New article in Policy Options: One year into the pandemic, federal digital government is largely business as usual

It's been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the federal government to make the sudden shift to working from home and to expand its online service offerings. What difference, if any, did this make for ongoing efforts to renew the federal government for the digital age? 

I asked this question to a group of federal public servants and reported on what they told me in a brief analysis published today in Policy Options. The short answer: the pandemic hasn't fundamentally changed how the federal government operates and digital government reform remains an exhausting uphill battle.  You can find the article here. 

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Review of Opening the Government of Canada in the Canadian Journal of Political Science

Prof. Andrea Rounce published a review of my 2019 book, Opening the Government of Canada, in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of Political Science. The full review is below and available on their site here.


Book Review/Recension

Andrea Rounce

Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique , First View , pp. 1 - 2

Amanda Clarke's Opening the Government of Canada provides an exceptional study of how the Canadian government has responded to external and internal pressures to integrate digital into its governing practices and structures. Drawing on theoretical discussions and historical approaches to government reform, empirical findings from interviews with public servants, media reviews, Twitter conversations and a careful review of government documents, Clarke provides a compelling account of how Canada has approached opening government and outlines future possibilities within a digital context.

The book begins with a foundational analysis of what it means to open government in the digital age, highlighting the complexity of what open can mean from a digital perspective and why it is important for government to work toward. With respect to the latter, Clarke makes four central arguments: closed government provides more risk than benefit; closed government results in policy, program and operational failures; closed government poses significant human resource costs, hindering recruitment and retention; and closed government “exacerbate[s] existing crises of confidence in the state, suggesting to citizens that government is out of touch, ineffective, irrelevant, and democratically illegitimate” (25). Clarke uses a broad interpretation of open government that “focuses on challenging siloed and hierarchical work models within the public service and fostering new models of public engagement and co-production and a culture of public service amenable to risk taking, failure, iterative learning, and innovation” (27). She draws on literature about the growth of technology and its impact on management, as well as on theories of traditional public administration, to explain how “traditional” understandings of the Canadian state are being challenged and replaced by theories of digital era open government (8). However, Clarke adeptly points out that these new theories are limited, as discussions of opening government to date have focused largely on how to do it, rather than whether (and how) it should be done (17).

The second chapter explores why Canada's federal government has been slow to open, despite attempts from the public service and from political leadership to adopt new practices and ways of thinking. Chapters 3 and 4 examine specific attempts to open government under Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper. A case study of social media adoption under Prime Minister Trudeau provides insight into why and how such a crucial tool of open and digital government failed, while a chapter on “open(ish) government” examines work done under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper—the first “digital era prime minister” (27). The next chapter takes a historical approach to understanding the attempts to reform and open government, informed by interviews with bureaucrats and an analysis of key documents. The remainder of the book plots out opportunities for the federal government to open its practices, including what options and openings exist for implanting digital strategies and initiatives and for closing the digital skills gap in the federal bureaucracy. Clarke concludes the book by thoroughly assessing the future of digital government in Canada and providing evidence-informed advice on how government(s) can move forward. She examines the role of information technology (IT) in digitizing and opening government, while adding a comparative element by referencing the digital government units in Australia, Ontario, the United Kingdom and the United States. These examples are helpful in assisting readers to understand what might be possible for Canada.

Often criticisms of the federal bureaucracy and its traditions and culture are used to explain Canada's slow, and sometimes failed, attempts to embrace digital governance. Clarke adeptly addresses these criticisms, deconstructing the impact of political leadership while carefully and thoroughly explaining the “deeply rooted and complex legacies that stand in the way of an open, digital-ready public service” (xi). She explores how Canada's government traditions and practices “constrain the public service's capacity to experiment with new technologies, to attract and leverage talent, to adopt innovative policy solutions, and to collaborate productively across departments and with citizens and non-governmental organizations” (xi). One of Clarke's key contributions is to address the very real accountability and effectiveness consequences of moving too quickly to embrace new ideas without carefully considering how these interact with traditional ways of operating (xi). Clarke refers specifically to the need to renegotiate a digital “bargain” between public servants and elected officials, suggesting that increased government–citizen engagement led by public servants could reinforce bureaucratic independence and challenge public servant neutrality (223). The book thus moves beyond building a strong case for digital governance in Canada, to explain why this might not have been happening as quickly as some would like and how challenges to digital government might be overcome.

As the book's title indicates, there is a significant focus on the role of the bureaucracy in opening and digitizing the government. When considering why these processes have lagged, Clarke outlines the reality that there is a significant digital skills gap in the bureaucracy (154–55). She also notes that there are more reasons not to innovate digitally (that is, culture, risk aversion, accountability, pressure from elected officials) than to undertake innovation within the public service and that building a culture that encourages innovation must also tolerate failure (219). This conclusion has implications both for educational opportunities for current public servants and for the recruitment of “digital natives” (159). However, Clarke also emphasizes that the bureaucracy cannot do this work on its own: “Without direct support from the political masters to whom bureaucrats must answer, public servant-led reform can go only so far, especially when one of the reform goals demands that the public service become more open to sharing information . . . and treading the potentially failure-ridden territory of policy innovation, each of which might invite politically costly scrutiny of the minister in Question Period or unwelcome departmental coverage in a national newspaper” (151–52). These kinds of changes rely on trust between bureaucrats and politicians and may require a renegotiation of the public service bargain (223). Further, she argues that nongovernmental actors, the political Opposition and others have crucial roles in shaping the conditions for innovation within the bureaucracy (219). Clarke identifies a role for public administration educators and programs to ensure that their curriculum reflects the skills and approaches needed to prepare future public servants for a digital world.

Clarke's assessment of the urgent requirement for digital transformation is even more important given the impacts of COVID-19. While remote work during a pandemic may not be what Clarke imagined would trigger digital transformation, it does suggest that governments can make changes to how the bureaucracy works when given the right incentives. It does not necessarily mean that the changes we have seen during the pandemic will remain, or even should remain, but they do show that system-wide change is possible. Clarke intends this book to “strengthen ongoing efforts to build a more effective and accountable federal public service, a longstanding project that endures and gains new urgency in the digital age” (xi), including highlighting areas for future research. Policy makers, bureaucrats, public administration students and those with an interest in government reform ought to read this book as part of the thinking about how to move forward.

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New Chapter on Public Data Governance

Elizabeth Dubois and Florian Martin-Bariteau have put together a great collection of chapters focused on Canadian citizenship in the digital age in their new edited book Connected Canada. I contributed a chapter that identifies gaps in research and policy on public data governance in Canada. The abstract is below, and the entire book is available for purchase or as an open access download here.

Data Governance: The Next Frontier of Digital Government Research and Practice

Picking up on a global orthodoxy calling for digital government transformation, governments across Canada are now introducing ambitious service reforms and broader changes to the organization and culture of public service institutions. These reforms are primarily justified on the grounds that they are necessary if governments wish to meet the expectations of citizens accustomed to the innovative digital service offerings of the private sector. Yet with digital transformation agendas come notable changes to the ways that public sector data is collected, applied, and shared across the state and amongst private firms. These data governance reforms may prove unacceptable to citizens where they lead to privacy breaches, betray principles of equity, transparency and procedural fairness, and loosen democratic controls over public spaces and services. This chapter presents three cases that illustrate the data governance dilemmas accompanying contemporary digital government reforms. The chapter next outlines a research and policy agenda that will illuminate and help resolve these dilemmas moving forward, with a view to ensuring that digital era public management reforms bolster, rather than erode, Canadians’ already precarious levels of trust in government. 

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What are Public Servants Doing on Wikipedia? New article in Canadian Public Administration

Journalists have made much of a bot that reports on edits made to Wikipedia by public servants, framing these edits as absurd and wasteful, or as acts of state-led propaganda. But maybe these edits actually generate public value. After all, Wikipedia is one of the most commonly cited information sources on the web, and public servants have a fair bit of useful knowledge to share. Also, weren't we supposed to be encouraging governments to be more open and collaborative in the digital age? With these questions in mind, Elizabeth Dubois and I analyzed the edits that Canadian federal public servants make to Wikipedia, and found that many of these edits represent valuable contributions to public knowledge. Drawing on freedom of information requests, we also analyzed draconian managerial responses to negative media coverage of public servants' Wikipedia edits. We use this analysis to speak to debates on the institutional barriers to open government in today's public sector bureaucracies.

The full article is available for download here. You can also read some media coverage of our findings in this National Post article

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Article on Digital Government Units Published in the International Public Management Journal

Digital government units are popping up around the world, and since my PhD thesis work I've been studying how these units operate and asking what their implications are for public sector management. This article, published in the International Public Management Journal, reports on this work. This publication was a bit of a journey (originally submitted just four days before my first child was born, and finally published while on maternity leave with my second). Happy to finally have this piece out in the world. Abstract below, and open access article available for download here.

Digital government units: what are they, and what do they mean for digital era public management renewal?

From 2011 onward, Digital Government Units (DGUs) have quickly emerged as a preferred solution for tackling the over-cost and under-performing digital services and lagging digital transformation agendas plaguing today’s governments. This article kickstarts a much-needed research agenda on this emerging trend, which has to date largely been ignored by public management scholars. DGUs exist at the center of the state, and adopt a shared orthodoxy, favoring agile, user-centric design, pluralistic procurement, data-driven decision making, horizontal ‘platform’ based solutions and a ‘delivery-first’ ethos. However, DGUs are differentiated in practice by their governance structures and resources, adding notable complexity to this recent machinery of government phenomenon. The article details the similarities and differences across six of the first DGUs introduced and highlights issues that researchers should address when assessing DGUs as an increasingly preferred instrument of digital era public sector renewal. This includes: their mixed record of success thus far; the risks of top-down reform efforts; external threats to DGUs’ sustainability; and accountability dilemmas accompanying digital government reforms.

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Transforming (Digital) Government in Ontario - Some Early Thoughts on the Simpler, Faster, Better Services Act

With their budget bill, the Government of Ontario has announced what are potentially very significant changes to the management and governance of digital and data in the province (and with that, very significant changes to basically everything the Government of Ontario does). I wrote three blog posts with some early thoughts on these proposed policy and management changes.

The first post explains why we should be paying close, critical attention to these policy changes given their potential significance for service delivery, governance and democratic accountability in the province.

The second post explains why these management reforms are being introduced through legislation specifically (primarily through the proposed Simpler, Faster, Better Services Act).

The third post looks at dilemmas of democratic accountability that might accompany these policy changes.

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New Book - Opening the Government of Canada: The Federal Bureaucracy in the Digital Age

Opening the Government of Canada: The Federal Bureaucracy in the Digital Age (Communication, Strategy, and Politics) by [Clarke, Amanda]

I'm pleased to announce the release of my new book Opening the Government of Canada: The Federal Bureaucracy in the Digital Age, published by University of British Columbia Press. The book offers the first critical reflection on the federal government's response to the dawn of phenomenon like social media, crowdsourcing, open data, and user centered design. Drawing on the Canadian experience, I argue that today’s government bureaucracies are falling short in the face of citizens’ heightened expectations for speedy, seamless service delivery, renewed calls for access to information and data, and a slew of new policy instruments that rest on government-outsider engagement. Internally, within governments, I demonstrate how the silos and hierarchies that have long been lamented as ineffective organizational structures are again under attack, in this case, framed as barriers to agile innovation, platform governance, and as anathema to a new generation of public servants raised in the digital age. 

The book details the as of yet untold story of the Canadian federal bureaucracy’s efforts to adapt to these new expectations and pressures from the mid-2000s onwards. In tracking this history, I argue that the techno-utopian accounts that have dominated the discussion on digital era governance thus far are irresponsible treatises on public management. Yes, our governments need to become more open, agile, and digitally-competent. But they also need to respect basic principles of democratic governance, including fairness and accountability, an imperative that can justify a more restrained, calculated opening than mainstream, tech-sector inspired theories of digital government call for. 

Striking a balance between reform and tradition, the book offers a roadmap for building democratically robust digital governments in the coming years.

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