With a seemingly ubiquitous Internet and mobile devices at every turn, it is tempting for governments to view online channels as not merely an option but as the preferred means of interacting with citizens and companies. The gradual elimination of paper and the tepid consolidation of physical service centres are indicative of such an evolution.
Indeed, Canada is less aggressive than many other jurisdictions. Great Britain had adopted "digital by design" as its principle for the pursuit and prioritization of online and mobile channels; at the same time, an "assisted digital" strategy seeks to find innovative ways to incentivize and enable those presently offline to go virtual. Mobile devices are viewed as a key opportunity in this regard since research suggests that their usage is growing most rapidly among those thus far shunning online government.
Denmark has likewise sought to go even further in making digitization and mobility hallmarks of the reformation of the traditional welfare state. Many transactions and support payments for individuals are already delivered exclusively in a virtual format, with in-person facilities reserved for particularly unique and complex circumstances.
For Canada, more akin to the British socio-economic landscape than that of Denmark, the advent of mobility and Web 2.0 platforms underscores the tremendous importance of targeting digital inclusion in a strategic and holistic manner, rather than merely anticipating that divides shall naturally diminish. If anything, the evidence at present points to widening cleavages in many respects and three areas merit attention and action: geography, demographics, and education.
In terms of geography, recent announcements by the federal government to provide modest increases in funding for rural broadband initiatives are a mere Band-Aid solution for the deepening urban–rural divergence across the country. By contrast, the most digitally inclusive countries have sought to equalize digital infrastructure across all communities, something Australia has sought via its National Broadband Network.
Furthermore, while federal and provincial entities spend billions on their own IT needs, local governments, and smaller communities especially, languish in comparison. The stark realities of Nova Scotia at present underscore this point, with Halifax growing while several small municipalities have de facto filed for bankruptcy protection from the province. Ontario is similar in this regard: witness Cisco’s massive investments in the Toronto area while many communities in the North remain shackled by uneven and costly broadband options.
Part of the challenge is top-down, with federal investment dollars mainly targeting traditional forms of hard infrastructure such as roads, bridges and sewers, all critically important of course. Yet bodies such as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities should also do more to focus attention on the digital deficit plaguing smaller communities and limiting their prospects for growth and even survival.
The challenge, however, must also be met with bottom-up innovation as new cloud infrastructures can better enable smaller municipalities to work together on shared infrastructure for both backend systems and frontline service platforms. As I note in my recent report on mobility and government undertaken for ICCS, local governments in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom are further advanced in this regard.
In the absence of more urban-rural equality with respect to both infrastructure and applications, the other aforementioned dimensions of digital inclusion, namely demographics and education, further imperil smaller communities. Young people are drawn to cities, where schools, libraries and cafes are already nurturing the new generations of citizens and workers in well-endowed digital environments served, in turn, by multiple wireless providers.
Some observers optimistically point to mobility and openness as a path of convergence. A Globe and Mail article from earlier this year ("How open data could bring the North closer to southern Canadians"), for instance, offers such a compelling vision. Nonetheless, digital government’s evolution suggests otherwise – that convergence is not a natural phenomenon. Divides often persist and can even deepen unless explicit and meaningful strategies are undertaken to temper the confluence of markets and urbanization.
Canadian governments at all levels must take heed of this lesson and forge collaborative and innovative solutions for digital inclusion both within and across communities large and small.
Jeffrey Roy's report on mobility and government, prepared for the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service, is available online: http://www.iccs-isac.org/research/publications-research/?lang=en