Digital Governance

Project status: 
REB Approved

Digital Governance: Transforming Government Practice in the Digital Era

“Digital governance is the central challenge facing governing institutions in the coming decades where information knows no boundaries, power is dispersed and authority and accountability need to be reconceived.”

Digital Governance explores unprecedented challenges and opportunities facing governing institutions and associated groups in the digital era. Through research and engagement activities the project develops a network equipped to understand these dynamics and to guide innovation. The Digital Governance project operates as a foresight commission with grant support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

The initial partners are University of Victoria, Institute on Governance (IOG), OCAD University, Dalhousie University, and MIGHTY Purpose. Together with additional partners to be identified we will build a digital governance research network.

Digital Governance : Transforming Government Practice in the Digital EraUnderstanding digital governance. Digital governance is the central challenge facing governing institutions and societies in the coming decades where information knows no boundaries, power is dispersed and authority and accountability need to be reconceived. What is digital governance and why is digital a governance issue? Westminster parliamentary democracy is widely credited with a high capacity to adapt to societal evolution. Its ability to adapt to the realities of a digital society is putting this claim to the test. Westminster governments were never designed with the digital era in mind. Two forces – digital and governance – are meeting like tectonic plates, shifting the landscape and giving rise to new peaks and valleys around key governance questions that all Canadians need to be concerned about: Who has real power? How should decisions be made? How can all players make their voices heard and ensure that account is rendered?

A platform for discussion. Research on digital technology and governance is emerging, but we have yet to have a national conversation on the issues and possibilities – we will be providing a platform for those discussions. Engaging stakeholders and leaders is key. We will create a community of shared interest using a multi-tiered approach that includes research, ongoing engagement of stakeholders, and new media. Given the nature of the challenges and their scope, the partnership has established itself as a Digital Governance Commission – a modernized, virtual royal commission that combines visibility, engagement and evidence based research, and that engages Canadians to develop practical solutions.

From digital technology to new leadership and governance. We recognize that the discussion must move beyond technological change to an understanding of the disruptive nature of digital transformation as an historic opportunity to recast the role and responsibilities of governments, citizens and other actors.

Thinking broadly and specifically about evolving practice. We will explore emerging governance challenges and possibilities, but also specific practice areas such as evidence based policy analysis, advising ministers and legislators, citizen engagement, modernizing service delivery and realigning administrative systems to meet new and ever increasing demands on the part of governments at all levels.

Looking beyond Westminster. We recognize the pressing need to examine the new and emerging governance challenges of the Westminster system in light of the advent of digital, and to determine the transformative and evolutionary changes required of government and non-government actors in an evolving democratic environment across Canada.

Moving from challenges to competencies. We aim to determine and articulate the new, core competencies required of all stakeholders and institutions (e.g. politicians, public servants, citizens, the private sector, and students) in the digital age.

Aligning milestones with opportunities. We agree to design our research program with windows of opportunity in mind in order to maximize impact and generate practical impetus for change.

Modeling what we preach. We will articulate the value we bring to key stakeholders and include open, transparent and participatory methodologies on an ongoing basis.

Emerging themes

  • People and Institutions Searching for Relevance in a Dis-intermediated World. In the digital world, people feel less connected to the state and its institutions. At the same time, citizens and public servants can connect more directly among themselves, as well as with elected officials. People, institutions and relationships are increasingly dis-intermediated. This represents a fundamental shift. Traditional intermediaries, such as governing institutions, are being challenged to adapt, or risk being squeezed out. In some cases, new intermediaries are already emerging and ‘re-intermediating’ this space. This raises questions about the purpose of public policy and about how good policy is made in a digital world. What are the challenges posed by dis-intermediation, and what are the risks if institutions fail to adapt? How must governing institutions change to remain relevant in this new environment? How can we prepare the next generation of public officials for the digital world? What is the purpose of public policy, and how do we better make policy in a dis-intermediated and distributed governance context?
  • Retail Politics and Retail Governance. Who Looks out for the Public Good? Low cost communications technologies and a culture of customization have led to a surge in issue-specific politics and increasing prioritization of individual over collective interests. In the era of citizen satisfaction surveys and high citizen expectations concerning the quality and delivery of public services, emphasis on provision of low-cost, high-quality public services raises fundamental questions concerning equity, social justice, and the public good, in a service delivery context. In addition, the availability of information creates new risks, raising concerns about privacy and security, for example, and about how to identify the right information at the right time. How ought the ongoing search for balance between individual rights and public interests shape the evolution of digital governance in a service delivery context? What is the impact of dis-intermediation on political parties and their ability to inform the democratic discussion? How does digital culture affect our collective commitment to values like equity and social justice in the delivery of public services? How should governments adapt? How should they respond to emerging risks relating to privacy and security, for example, while recognizing the potential of open information?
  • Information Superabundance in the Era of Resource Scarcity. Open Data, Open Government and Digital Era Regulation. Information is now digital, mobile, increasingly open, and superabundant. Information is the new oil – a currency that affects all the transactions it mediates and the processes it powers. Yet in organizations it tends to be managed in silos as a reflection of organizational power structures and controls. In an age of information superabundance and resource scarcity, changing social patterns of behaviour and attitudes towards information use and sharing demand that we revisit traditional approaches. This applies as much within jurisdictions as it does between them, in a world where governing institutions are increasingly required to navigate the inter-jurisdictional and international dimensions of their areas of responsibility. The alternatives are: missed opportunities for new data uses, established interests cementing current practices in the face of pressure for change, and regulatory frameworks tailored to a society and an age that no longer exist. How must we transform our approach to information management in an era where governing institutions are challenged to ‘do more with less’? How can institutions evolve to harness the power of digital information while stimulating citizen engagement, and to what ends? How do the superabundance of information and the availability of new, diverse, and widespread information access points affect the role of regulators? How must Westminster regulatory institutions and frameworks adapt to meet the challenges and realize the opportunities afforded by digital era tools and data?
  • Westminster to Washminster. Accountability and Faux-outrage in the Digital Era. In the age of sound-bite politics and 24/7 media coverage, accountability relationships have come under new pressures. Mechanisms for ensuring oversight have become both more numerous and increasingly distributed among and within institutions, just as governance itself has become more distributed among stakeholders. At the same time, digital communication channels allow faux-outrage over trivial issues to overtake genuine discussion about root causes and possible solutions. The nature of risk has changed in the distributed governance landscape. To remain effective, accountability frameworks must follow suit. How can Westminster institutions adapt to the new realities of digital culture while ensuring responsible and accountable government? What accountability frameworks are most appropriate for public institutions in the digital age? Are we moving toward US-style governance models? How does the advent of digital affect the need to clarify the rules of engagement in Westminster systems and in Canadian society more generally? How have the risks facing governing institutions and societies changed in an era marked by increasingly distributed governance and widespread, high-speed access to information? How must governments adapt to these changes?
  • Digital Governance for a Digital Country. Technological advances have given us a glimpse of the potential of digital technologies to improve the quality of our lives, the productivity of our businesses and the strength of the economy. The impact of the digital world on our lives will continue to grow each day. We are living in a transformational age where few jobs, few sectors and few aspects of our lives remain untouched by digital. Governments that understand this potential will reap the benefits. How can Westminster governments position themselves to capture the opportunities of the digital age?

Key Activities (Year One)

Research Activities

We are engaging public, private and academic partners in rigorous analysis of digital governance issues and trends, with a view to identifying practical approaches to real-world challenges. Our work aims to provide applied research and analysis on issues of direct interest to partners, fora for the exchange of ideas, focus groups, customized workshops and large-scale learning events.

Online Resource Hub

We are creating an openly accessible online repository of our latest research findings and thematic discussion papers.

Digital Governance Commission

We will develop our partnership as a Digital Governance Commission, whose aims will include hosting dialogue events with diverse stakeholders, commissioning research papers on key themes and issues, establishing a public website with links to other relevant initiatives, hosting problem-mapping events, developing an analytic framework to encompass the challenge, and expanding our network of partners and experts.

Systems Mapping & Futures Workshop – November 2014 – Toronto

A participatory search conference including carefully selected subject matter experts covering the breadth of relevant domains will be convened to inform, validate and plan a larger and more broadly accessible digital governance forum. The search conference will produce a ‘giga-map’ or systems map outlining the ways in which digital culture is creating new tensions and new pressures on governance systems and practices. This facilitated search activity will identify key researchable themes to be explored at the Commission’s digital governance forum. Registration closed

Digital Governance Forum – January 2015 – Ottawa

We will host a digital governance forum, Digital Governance: Defining Westminster Democracy for the Digital Era. This conference will serve as the Commission’s primary vehicle for disseminating research findings to a wider community of interest. The forum will equip participants with the knowledge, approaches, and networks they need to examine the governance challenges of the digital era and set the direction of future research and engagement activities. Registration closed


Digital Governance Partnership logos

Steering Committee

  • University of Victoria, School of Public Administration with expertise in public administration, community development, and dispute resolution
  • Institute on Governance with expertise in modernizing government, public sector governance, indigenous governance and not-for-profit governance
  • OCAD University, Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) with expertise in foresight methods, facilitation, engagement, and design
  • Dalhousie University, School of Information Management with expertise in digital, information, knowledge, and records management, information technology and systems, social media, security and privacy, and enterprise solutions
  • MIGHTY Purpose with expertise and practical experience in managing and leveraging digital information and data across and beyond government


Funded by SSHRC

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada / Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines du Canada