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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