Aracelly Denise Granja is a doctoral student in political science and a research assistant at the Center of Governance at the University of Ottawa. Her doctoral research focuses on the socio-political crisis in Latin America. She is examining the criminalization of human rights defenders and civil society in Honduras and Nicaragua. Her research at the Center of Governance centres on investments in public infrastructure in Canada as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public policy transformations at the federal level.
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.
The role digitalization plays within the governments of federal countries has been a rising topic of interest in public administration. Particularly, researchers, policymakers, and public servants have sought to determine whether there is a causal relationship between the digitalization of public administration in federations and increased levels of decentralization. This was one of the main questions that was addressed in a recent conference, entitled Digitalization of Public Administration in Federal Countries, held in collaboration between the Centre of Governance at the University of Ottawa and the Forum of Federations. The conference brought together researchers from varying federal states who examined not only the role of digitalization in public administration, but more specifically its relationship to decentralization.
Digitalization & Federalism
Federalism impacts digitalization by acting as one of the many factors that determines the success or failure of digitization policies (Knuepling, 2023), primarily by influencing the effectiveness and coherency with which policies are developed and ultimately implemented within a federation.
Before being able to determine whether there is a causal relationship between digitalization and decentralization within federal countries, it is important to examine the dynamic that exists between digitalization and federalism itself. The concepts of digitalization and federalism are both very complex and, according to Sabine Kropp of the Freie Universität Berlin, they conjointly illustrate “manifold interactions” (2023) – meaning that both concepts represent complex relationships which are multilayered in nature, encompassing economic, social, and administrative factors.
Digitalization is a concept that has continuously evolved in congruency with the digital transformation that has emerged due to advancing technologies. As a result, there is no single clear definition. Yet, as stated in a Forbes article in 2018, digitalization can be defined “as the way in which many domains of social life are restructured around digital communication and media infrastructures.” With regards to digitalization within federal states, this refers to the digitization of communication and institutions within the public sector at its various levels, primarily municipal/local, provincial/regional, and federal.
Like digitalization, federalism is a widely studied concept with various definitions. A popular definition considers federalism to be a “mode of political organization that unites separate states or other polities within an overarching political system in a way that allows each to maintain its own integrity” (Britannica, 2023). The Forum of Federations emphasizes the constitutional division of powers between at least two levels of government, with governments directly elected by the people. However, the degree to which each individual polity retains its own socio-political power tends to fluctuate amongst different federations. Mario Kölling of the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED) illustrates this through his examination of Spain, a country which has a “longstanding centralist tradition” (2023) in which the national government exhibits the greatest legislative control. This example can be contrasted with a country like Canada which is widely recognized as having a highly decentralized governance model in which political and decision-making power is clearly divided among three levels of government (but constitutionally between federal and provincial levels).
The Link between Digitalization & Decentralization
As federal countries around the world continue to illustrate varying levels of centralization amongst their different levels of government, the question of causality as it refers to the determinants of decentralization has become even more fundamental.
As stated during the workshop, a factor that is progressively being examined as an indicator of decentralization is digitalization. Academics and policymakers alike wish to establish whether digitalization can be considered as a cause of decentralization. This is a multifaceted and complex relationship and as yet there is no clear link that would allow a causal relationship to be identified.
Nonetheless, this does not negate the fact that the degree of effectiveness with which digitalization is implemented within federations is impacted by how centralized or decentralized a federal government is. This is largely because the widespread and efficient implementation of digital policies requires collaboration amongst federations’ different levels of government. In the case of implementing digital strategies, collaboration is required to offset fiscal imbalances and the inequitable access to resources, chiefly broadband and the internet. As discussed during the conference, within federations the federal government is often responsible for balancing local and regional shortcomings by providing these lower levels of government with grants, equalization payments and/or through revenue sharing (Reddick, 2023). When looking to digitalize public forums, the federal government must often help supplement the meagre resources that are available to rural municipalities, particularly in the case of aboriginal or tribal communities (ibid).
The governmental collaboration needed for the successful implementation of digital policies can be facilitated when federal states are more centralized as opposed to decentralized. As explained by Timothy Kariotis of the University of the Melbourne (2023), this is because a centralized federal system normally limits the number of negotiations that take place amongst the different levels of government. It enables the governments to reach a general agreement, and promotes the overall longevity of the digital programs being proposed.
Most recently, the importance and overarching utility of digitalization within the public sector was enhanced as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. COVID-19 not only illustrated the dire need for the public sector to update outdated digital policies, as well as expedite the digitalization of its institutions and diverse communication forums, but it also shifted the public’s expectations of government services. As mentioned by several speakers during the digitalization conference, the pandemic has led citizens of federal countries to increasingly demand that their governments provide faster services and greater access to digital platforms predominantly in relation to the health sector and the issuance of identity documents. These enhanced public expectations are making it difficult for governments to keep up and adequately coordinate digital policies across different levels of government, an issue more predominant in highly decentralized federations.
As we look towards the future, the acceleration of digitalizing the public sector in federal countries needs to be made a greater administrative priority. Governments must bypass the limitations linked with the separation of political powers that typifies decentralized federal systems as this normally serves to impede the implementation of a central all-encompassing digital organizational approach. Governments need to recognize the need to meet incrementing public expectations, address new demographics, and employ the available technological advancements that are key in facilitating digital access.
In sum, it is too premature to claim that there is a concrete causal relationship between digitalization and decentralization. However, a strong case can be made that there is a correlation between the two. The level of decentralization within a federal system impacts the success or failure of developing and ultimately implementing coherent digital policies.
The author thanks Silvana Gomes, Jamie Thomas and Liam Whittington for their comments on earlier drafts of this piece.
Bloomberg, J. (2018). Digitization, digitalization, and Digital Transformation: Confuse them at your peril. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonbloomberg/2018/04/29/digitization-digitalization-and-digital-transformation-confuse-them-at-your-peril/?sh=686f43f92f2c
Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. (2023). Federalism. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/federalism
Forum of Federations. (2021). What is Federalism? Forum of Federations. https://forumfed.org/what-is-federalism/
Karoitis, T. (2023). Federalism and Digital Government in Australia: The States Strike Back. University of Melbourne.
Kropp, S. (2023). Digitalization in Federal Countries-Germany. Free University of Berlin.
Knuepling, F. (2023). Pre-liminary Reflections on the Nexus between Federalism and Digitalization. Forum of Federations.
Kölling, M. (2023). The Digital Transformation of the Public Sector in Spain. Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED).Reddick, C. (2023). Intergovernmental Relations in the US Federal System: The Case of Providing Broadband Access for Tribal Communities. University of Texas at San Antonio