Representative democracy in Canada has not been replaced, but it has become more participative. Democracy is no longer just voting every four or five years, but a continuous, engaged, informed and collaborative dialogue involving all players (p. 9, E-Government Policy Network 2004).1
There are, I believe, four significant dimensions to the transformation of public sector governance triggered by the emergence of e-government: service delivery, security, transparency, and trust. All of these dimensions are related – directly or indirectly – to the widening presence and rapidly expanding importance of a digital infrastructure encompassing information and communication technologies and online connectivity.
Service and security
The first two of these dimensions are primarily focused on changes to the internal decision-making architecture of government, in response to pressures and opportunities associated with the Internet. Indeed, delivering services online became the hallmark of e-government during the 1990s. As more and more Canadians conduct their personal and professional affairs online, these “customers” of government look to do the same in dealing with state, whether it is paying their taxes or renewing permits and licenses of one sort or another.
Most governments have moved quickly to develop integrated portals that respond to the demands for these new services. For instance, the Government of Ontario’s main web presence is organized according to main “customer themes” reflecting this service delivery mentality. Still, for most governments functionality remains limited, particularly with respect to the processing of financial payments. This is a limitation due in large measure to the concerns about security.
The ability to interact effectively with customers online requires a safe and reliable architecture, particularly for the handling of personal information – such as credit card numbers – that often underpins financial transactions. Yet fostering government-wide capacities for receiving, storing and sharing secure information is a complex undertaking. In areas such as health care, the benefits of more efficient and integrated care through networked information systems are entirely dependent on secure and inter-connected governance architectures.
Security issues have clearly risen to the top of political agendas as of late, and governments have become conscious that more citizen-centric manners may not always be consistent with a philosophy of friendly and efficient customer service. For security can mean surveillance as well as service. It may entail extracting and sharing information not only in response to requests by citizens, but also as a way to better forecast potential actions and choices. The trade-offs among privacy, freedom, and convenience have, therefore, become political hot buttons, with governments facing a constant struggle to achieve the right balance.
1 E-Government Policy Network, Government of Canada (2004) Transforming Government and Governance for the 21st Century: A Conceptual Framework. Oliver, L. and Sanders, L. (Eds.) E-Government Reconsidered: Renewal of Governance for the Knowledge Age. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center.