Joseph Mathieu, August 9, 2021
Moving Fast and Breaking Public Trust: How Digital Reforms in Government Must be More Accountable to Citizens
Even as the Ontarian and Canadian governments are boldly considering digital reforms to meet their citizens’ needs, there is a risk that this work is undermining citizen trust, not bolstering it.
“We know very little about what Canadians actually want, and are comfortable with, when it comes to governments’ use of data and technology,” says Associate Prof. Amanda Clarke, who teaches in Carleton’s School of Public Policy and Administration. “We may be instituting reforms that erode confidence in the public sector.”
The slow uptake of the COVID Alert exposure notification app may be just the latest example of low public trust in government digital services. Although it collected minimal personal data, by April 2021 the app was downloaded by less than a fifth of all Canadians.
Clarke, who was named Carleton’s Public Affairs Research Excellence Chair in 2017, examines how policymaking and civic engagement intertwine in the digital age. Her new project funded by the Early Researcher Award (ERA), Building a Trusted Digital State: Canadians’ Views on Data Governance and Digital Service Reforms, assembles a nine-person team to explore this lack of trust.
Her research has always focused on the institutional and cultural barriers to digital reform in government. While her 2019 book Opening the Government of Canada: The Federal Bureaucracy in the Digital Age identified how governments needed to change, Clarke recently realized she wasn’t asking citizens what they thought.
“Governments are on board now: we have a federal Minister of Digital Government, a new provincial strategy and fairly good funding on all levels to commit some of these reforms,” says Clarke.
“My fear is that we’re moving pretty fast in certain directions that might disillusion the public.”
In an age of data leaks, mass surveillance and biased algorithms, it also doesn’t bode well that public sector digital strategies are being shaped by a small group of private management consultants and high technology companies.
The adoption of more data-intensive and automated decision-making processes — such as facial recognition used at border crossings and AI determining a person’s eligibility for government services — raises questions about the role private firms should be allowed to play in accountable democratic systems.
“Tech companies have quite a lot of influence over how governmental digital systems are being designed and how services are being structured,” says Clarke. “Obviously, they also have a motivation to embed their own products in these systems and services.”
Clarke wants to bring empirical evidence to bear on the network of tech firms and management consultants who court and sway the public sector. The project will also explore how governments are equipping their staff to be effective purchasers of these technologies, and what procurement data shows about contracts, data governance and which firms are getting contracts from governments.
“What I’d like to see is the public service taking the lead and defining what their citizens and democracies need,” says Clarke. “Because digital and data systems are not just ways through which citizens interact with the state, they also set the terms for how the state can understand the population and better design its policies.”
The research will break new ground in the study of public sector data governance, and Clarke hopes her findings will both strengthen digital reforms currently underway and strengthen trust in their public sector.
“If digital era governments genuinely earned the public’s trust, I think our public service providers could do some pretty amazing things,” she says. “That’s the ultimate goal of the project: we want to understand what it would take to build a digital state that is worthy of the public’s trust.”
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