Éric Desrochers is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies. His research focuses on federalism, public opinion, and political behaviour. His doctoral thesis examines the impact of federalism on the implementation of citizens’ political preferences.
Special Series: Digitalization of Public Administration in Federal Countries
This article is part of a special series of reflections on issues of digitalization of governance, public administration, and service delivery in federal countries around the world. The pieces in this series are inspired by the discussion and debate at the April 2023 Digitalization of Public Administration in Federal Countries symposium, organized the University of Ottawa Centre on Governance in partnership with the Forum of Federations.
During the Digitalization of Public Administration in Federal Countries workshop, scholars and practitioners of government digitalization presented case studies touching on various aspects of the relationship between e-government and centralization in federal and quasi-federal countries. There is a theoretical expectation that the adoption of e-government or other forms of digitalization may lead to greater centralization through the imposition of a single, top-down approach, but the facts are more nuanced (Gomes et al. 2022). While the workshop’s presentations only covered select aspects of their respective states’ digitalization efforts, they nevertheless show a more complex picture of the relationship between federalism and digitalization. Indeed, the digitalization of federations tends to follow countries’ usual patterns and channels, adapting itself to their institutions and processes, rather than leading to a single (similar) outcome across all cases, i.e., that of increased centralization.
A Leading Role for Central Governments
Despite this seeming lack of increased centralization, the central government nevertheless generally plays a leading role in the process, usually with the aim of offering similar services to all its citizens across the country.
The central government’s role is particularly important in circumstances where state capacity varies across subnational units. This is precisely the case in Brazil and India, where the central government has access to far greater resources than some of the poorer states and municipalities in particular. This inequality of means between levels of government can also be exacerbated if the central government enacts policies which must then be applied at the subnational and local level. This is the case in Austria, where proposed federal access to information legislation would apply to all levels of government, leading länder and municipalities to claim that these new information requests could prove burdensome for the limited local and regional bureaucracies. However, other Austrian ‘open government’ initiatives, such as its open data platform, have not been met with a similar pushback despite its inclusion of municipal budget information. The contrasting reactions to these initiatives can be explained by the differing obligations on subnational and local governments. Spain has seen similar success in the establishment of a centrally coordinated online information portal for its citizens, with agreement on common standards between governments. This has also been the case in Mexico’s digitalization of birth certificates, which are issued at the subnational level. Federal leadership and buy-in from the states have resulted in a digital and relatively uniform process across the country, with states managing the final payment process.
Difficulties and Limitations of Central Government Leadership
On the other hand, not all central governments can or choose to take a lead role in government digitalization. In some cases, they have failed to do so effectively, whereas in others, their influence has been limited by preexisting constitutional and institutional arrangements which protect subnational autonomy.
In Germany, digitalization efforts are stifled by the weight of its institutions, as strict data protection laws, siloed ministries, and a legalistic bureaucratic tradition make any whole-of-government reform difficult. For example, its Online Access Act has been implemented by only 33 of 575 central and state organizations. In Switzerland and Australia, centrally led initiatives have not always been successful, such as the former’s electronic identification program, which citizens rejected in a referendum, and the latter’s centralized My Health Record program, which was not well received, with states and territories subsequently implementing their individual systems. These relative failures thus resulted in a continued role for subnational governments, allowing them to implement their own initiatives.
In other federations, the central government lacks the ability to impose a single digitalization strategy or has simply not chosen this avenue. In Canada, there is no clear pan-Canadian digitalization strategy, with each government acting within its own jurisdiction, according to their own capacity and priorities. While the federal government announced in 2023 that it wished to see greater sharing of data between provinces in healthcare, this has been in no way enforced. The American federal government similarly has a more hands-off approach to the expansion of its broadband infrastructure, with state, local, and tribal governments voluntarily applying for federal funding for specific programs, rather than a top-down approach being imposed on all states, municipalities, and tribes. Even in the application of its own policies, the federal government often relies on the states, intervening only when they refuse, as was the case with the Affordable Care Act’s digital portal. This piecemeal approach therefore does not appear to favour the expected centralization of power through digitalization.
Subnational Digitalization Initiatives
Despite central governments typically leading the charge in government digitalization, their subnational counterparts nevertheless continue to play an important role. In Brazil, for example, some states maintain their own data collection and sharing processes when they feel that central ones do not fulfill their needs. A number of state capitals have also taken on a leading role in the digitalization of neighbouring municipalities, leveraging their greater administrative capabilities to support local governments with lesser capacity.
In some federations, subnational governments have adopted their own digitalization strategies, according to their own goals and capabilities. This tends to favour a ‘best practices’ approach, which can standardize without centralizing. In Australia, this is most notably the case with health records, where certain states have taken the lead on developing their own systems, which are then adopted or mimicked by others. In Canada, some provinces – such as Ontario and Québec – have joined the Open Government Partnership, emphasizing the digitalization of government services delivery. As with education policy (see Wallner 2014), there is a level of coordination and sharing of practices among provinces and territories to achieve similar outcomes. In Switzerland, the harmonization of digitalization across cantons has operated on a voluntary basis, with some acting as ‘policy laboratories’, developing systems which are then marketed to their neighbours, as in the case of Geneva’s e-voting program. There therefore remains an important role for subnational governments in the area of digitalization, particularly in countries where they are more autonomous.
Coordination Rather than Centralization?
Based on the cases explored during the workshop, it seems that digitalization tends to favour coordination and collaboration in federations, rather than outright centralization.
In Brazil, digitalization has also empowered intergovernmental agencies to coordinate with different levels. Municipalities have taken advantage of this greater cooperation, receiving training to enhance their ability to better digitize, and coordinating their bids for digitalization resources. Similarly, digitalization in Spain has not led to greater centralization. Instead, it has been based on cooperation between different levels of government. While there is a trend towards uniform standards and interoperability, this does not amount to a top-down imposition, as autonomous communities retain decision-making powers. This is also the case in Austria, where the implementation of EU digitalization legislation is generally coordinated between governments, with uniform implementation. The aforementioned case of the digitalization of Mexico’s birth certificates was a result of cooperation between both national and subnational levels of government, and an important role was played by governors from states considered leaders in digitalization.
Overall, digitalization does not appear to have a clear effect on federalism, at least not within the countries covered during the conference or in the cited policy examples. It would appear that the institutions of federalism (or quasi-federalism, in Spain’s case) may simply be too embedded and part of the existing political process to be so easily disturbed by digitalization. Unless it becomes a hot button issue with sufficient political support making it as salient as more typically debated policy areas, such as health or education, political actors may remain unwilling to butt heads with one another over digitalization, choosing instead to collaborate or to work in parallel, rather than to upset the applecart.
The author thanks Silvana Gomes, Jamie Thomas and Liam Whittington for their comments on earlier drafts of this piece.
Silvana Gomes, Eric Champagne and André Lecours, Digitalization of Public Administration in Federal Countries: Challenges, Opportunities, and a Look Ahead (Forum of Federations, Occasional Paper Series, Number 53, 2022). https://forumfed.org/document/digitalization-of-public-administration-in-federal-countries-challenges-opportunities-and-a-look-ahead/
Forum of Federations. Digitalization of Public Administration in Federal Countries workshop, April 27-28, 2023. https://forumfed.org/event/digitalization-of-public-administration-in-federal-countries/
Wallner, Jennifer. (2014) Learning to school : federalism and public schooling in Canada. Toronto [Ontario: University of Toronto Press]. https://utorontopress.com/9781442669291/learning-to-school/