Valere Gaspard is a PhD student at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, a recipient of a SSHRC CGS Doctoral award (2023-26), and a student researcher at the Centre of Governance. His research focuses on the voting age, electoral systems, and Canadian politics. He is an alumnus of the Parliamentary Internship Programme (PIP/PSP) and a Research Fellow at Western University’s Leadership and Democracy Lab.
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.
When discussing the process of the digitalization of public administrations in federal states, a fundamental question is continuously posed in the background: what is the relationship between federalism and digitalization? While we may consider how policies like ‘digitalization’ will affect the practice of federalism in our states, this article specifically examines how federalism might affect digitalization and the implementation of digital policies.
Digitalization in government is broadly considered as integrating the use of digital technologies into a government’s strategies for the sake of benefiting the public. According to the United Nations, having a digital government will lead to political institutions that are more accountable, effective, and inclusive when it comes to service delivery or in processes of supporting policy making. The goal of digitalization is thus to use digital tools to improve the services to the public that government provides its citizens.
Speakers at the Digitalization of Public Administration in Federal Countries workshop researched and discussed the impacts of federalism and digitalization in ten federations: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States. Discussions about each of the ten countries focused on a specific policy area affected by digitalization in that country. The presentations on the countries used as case examples in this blog were given by Eric Champagne, André Lecours, and Silvana Gomes (Canada), Sabine Kropp (Germany), and Luis Claudio Kubota (Brazil).
To understand the effects of federalism on digitalization, we analyze the cases of open government in Canada, the digitalization of the public service in Germany, and the digitalization of education policy in Brazil. These countries were chosen as case examples since they are federations with differing characteristics, including an emphasis on autonomy between levels of government (Canada), a cooperative approach to federal governance (Germany), and operating non-hierarchically (Brazil).
This analysis concludes that a country’s characteristics of federalism (such as being centralized or decentralized, competitive or cooperative, and its division of powers) does not inherently make the process of digitalization more easy or difficult, but rather changes the kinds of benefits or barriers the country will experience during digitalization. These findings serve as helpful considerations for federations globally.
Canada and Open Government
Canada has become more decentralized over time, with its federal government (national level) and provincial governments (sub-national level) having exclusive powers, along with some shared powers, as outlined in the country’s constitution. According to Champagne, Lecours, and Gomes, Canada is considered a ‘principled federalism’ where autonomy between levels of government is a key principle. The process of open government is relevant for both the federal and provincial levels, since each jurisdiction offers services to Canadians based on its responsibilities in the constitution through its public institutions (for example, passports are issued through the federal public service while drivers’ licenses are issued provincially).
However, as discussed during the workshop, governments and public servants at the federal and provincial levels may discuss their practices, but there have not been clear attempts to coordinate their administrations’ approaches to digitalization. This absence of uniform standards could be a potential benefit if there is a strong sub-national desire to cater to the specific needs or desires of citizens living in a province. For example, Ontario’s conception of digital government emphasizes the importance of building a digital economy for the province. This stratified approach to digitalization, however, would not be as desirable if political actors wished to implement a pan-Canadian digitalization program.
As discussed by Champagne, Lecours, and Gomes, because in Canada’s federal culture there is typically not a desire for the federal and provincial levels of government to coordinate closely, pan-Canadian programs usually do not work well in practice. However, as of 2022, the Canadian federal government is attempting to champion the creation of a Pan-Canadian Health Data Strategy to strengthen the interoperability of data collection across jurisdictions. Specifically, because healthcare is the responsibility of the provinces, this digitalization initiative would allow a patient’s healthcare data to be accessed no matter which province they receive service in. However, complicating matters in this effort is the fact that data across jurisdictions is not always comparable due to formatting or collection methods (thus creating a barrier for citizens that wish to access healthcare outside of their home province). Therefore, while Canada is a key example of how decentralization and autonomous federalism can lead to flexibility at the same sub-national level, it also illustrates the barriers this kind of federation faces when it comes to national policies.
Germany and its Public Service
In comparison to Canada, Germany is closer to a cooperative federation. In terms of its division of powers, the Federation (national level) oversees making the laws and bearing the cost of their implementation, while the Länder (sub-national level) have the right to control the implementation of those laws. In contrast to Canada, the German federal model, with a national level government that has significant power over national digitalization laws, possesses characteristics that allow it to legislate more uniform standards.
As mentioned by Kropp during the workshop, the Online Access Act is a good example of how the federal government has the power to define uniform standards. However, the use of these federal powers can lead to push back from the Länder, if it believes the federal level’s standards are affecting its right to implementation. Since federal standards cannot supersede the Länder’s implementation rights, the country’s public service will usually find complex bureaucratic and legal procedures to navigate the division of powers between the federal government and Länder (highlighting the country’s legalist tradition in its public administration).
While Germany’s intergovernmental cooperation can be a benefit in terms of creating uniform standards for digitalization, it could become a barrier if processes are slowed down, become too complex, or if the Länder thinks its right to implement is being affected. Additionally, if uniform standards are not desired (and one prefers digitalization that is more decentralized), then Germany’s variation of cooperative federalism could be considered a barrier to effective digitalization.
Brazil and Digitalizing Education Policy
Brazil’s constitution divides the responsibilities of its educational policies among its three levels of government. The Union (national level) determines general educational guidelines, the Federated States (sub-national level) oversee the more detailed aspects of education in Brazil, and the Municipalities (local level) handle the specific details of a child’s education. With no hierarchy in Brazilian federalism and the division of power among these three levels, Kubota argues that determining the limits of these spheres of power when it comes to the digitalization of education is challenging both in law and in practice. This complicates the digitalization process, as coordination between different levels is consistently required.
While this cooperation is beneficial for ensuring that all levels of government work together towards a common policy implementation (thus preventing some unilateral decision-making), a setback is that smaller partners in the federation (specifically, municipalities) might have fewer opportunities to intervene or provide feedback. With 5,570 municipalities in Brazil, it can be difficult to receive individual feedback from each one or to process this volume of responses, which ultimately forces municipalities to work together for the chance to provide input. Additionally, this amount of cooperation and coordination between different level of governments means that political turnover at one level can impact work at the other levels.
Kubota notes that there is a high turnover of jobs at the municipal level due to the politics of the day in Brazil. For digitalization, these turnovers result in numerous changes to the information that is provided digitally, which creates more administrative work for public administrators at other levels of government. Therefore, while a benefit of non-hierarchical cooperative federalism is that it allows for equal partnerships between levels of government, it could result in a higher administrative barrier for the successful digitalization of policy areas such as education.
The three case examples outlined above demonstrate that there is no perfect set of characteristics of federalism that will result in a more efficient implementation of digitalization for public administration. Instead, the type of federalism that a country has will affect the kinds of benefits or barriers it experiences during the process of digitalization.
This means that countries with differing characteristics will not have easier or more difficult implementation experiences, but will rather face different challenges based on the nature of their federation. Therefore, while federalism is not the only variable that effects digitalization, it remains an essential consideration.
The author thanks Silvana Gomes, Jamie Thomas and Liam Whittington for their comments on earlier drafts of this piece.
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