Maeva Anoma is completing a Master’s in Public Administration at the University of Ottawa. Her research paper will focus on implementing the Canadian federal government’s digital transformation strategy at the department level. Also, she is interested in the shift from bureaucratic management to result-based management in Ivory Coast and how digitalization caused it.
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.
Today, rapid and constant technological advancements allow us to access multiple services right from the comfort of our couches. For example, we can order groceries, shop for clothes, rent cars, and have products delivered directly to our homes. As these technologies increasingly help citizens in their daily lives, and become an integral part of the operations of business, people are beginning to expect similar levels of digital services from their governments. Digitalizing the public sector can allow federal countries to provide effective, efficient, reliable, and rapid services across different levels of government. The concept of digital government has now existed in the public administration literature for over two decades. Authors such as Jeffrey Roy. Gomes et al. (2022) define the digitalization of the public service as “an overarching transformation of the public sector’s activities, policies, institutions, culture, and relationships (internal and external) that are steered by information and communication technologies (ICTs).” During the Digitalization of Public Administration in Federal Countries workshop, it appeared that, in the case of federal countries, the transition toward a more digital government is sometimes slower due to the unequal distribution of resources and the lack of coordination between the national and regional governments. This, in turn, could lead to uneven digitalization across the country. In the case of Switzerland for example, Tereza Cahlikova of the University of Lausanne mentioned that digitalization was not seen as a priority because the population is generally satisfied with the services provided by the government. Digitalization has changed how federal countries operate, transforming governance arrangements, service delivery, and citizen engagement. However, as digitalization expands across countries, various challenges can hinder its effectiveness and impact in federations. Here I will discuss some of the issues related to digitalization that occur in federal countries:
- Unequal Access to Digital Infrastructure: Despite being among the most technologically advanced countries in the world, digital divides persist even in wealthy federations like the United States, Canada, and Germany. For instance, while over 90% of Canadians have access to high-speed internet, connectivity gaps remain (Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada). This is partly due to Canada’s vast geography and dispersed population. Though most live in proximate urban centers near the U.S. border, substantial rural and remote communities exist across Canada’s expansive terrain. In northern and Indigenous areas, broadband internet and mobile connectivity access can be limited or unreliable. This uneven distribution of digital infrastructure results in disparities in digital literacy and engagement. With economic and social participation increasingly reliant on internet access, such connectivity gaps risk excluding marginalized communities from digital services. Overcoming these digital divides through targeted infrastructure investments and training programs remains an ongoing challenge in achieving universal digital inclusion. In federations, achieving these goals can be even more difficult because of the fragmentation of funding programs to support the expansion of digital infrastructure, as happens in the United States.
- Cybersecurity Risks: Digitalization presents a growing cybersecurity threat as more government operations and services move online. The extensive and interconnected networks found in federations create significant vulnerabilities. Federal, regional, and local databases containing sensitive information make them prime targets for cyberattacks aimed at destabilizing multiple levels of government. The fragmentation of digital information stored by different levels of government in federations presents more opportunities to exploit security weaknesses in government systems. With digitalization expanding attack surfaces across jurisdictions, the likelihood of sophisticated nation-states and criminal hacking continues to rise. For example, a significant cyberattack struck the Mexican government when the armed forces gained unauthorized access to six terabytes of data from the Defense Ministry (Reuters, 2022). This breach included sensitive information on criminal figures, government communications, and surveillance of the U.S. ambassador. As cybersecurity risks continue to pose major challenges to governments at all levels, federations must face the challenge of strengthening cross-jurisdictional collaboration to respond to incidents more quickly and effectively.
- Data Privacy Concerns: Digitalization provides governments access to expansive data on citizens, raising critical privacy concerns that can undermine public trust if not addressed appropriately. As data systems are integrated and information is increasingly shared across jurisdictions, new challenges emerge around balancing transparency and effective service delivery with individual privacy rights. A key issue is determining governance authority over data privacy protections in a multi-tiered federal system. Different data policies between national, state, and local governments can create confusion over who regulates cross-border data flows and how privacy can be consistently upheld across jurisdictions. These growing data flows can also generate heightened security risks if robust cyber protections are not in place, since they create more opportunities for malicious actors to invade systems and obtain information illegally. Specific strategies are required to earn public confidence that privacy will be preserved as digital systems expand data gathering and analytics capabilities. Governments at all levels should establish consistent guidelines on data collection practices, cyber audits, data retention policies, and personnel training in privacy protocols. Ultimately, federal governments must have explicit legal provisions, governance structures, and technological safeguards to ensure citizen privacy is not compromised, as digital integration provides greater access to personal data across agencies and jurisdictional boundaries,
- Governance and Regulatory Concerns: Digitalization presents unique challenges for federal governments in balancing centralized regulation with decentralized implementation. As an ever-evolving field, keeping pace with technological change through regulatory frameworks takes time and effort. New digital initiatives must align with existing laws and regulations across multiple levels of government. However, decentralized authority in federal systems means constituent units may have autonomy in adopting initiatives locally. For example, Switzerland’s highly autonomous cantons make uniform national digital policy difficult, as needs and approaches differ between cantons (Cahlikova, 2023). Consequently, given the regional diversity, a “one-size-fits-all” central approach could fail. The tension lies in digitalization’s tendency (in some cases) to centralize policymaking, which could disrupt the distribution of power and coordination in federal systems. Specific issues arise around intergovernmental coordination and maintaining the decentralized authority of regional governments when implementing national digitalization frameworks. More research is needed on governance mechanisms that provide centralized guidance while allowing flexibility for regional adaptation
- Resistance to change: Digitalization involves transforming how governments operate, but public sector agents may resist these changes. Large federal agencies tend to be risk-averse bureaucracies anchored in institutional inertia, which can impede the adoption of new digital technologies. For instance, employees may worry that digitalizing services could threaten their jobs and disrupt ingrained workflows. Overcoming this inertia is more challenging in federal systems where coordination across national, state, and local government is essential for providing integrated and seamless solutions to citizens. If some jurisdictions resist digitizing their services and operations, it could hinder system-wide progress. At the same time, governments should have the autonomy to decide whether and how they want to implement digitalization initiatives. These multiple layers of entrenched interests and procedures make digital transitions in federal systems particularly challenging compared to unitary systems. Ensuring all levels of government embrace the benefits of digitalization will require overcoming more significant structural barriers in federal countries.
While digitalization may unlock many opportunities to improve how governments operate and deliver services to citizens, transforming governance in federal systems poses unique hurdles. Significant challenges include overcoming policy and bureaucratic patchworks, fragmented privacy legislation, and digital divides. The scale and complexity of aligning legacy systems across agencies intensifies these barriers. Furthermore, federations face unique challenges in trying to balance interoperability with flexibility.
Still, with concerted efforts, federations can harness technology to enhance services and democratic engagement. To do so, central governments must respect the autonomy of subnational units while providing coherent direction, support, and incentives. Realizing the full benefits of digitalization requires strategic coordination across multiple jurisdictional levels, each with distinct priorities and paces of adoption. Through committed collaboration that leaves no jurisdiction behind, the digital transformation of public administration can help federations overcome some of their limitations and respond to citizens’ demands for digital services. As a starting point, though, it is necessary to acknowledge the distinct hurdles of federalism in order to craft solutions tailored to its multilevel nature.
The author thanks Silvana Gomes, Jamie Thomas and Liam Whittington for their comments on earlier drafts of this piece.
Forum of Federations, n.d. Federal Countries. [Online]
Available at: http://forumfed.org/federal-countries/
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Gomes, S., Champagne, E. & Lecours, A., 2022. Digitalization of Public Administration in Federal Countries: Challenges, Opportunities, and a Look Ahead. Forum of Federation, Occasional Paper 53. Available at: https://forumfed.org/document/digitalization-of-public-administration-in-federal-countries-challenges-opportunities-and-a-look-ahead/
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, 2023. High-speed Internet for all Canadians. [Online]
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Morland, S., 2022. Mexican government suffers major data hack, president’s health issues revealed. Reuters, 30 September. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/mexican-president-confirms-hack-government-files-2022-09-30/#:~:text=The%20hack%20also%20revealed%20the,he%20could%20suffer%20another%20one. [Accessed 3 May 2023].
Cahlikova, T., 2023. Digital transformation and the Swiss Federal System.