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Richard McDonald: Will government learn the right lessons from the pandemic’s digital disruption?

Commentary

While the circumstances were not of anyone’s choosing, the pandemic forced the accelerated modernization of the digital agenda across Canadian jurisdictions. As a result, Canadians now benefit from online government services that are more accessible, convenient, and increasingly more secure. And, while this modernization progressed more rapidly over the last 18 months, our reliance on, and expectations surrounding, digital government have also significantly increased.

With another federal election behind us, the Speech from the Throne is on its way and mandate letters will soon be issued to Cabinet ministers. This presents government with an opportunity to build on the momentum generated during the pandemic and incorporate lessons learned into its modernization agenda.

In a new Public Policy Forum report, Beyond the Digital Status Quo: Experiences and Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, Canadian officials and digital experts weigh in on the lessons learned from the pandemic about digital transformation, remote work, and agile development. Here are some key takeaways.

Digital transformation is a journey

Cloud-based services have allowed a quick pivot to remote work while improving the speed of project scale-up and implementation. The urgency of the pandemic accelerated these transitions even further. As PPF’s report observes, “Organizations that had re-architected their systems using modern digital approaches, often cloud-based, were able to quickly modify existing services and deploy new ones.” In fact, according to the report’s authors, some organizations were able to change or develop services 20 to 40 times faster during the pandemic when compared to their usual performance.

Organizations wanting more technological agility should recognize that digital transformation is not a destination but a journey along a spectrum that moves from simple to complex. Using cloud-based services does not necessarily mean being digitally transformed. The transformation of business processes is not short, allowing change in not only how but also in what an organization does. 

Acting is better than the digital status quo

The public service often hesitates to take on seemingly risky digital projects with unpredictable impacts. The pandemic forced the reality that not doing anything is the riskier option. For example, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, while not a perfect platform, was better than the alternative of leaving millions of Canadians financially stranded. As the report states, “Organizations that successfully adapted to the pandemic correctly compared the risk of a proposed development to the risk, to business or society, of not doing the proposed development.” The authors conclude that the pandemic has forced organizations to adopt a more nuanced understanding of risk.

Technical debt weakens security and leaves organizations vulnerable

Canada’s public sector is bogged down by technical debt—spending money to maintain out-of-date devices, software, and legacy infrastructure instead of updating to new ones. Legacy systems are hard to repurpose and made it difficult for IT leaders to pivot projects early in the pandemic. Dated government systems pose a significant cybersecurity threat as this obsolete technology can no longer receive vital security updates.

At the beginning of the pandemic, public servants lacked access to critical digital resources. For example, the government could not provide enough digital licenses or bandwidth to support the sudden surge in demand for remote access, leaving employees with limited VPN access. With cybersecurity poised to remain a top government priority, it is essential to eliminate dependence on out-of-date systems, as well as processes that do not reflect the new realities of remote work and online collaboration.

Dated government systems pose a significant cybersecurity threat.

Digital modernization requires budgeting and procurement updates

How funding is obtained, managed, and structured in organizations can be an unintended disincentive to cloud-based service migration. PPF’s report notes that “the ‘all-in’ pricing of cloud makes the costs of maintaining data centers clearly visible, which should result in better-informed decision making.” However, when such costs are compared to the traditional model of infrastructure funding, where the total cost of ownership has not been factored in, cloud services may appear more expensive.

Navigating large-scale change requires adaptive leadership

Leaders who successfully guided their teams through the early pandemic challenges made quick, data-driven decisions. A flexible approach allowed leaders to reverse decisions and pivot plans based on evolving information. They used the concept of (irreversible) “one-way door” decisions and (reversible) “two-way door” decisions to evaluate risk. One-way door decisions required more scrutiny, but two-way door decisions could be implemented quickly. Successful leaders also took accountability for their team’s decisions and empowered employees to make decisions that were not “by the book.”

What now?

Will the public sector carry these lessons forward? The recent 2021-24 Digital Operations Strategic Plan called on the Canadian government to “build on the momentum” of changes made during the pandemic so that Canada can “actively prepare to respond to other disruptions that may lie ahead.”

The pandemic was a forcing function that proved the public sector can be nimble, creative, and courageous in response to a crisis. When the shift to pandemic recovery begins, there is an opportunity to build on these achievements and accelerate digital transformation even further by clearing away the blockers of technical debt and out-moded processes.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the last crisis Canada will face in the coming decades. Future pandemics, disasters, and other high-impact events will continue to test organizational adaptability and resiliency. Governments that are digitally transformed will be better prepared for sudden, unforeseen change.

Dan Delmar: The CAQ turns 10 — can the nationalist party withstand a federalist future?

Commentary

Looking back one decade to the founding of Quebec’s most transformational political party in a generation, it is safe to conclude the Coalition Avenir was not, as many fellow anglophone critics feared, meant to be a crypto-sovereignist movement.

We did however expect its leaders to behave similarly to the Parti Québécois with its quarrelsome ethnocentric nationalism. In that sense, the politically-ambiguous centre-right CAQ has already in its short lifespan usurped the PQ, becoming the vehicle for the province’s anti-federalist forces and pushing Canada toward a series of constitutional crises.

Launched in Montreal at a chic Lachine Canal loft in November 2011 as a diverse, reform-oriented coalition, the CAQ was vague on national unity since differing views within the party comprised of federalists and sovereignists were, and continue to be, irreconcilable.

Even before the party unveiled a policy it was already obvious which of the forces—federalist or nationalist—would be more influential. The somewhat amusing pronunciation of the party’s acronym in English was an early sign, media observers mused, that the CAQ’s more federalist-leaning English-speakers would be politically impotent.

While it never put a third sovereignty referendum on the table, the party eventually made a hard turn away from federalism and toward a brazen, décomplexé nationalism; the strategic compromise at the root of today’s brewing crises.

It took seven years and two third-place election losses for CAQ founder and now-Premier François Legault to drop all ambiguity about a third referendum. Ahead of the 2018 vote, the former PQ minister made the clear promise, even directly to me on Twitter after years of my persistent trolling on the issue since the party’s inception:

“A CAQ government would never hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty,” he promised.

The crypto-sovereignist charge had mostly been made in jest but, in the end, the joke would be on me as the premier doesn’t appear to need a referendum in order to separate Quebec from Canada, at least in a few key areas of interest for nationalists. All he needs are disengaged federalist opponents.

This Petit Compromis between Quebec and Canada became apparent in late 2018 following Legault’s win over former Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard, weighed down by years of vague corruption smears and nationalist panic over “austerity” even as government spending continued to rise. An imploding PQ was even less popular than the besieged Couillard government, and Legault quite aptly chose the path of least resistance to becoming premier.

Legault can’t have his Canada and eat it, too, I wrote in my final weekly column for The Montreal Gazette then. While I applaud those who take a genuine interest in Quebec politics and the future of French in Canada, this Petit Compromis epoch means basic policy issues of interest to cosmopolitan democrats will barely advance until principled federalists return to government, or at least opposition in Quebec City and Ottawa.

Refusing to engage Legault on federalism and human rights—specifically on bills that attempt to rewrite Canada’s constitution to erase minority language rights in Quebec and ban civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols—is morally wrong and legally dubious but also a cultural timebomb for establishment parties when pollsters who bother to measure the phenomenon point to overwhelming support for federalism among young Quebecers (70 percent according to international polling firm IPSOS).

A clear majority of Quebecers are permanently closed to the idea of sovereignism.

A generation of Canadian political leaders, including the prime minister, federal opposition leaders, and even the provincial Liberal opposition leader Dominque Anglade, have effectively given up on the Charter and principled federalism in Quebec when a clear majority of Quebecers are permanently closed to the idea of sovereignism.

Federalism is not the hard sell much of Quebec’s nationalist-leaning commentariat makes it out to be, and that this point needs emphasizing is an indication of the level of strategic incompetence that is currently plaguing Canada’s political establishment.

Despite the miscalculations, a growing federalist constituency exists—the much-maligned pro-bilingualism, pro-Canada Couillard proved that with his decisive 2014 win—and it will be served one way or another.

In Montreal’s municipal elections last week, a hastily-organized diversity-focused party emerged as a third option amid debate of special status for Montreal to shield it from the CAQ’s ethnocentric policies. If the unpopular Anglade Liberals do not dramatically change course, they risk eroding their federalist base and perhaps even losing Montreal strongholds next year for the first time in a generation.

The chaos that Legault has fomented isn’t even limited to Quebec, with premiers in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Ontario mimicking the sort of constitutional subversion that had previously been contained to sovereignist movements—just without the moral legitimacy of actual, committed sovereignists.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe even flaunted his nationalism last week, proclaiming the province “needs to be a nation within a nation.”

The short-term outlook for federalists is bleak as sincere efforts are required to restore interest in the Canadian project.

Looking further ahead, even if the CAQ finishes off the sovereignist PQ next year and becomes Quebec’s clearinghouse for ethnocentric politics, the good news for federalists is that Legault’s victory will be short-lived as a demographic tidal wave of cosmopolitan Québécois millennials (including the “wokes” the premier fears) will come crashing down on nationalists of all stripes.

Despite being morally flexible on human rights issues related to freedoms of expression, Legault will be remembered as a transitional figure in Quebec politics, not unlike René Lévesque. And like Lévesque, some of his core values are incompatible with Canada’s in the long run. At an impasse, the non-sovereignist nationalist with a one-decade plan to change Quebec has settled into the role of caretaker for Lévesque’s movement, one its own leading philosophers describe as dying.

Many will view the CAQ’s Petit Compromis as a necessary transitory period following the Quiet Revolution, an uncomfortable middle ground en route toward a more multicultural francophone society. Time will tell how unfavourably the constitutional compromises will be seen.

By choosing to perpetuate the ethnocentric strain of Quebec nationalism past its natural shelf life, however, we know Legault and his ostensibly federalist enablers have placed themselves on the wrong side of a generational divide, and in the process made us all a little less Canadian, for a time.