forward coming out of COVID-19 was the number of digital projects that enabled the government the ability to process CERB claims in minutes, created billing codes to allow physicians to charge for virtual visits, and even schedule a time to pick up books that you had reserved at the local library. These systems were built fast and designed to be implemented and used easily. What the public sector did through COVID-19 has changed the perspective that many decision-makers have about the importance of modern digital systems in governing. Doing things the way they had always been done would never have cut it.
The long-term impact of COVID-19 will have to be dealt with. In 2021, the government must begin to address the inequity and growing gap in access to healthcare, technology, and financial assets. Also on the agenda is the viability of many small and midsized businesses. Finally, governments will begin to see the full impact COVID-19 has had on Canadian cities. The shift to work from home has emptied parts of our downtowns. COVID-19 has had a ripple effect on real estate, revenues for businesses servicing workers in the core, and even downtown residents' healthcare and educational services. The workplace is a fluid situation. People will likely reconsider their position about heading into the office once vaccines are readily available. Urban planners have their work cut out for them as they reimagine the city and mixed-use of office towers, shopping centers, and storefront retail. Canadian cities will rebound, as will the work environment, but it will be different. Government will need to adjust.
Reducing the Inequity Gap and Turning Vision into Reality
While the government has a number of priorities that are set out in IDC's recent report, What to Expect in Canadian Government, 2021: Testing Recovery in a Move Toward a Digital Government, its major challenge will be bridging the execution gap and turning this vision into reality. This will be the biggest test of recovery as we move to a digitally-designed government.
Success for 2021 will depend more on what happens behind the scenes. We should see clear advancements as governments around the country begin building the digital-based structure and rollout out the initial stages of digital identity initiatives and better data governance. Technology should play a major role in reducing the inequity gap in society, in areas such as:
- Rural broadband, and better connectivity in city-run housing in cities like Montreal and Vancouver.
- An integrated healthcare system to help bring people together as opposed to dividing them apart.
- Finding a new balance for a distributed and isolated workforce.
- Citizen trust will be critical for the effective rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. Leadership will be required to set the proper tone and make the path forward possible.
- 2021 will also be a benchmark for measuring how much we will retreat from the progress made in the past year in areas such as the improvements in supply chain, process efficiency, and building relationships with the private sector. There were a number of gaps exposed and then addressed in these areas in the early days of COVID-19; going back to the way things were is not an option for the future.
Instead, many government officials we have heard from look at this year as an opportunity to improve the way government works. Government ICT leaders are working on realigning technology and services with the mission of government. Digital government also taps into the network effect that drives the success of large Internet platform players. Scale and speed magnify the benefits. The digital initiatives that are discussed in this IDC report are all interrelated. When pieces such as high-speed networks and modernization to a digital foundation come together, a multiplier effect magnifies the benefits in areas such as healthcare and citizen services. One step forward can bring so much more value, but the opposite is also true – one misstep can make it seem like the needle failed to move forward. There is no margin of error in 2021.
Those who got a head start during the initial stages of the COVID-19 should see marked progress in 2021 in areas such as broadband rollout and more collaborative healthcare. The path forward a digital government needs will be built on infrastructure that allows for speed and agility and a citizen-centric mindset. These steps will build the foundation for the future. The most critical part of the next steps in the transformation will be people and culture: leaders, elected officials, and government employees.
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International Data Corporation (IDC) is the premier global provider of market intelligence, advisory services, and events for the information technology, telecommunications, and consumer technology markets. To learn more about IDC Canada, please visit www.idc.com/ca or follow on Twitter at @idccanada and LinkedIn.
About the Author
Strategic Advisor, Public Sector & Innovation Research