Inside the federal bureaucracy, Clarke digs up a ‘creeping culture of excessive silos, hierarchies’ in digital attitudes

Reflects basic accountability at both the political and official levels, and that governments, by their very size and broad impact, have to be more cautious given their stewardship role:

What happens when the risk-averse organizational culture of the Government of Canada confronts the freewheeling style of digital culture? A purposeful slow reaction, finds a new book on the topic.

Amanda Clarke is a public administration scholar at Carleton University who specializes in digital government. Opening the Government of Canada: The Federal Bureaucracy in the Digital Age is a result of years of work documenting the Government of Canada’s transition to a digital world. The findings reveal how an organization that is prone to resist change is compelled to deal with global forces propelling innovation.

Opening the Government of Canada documents the digital responsiveness of the federal bureaucracy in the later stages of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Clarke consults an abundance of what academics call grey literature, namely media coverage, government tweets and blogs, and completed access to information requests. She gains original insights through interviews with 32 Canadian public servants and a special adviser. Those are buttressed by conversations with seven public servants in the United Kingdom. They narrate a consistent theme: that the Canadian government is cautious and hesitant about digital reform.

Provocative questions are asked at various junctures in the book. On page 69: What happens when closed government gets a Twitter account? On page 95: Who should speak for the government? These jarringly simple questions belie the author’s natural curiosity about how government works. The inquisitiveness is an excellent framing device to generate interest in figuring out the answers.

The book begins by summarizing some statistics about digital media. Among the observations are that managerial philosophies shift as digital disruption grows. Conflict ensues, which at its core is an ideological battle about notions of democratic government. On one side of the philosophical divide are valid reasons for government to operate in silos with a centralized hierarchy. On the other side are those advocating for government transparency and accountability. Readers are encouraged to consider a variety of perspectives in the closed doors versus crowd-sourcing debate.

For my part, whenever I think of digital politics scholarship in Canada, one of the subject experts who immediately comes to mind is political scientist Tamara Small of the University of Guelph. Small’s work barely factors into Opening the Government of Canada, likely because she mostly studies political parties. Yet she has repeatedly shown that most Canadian politicians use social media as a broadcasting medium. That is, instead of two-way engagement, they use social media as a digital megaphone. Politicians and their staff are more likely to raise awareness of content from news releases than they are to get into a digital conversation. Clarke discovers the same tendency in the Government of Canada, where tweets are informational one-way broadcasting (pages 82-83). Moreover, Clarke finds that government departments routinely amplify other government departments’ posts, much like MPs from the same party retweet each other. This example shows that studying how politicians behave (political science) can help inform our analysis of what happens in government (public administration). A key difference is that communicating digitally has become a fundamental aspect of what MPs do whereas it is still a work in progress for the government.

The comparison between politics and public administration is a useful reminder about drawing parallels. In government, there is safety in following what other entities are doing. It is much easier for organizations to transpose existing behaviour to new platforms than it is for them to do something radical. Thus we have the creation of GCTools, which is the government’s own social media platform.

This innovation caused Canada to be a global leader in digital government. Despite spotty uptake, public servants could avail of this safe space to discover skilled experts across government (page 131). GCTools is loosely reminiscent of the government seeking to exert control over other forms of communications, such as the Canada Gazette newspaper or any number of public relations activities. A key difference is that GCTools connects people.

GCTools was developed under the Conservative government, which had a well-deserved reputation for top-down communications management. Chapter 3 documents how the government adapted to changing digital norms earlier in this decade. The developments were slow, reserved, measured, and cautious. In society, the Twitterverse came alive with people busily posting about everything from serious questions about government, to the banalities of their personal lives. Meanwhile, within the Government of Canada, a web of policy frameworks and multi-stage workflow processes were implemented to generate social media content. It is clear that the public service struggled to react to changing societal norms.

The command and control approach of the Harper government seems to have aligned well with government’s natural ethos to run a closed shop. Clarke evokes the environment of permanent campaigning that injected a further dose of caution. Permanent campaigning refers to non-stop electioneering—that is, the official election campaign may be over, but many of the same politicized communications activities persist. A non-stop communications mentality is especially evident during periods of minority government and when the dissolution of Parliament is on the horizon. On page 86, we are informed that communications centralization becomes a virtue to avoid the “nightmare” of public servants freelancing on government social media accounts.

There are other challenges with digital government. Striving for public service neutrality in digital communications is a complex proposition (pages 92-94). Questions about who is running public-facing accounts are warranted, given that many public servants have personal social media profiles. Open data is fine in principle, but releasing datasets as PDFs that inhibit running calculations is unhelpful (page 98). Many public servants are not digital natives. This requires re-training and a conscious effort to recruit digital talent (page 158). Ultimately, fewer barriers to public interaction is less about technology than it is about attitude (page 186).

Reading about public administration can be fraught with information that gets lost in a blur of acronyms, dates, and technical writing. Thankfully, Clarke largely spares her readers from those trappings. The more I read, the more I learned and the more I enjoyed going on a journey inside the public service as it responded to digital demands. That said, for her next book I would encourage less quoting of passages from literature in order to free up more room to quote her interview participants. Another pedantic criticism is the inclusion of the U.K. interviews, which was an unusual decision. As well, the book was published in 2019, and it would be interesting to know how the analysis of 2012 Twitter data stands the test of time. We are told that e-government has become flatter, more nimble and responsive (page 157). There is some brief mention of happenings under the Liberal government, however it is unclear how the e-government trend has permeated post-Harper.

What has changed under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? In some ways quite a lot. Since 2018, Trudeau has churned through three ministers of digital government. The creation of the portfolio is a telling development. The first two, Scott Brison and Jane Philpott, resigned from cabinet for unrelated reasons not long after taking on the portfolio. When Philpott took the helm, Amanda Clarke published some advice in Policy Options (Feb. 8, 2019) about managing the digital file. She and co-author Jonathan Craft of the University of Toronto recommended courageous leadership, more training, and a willingness to embrace experimental approaches. They urged the minister to integrate digital thinking earlier on in the public policy process. Joyce Murray became the latest minister of digital government in March 2019.

The position was secondary to Brison, Philpott, and Murray serving in their primary role of president of the Treasury Board. The post-election cabinet unveiled in November expanded the number of ministers. A lot of the attention has gone to the unusual title of minister of middle class prosperity—a good example of permanent campaigning at work. Digital government was hived off. Jean-Yves Duclos is now exclusively overseeing the Treasury Board while Murray is exclusively minister of digital government. This is mostly about the prime minister spreading political rewards around. But make no mistake: digital government is a much bigger entity than it was even a few years ago. For evidence, one need look only at how the Government of Canada has upended where its advertising dollars go, with an unequivocal preference for digital.

Yet is it unclear whether anything has changed in other areas. For instance, some internet access was blocked in some government departments in 2015 (page 103). To what extent is that the case today? Smartphones seem to present an obvious workaround. Details like this seem fundamental to assessing whether the Government of Canada is fostering a digital culture.

Looking deeper, digital optimists have reason to be frustrated. The Trudeau Liberals imported a spirit of openness into government in 2015. Part of this was to present a contrast with the Harper Conservatives. The longer the Liberals have been in power, the more the have adopted the characteristics of risk-aversion and information secrecy. The Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada has vocalized frustrations with the government’s lack of commitment to access to information. Digital communications creates efficiencies whereas open government creates headaches. It seems likely that it is “corner of the desk work” (page 112) under the Liberals as it was under the Conservatives.

The concluding chapter makes a number of recommendations best left for readers to discover. Suffice it to say, Clarke finishes off by commenting on what her research about digital attitudes in the Government of Canada has found: “a creeping culture of excessive silos, hierarchies, and risk aversion.” Here’s hoping that Minister Murray and her team find time to read Opening the Government of Canada over the holidays.

Source: Inside the federal bureaucracy, Clarke digs up a ‘creeping culture of excessive silos, hierarchies’ in digital attitudes