Our new five-part series, which includes an introductory outline, reports on the progress of digital government in major regions worldwide.
North America: A landscape characterised by early adopters who are innovating to keep pace with digital-government developments globally.
The United States and Canada launched flagship digital-government programmes in the 1990s. Between 2003 and 2010, the UN’s E-Government Development Index consistently ranked the United States and Canada in the global top ten. Canada peaked at number three in 2010 and the United States at number one between 2003 and 2005, before arriving at number two in 2010. Between 2010 and 2020, the United States and Canada declined to rankings nine and 28 respectively. This is not a reflection of specific action or inaction from the United States or Canada, but rather a levelling of the playing field driven by increased investments in digital government by other countries.
Between 2000 and 2008, the proportion of US government websites offering online services jumped from 22 per cent to 89 per cent. This coincided with a doubling of internet penetration in the United States and Canada between 2000 and 2020, from 50 per cent in both countries to 93 per cent in the United States and 95 per cent in Canada.
The United States and Canada are federal democracies, so digital transformation occurs simultaneously at the federal, state/provincial and local levels. While in both countries the federal government is the overall decision-maker, state and provincial governments drive localised policy and strategy, and also implement federal directives. Progress is visible at each level of government with federal government taking the lead at a systemic level, while state and provincial innovate around specific digital initiatives, including digital ID.
North America has a rich ecosystem of agencies and offices supporting digital-transformation efforts. While the current model has achieved results, both countries could benefit from a centralised coordinating body to set overarching strategy, eliminate duplication and coordinate inter-agency digital-transformation efforts.
Figure 1 – The connections within North America’s digital-government ecosystem
The Three Principles of Whole-of-Government Transformation
1. Purposeful Governance
North America's digital-government ecosystem continues to evolve and mature as available technology shifts and citizens' expectations of government services change. Both the United States and Canada have robust strategies in place at multiple levels to guide whole-of-government digital-government efforts.
In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Canada’s first minister for digital government. In 2021, Canada released its first digital-government strategy aimed at coordinating digital operations, modernising IT systems, advancing technology adoption and improving service delivery.[_] The strategy is embodied in the Digital Operations Strategic Plan (2021–2024)[_] and linked to key government policies, including on digital standards,[_] on service and digital, and on government security.[_] Complementing these initiatives is Canada’s Beyond2020,[_] a programme aimed at creating an inclusive, digital-ready public service.
In 2002, President Bush signed the E-Government Act into law. In 2009, President Obama launched the Open Government Directive and, in 2012, the Building a 21st Century Digital Government initiative. The latter set out a whole-of-government modernisation strategy to enhance the government’s digital services by better utilising data. This also led to the creation of the United States Digital Service (USDS). In December 2021, President Biden signed a new executive order, Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government, aimed at improving customer experience and service delivery.[_]
2. Enabling Infrastructure
Governments are only as effective as the infrastructure that enables them. And in much of the world, the pandemic both tested and underlined the strength of these underlying platforms in shifting to digital-first service delivery. Canada launched a suite of new applications and web services by making use of application programming interfaces (APIs) and repurposing existing platforms and databases, such as Statistics Canada and Open Government Canada, to respond quickly to Canadians impacted by Covid-19. Similarly, the US government – at state and federal levels – launched initiatives to address the virus, including an incident-management system to track Covid-19, as well as taking steps to move critical services online, such as welfare, education and health care, with varying degrees of success.[_]
As noted in our Transforming Government for the 21st Century report, digital ID is key to enhancing public-service delivery and optimising digital government. While Covid gave rise to vaccine passports in Canada and the United States, neither country has implemented federal digital IDs, although it remains a topic of debate.[_] However, while efforts to institute digital ID stagnate at the federal level, state and provincial governments have stepped up. In the United States, 30 states are exploring digital driving licences, with six states already offering them to citizens.[_] In Canada, provincial governments, in partnership with the private sector, have begun rolling out digital IDs, an example of how public-private partnerships can spur innovation and deliver better services for citizens.
3. Responsive Institutions
Canada’s rich government ecosystem consists of more than a dozen agencies and offices supporting digital-transformation efforts. Central to this ecosystem is the Canadian Digital Service, the key programme-delivery agency helping federal agencies deliver better government services to citizens through agile and user-friendly design.[_] Of Canada’s ten provincial governments and three territories, seven have dedicated digital offices, three have digital strategies, ministers or both, and two have neither (Nunavut and Northwest Territories, two sparsely populated territories in the northernmost regions of Canada).
The United States has an equally robust ecosystem of institutions guiding the implementation of federal and state directives and forging direct linkages between strategy and service delivery. The most notable of these agencies include technology and design consultancy 18F and the USDS, which partner with government agencies to create user-friendly and accessible digital services to procure technology. At present, 43 states have established a digital-government office or agency dedicated to streamlining services between agencies and citizens.
Figure 2 – The agencies, offices and bodies supporting the region’s digital-government transformation
Digital Transformation Office
Enhance trust in Canada’s digital-government services by building an easy to navigate, user-centric interface (Canada.ca), informed by user research and the top 100 most in-demand services among citizens.
Canadian Digital Service
Improve government services by building capacity across government for human-centred service design and iterative development.
Shared Services Canada
Transform management of IT infrastructure by providing shared information-management IT services and delivering email, data centre, network and Workplace Technology Devices (WTD) to public departments and agencies.
Strengthen government transparency and trust using open-data portals and by providing citizens access to government data, statistics and information on Canada’s economy, society and environment.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada
Leverage resources and exploit synergies for rapid development and execution of innovations through science and technology in line with the government’s jobs and growth agenda.
Canada School of Public Service Digital Academy
Lead the government’s enterprise-wide approach to learning by providing a common, standardised curriculum that supports the digital upskilling of public servants.
United States Digital Service (USDS)
Enhance usability and simplicity of digital-government services by integrating private-sector practices into government, such as user-centred design and agile methodologies.
Technology Transformation Services
Oversee and coordinate digital-transformation efforts across government by providing civil servants access to new tools and technology to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and usability of digital services across government.
Improve government service delivery and user experience by partnering with various civilian and military agencies to buy and build innovative technology.
Presidential Innovation Fellowship
Strengthen and build in-house government expertise and talent by pairing private-sector technologists with civil servants for short-term assignments inside government.
IT Modernisation Centres of Excellence
Lead IT modernisation efforts across government to optimise operational efficiency and improve public-service delivery.
Office of Science and Technology Policy
Advise the executive branch on technology policy and budgets, and lead private-sector partnerships to drive forward government innovation and strengthen society and economy.
Privacy and security: Public trust in institutions remains low in both countries. In the United States, only 35 per cent of Americans trust the government with their personal information.[_] In Canada, according to a survey of 1,500 Canadians, about 63 per cent of citizens trust the government to protect their private data.[_] A growing trust deficit between citizens and government poses significant challenges to public buy-in of digital-government initiatives.
Bridging the digital divide: Only 45 per cent of rural communities in Canada and 22 per cent[_] in the United States have access to adequate broadband speeds. Bridging the digital divide through large-scale infrastructure investments will be necessary to ensure the fruits of e-government are enjoyed by everyone. It is essential the government pinpoints and addresses geographic and social inequities, and distributes federal resources evenly across the country.
Satisfaction with digital services: While the governments of Canada and the United States are transforming, innovating and offering more online services, both are struggling to meet the expectations of their citizens. According to a recent survey of 3,300 US citizens, 40 per cent of respondents stated dissatisfaction with the government’s digital services.[_] Another study suggests that satisfaction in the United States hit a five-year low as demand increased due to the pandemic. Similarly, in Canada, less than half reported satisfaction with the amount of time it takes to access digital government services, according to the Citizen Experience in Canada Report, which surveyed 1,500 participants.[_]
Trust in government institutions: Although currently lacklustre, the trust deficit in government institutions could be closed through digitalisation efforts. Both countries’ federal governments must continue to advance data-privacy laws and mechanisms that empower and protect their citizens, and focus on building and strengthening the bonds between citizens and government. They should build on recent efforts to create an open and transparent government, including through tools such as Open Data Canada and DATA.GOV.
Equitable and inclusive services: To enhance the delivery of government services within the context of a 21st-century government for everyone, both countries’ governments must prioritise reaching and meeting all their citizens wherever they are. This should include delivering accessible and user-friendly no-tech and low-tech solutions, investing in digital-literacy training, and expanding high-quality broadband and digital infrastructure to underserved areas. Both governments must also focus on creating a seamless user experience that merges the digital and physical delivery of services.
User-centred government: Both countries’ governments have made significant strides in integrating private-sector practices into public-sector delivery. However, the diffusion of digital-government offices and agencies has resulted in varying levels of quality of government services. Canada and the United States must therefore prioritise integrating a whole-of-government, human-centred design strategy and practice, including component libraries and cross-agency learning and collaboration. A first step could include bringing in private-sector, user-experience (UX) expertise, conducting an inter-agency review of all services and service-delivery agencies, and developing a roadmap to better integrate disparate agencies under one set of principles and vision.