The Digital Role of the State

Most government websites are riddled with design flaws that prioritize endless amounts of text and hyperlinks over functionality and usability. Instead of finding what they need or completing a task quickly and simply, most users experience conflicting information, rampant accessibility issues, and confusing layouts and features. This raises the question of why online interactions with the government can’t be more like the user-friendly experiences we have with our favourite online companies. Luckily for us, David Eaves, a well-known expert in information technology and the public sector, is on a mission to bring government to the forefront of the technological era.

L-R: Peter Loewen, Hillary Hartley, Rachel Durran, and David Eaves

On November 16, Eaves engaged an audience at the University of Toronto with a discussion about not only the struggles of implementing a digital government but also the challenges that may arise if it is achieved. The event was hosted by U of T’s School of Public Policy and Governance and also featured a panel discussion with Rachel Curran, former Director of Oolicy to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Hillary Hartley, Chief Digital Officer for the Ontario government.

Eaves first discussed the importance of governments improving their online presence. Governments could improve operating efficiency by using a shared information system, which would help minimize information duplication and improve communication within government. Most importantly, better information and technology practices could improve public confidence in government. After all, why would people trust the government with the most complicated aspects of their lives when it can’t even develop a decent website? Improving user experiences on government websites is not only a stylistic issue but also an issue of improving government legitimacy and competency in the eyes of the people.

The Canadian government has recognized the need for better digital services, and it is working to modernize its online presence, as evident through the Digital Government Initiative and an attempt to consolidate government information on one website with the project. However, the project is still incomplete and 10 times over budget. The federal government is not the only actor struggling to adapt to the digital world—even some large companies are failing in this regard.

According to Eaves, the digital infrastructure to create these changes is already available, but what is lacking is the will to implement it. He gave an overview of countries excelling in developing an online presence, like India and Estonia. India has a central information system known as Aadhaar which provides biometric identification for all 1.3 billion Indian citizens. Through identifying features such as fingerprints, iris scans, and photographs, Aadhaar allows the state to easily determine welfare payments. In addition to Aadhaar, DigiLocker securely and centrally stores all government documents, allowing for improved efficiency and reduced information duplication. In Estonia, 99% of government services are available online in a central database known as X-ROAD. This system is so efficient that the state is not allowed to ask citizens for the same information twice.

However, the emergence of the e-government may not be the utopia we expect. Eaves discussed “surveillance capitalism,” meaning the collection of information to create individualized buying portfolios of consumers, as being potentially problematic for the state to engage in. The state’s ability to act on data collected is far more substantial compared to the ability of Amazon or Google. The state has coercive tools that could target people more effectively and in potentially harmful ways. Additionally, we do not yet know what preferences, behaviors, and beliefs can be understood from the collection of our everyday interactions, and what governments could use it for.

In the United States, certain state governments have recognized that information sharing with the federal government could erode citizens’ rights. As a result, there have been measures to legislate against information-sharing with the federal government. For example, the California Values Act (Senate Bill 54), signed in October of this year addressed this very issue. The Act limits local law enforcements communication with federal immigration authorities, as part of the ongoing effort to protect the state’s undocumented population.

Lastly, Eaves argued that an e-government violates the social contract between citizens and the state. Many citizens may be uncomfortable with the state’s new digital role, and their consent to be governed in a digital way to be should not be assumed. As such, governments will need to develop new governance models and ethical frameworks before widespread changes to digital governance occur. A new frontier is approaching for policy makers—one that can either support or undermine the values of a democratic and free society in a digital era.

Breanne Bateman is a Master of Public Policy student at the University of Toronto. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and English from Wilfrid Laurier University. Breanne is interested in food, environmental, and business policy. She loves reading, travelling, and her pet dachshund.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect the School of Public Policy and Governance as the host of this event.