Canada has become a member of an elite digital government club, joining countries like Estonia, the poster child among the world’s most digitally advanced societies.
Canada signed the charter Wednesday to join the Digital Seven, an international forum of countries that are partnering to strengthen their digital economies. The forum was created in 2014 and was called the Digital Five, but became Digital Seven with this week’s addition of Canada and Uruguay.
The D7 charter was signed by Joyce Murray, parliamentary secretary to Treasury Board President Scott Brison, who attended the group’s conference Digital Nations 2030 conference held in New Zealand.
“What Canada brings to this summit, and to the D5, is the understanding that government exists to improve the lives of its citizens,” Brison told the conference via video. And that the digital revolution is opening up previously unimaginable possibilities for how government can fulfill this fundamental role.”
“Digital government has everything to do with enabling, empowering, and serving people better. At a time when democratic governments around the world are facing challenges of legitimacy, digital provides new opportunities to make government relevant in the lives of citizens.”
The founding members include digital pioneers Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea and United Kingdom, all known as advanced digital nations. The standout is Estonia, the birthplace of Skype, which Wired magazine called the “most advanced digital society in the world.”
In Estonia, typical government services, such as legislation, voting, education, justice, health care, banking, taxes, policing—have been digitally linked across a single platform to wire up the nation. Estonia’s system is keyed to a chip I.D. card, which is an identity document that also establishes identity in the electronic world with one’s digital signature.
Canada’s D7 entry comes as the government works hard to restore its badly damaged reputation after a string of major IT project failures from Shared Services Canada and its email transformation to the high-profile Phoenix pay fiasco, which has captured international attention.
The Liberals are entering the second year of managing the Phoenix crisis that erupted with disastrous rollout of its IMB-built pay system. Half of its 300,000 employees now have some kind pay problem and the pay centre is swamped with massive backlog of files to be processed.
Brison has argued the Phoenix crisis has forced the government to re-think how it manages, builds and buys technology. The government is now looking at technology options to eventually replace the troubled Phoenix.
Alex Benay, Canada’s chief information officer who was among federal officials at the conference, said all countries have had major IT project failures and Canada is no different.
“We do a horrible job at telling our own stories. It’s probably part of our DNA to be humble,” said Benay.
“Yes, we have had some major debacles and failures and it is impossible not to talk about those, but, to be frank, so has every other country. We are absolutely no different in our failures. We may seem to think our failures are greater than other places but they really are not and some of our achievements are pretty cool.
Benay said Canada is getting international attention for its digital initiatives and is ahead of many governments in some areas such as open government. Canada is ranked second in the world for open government and is hosting this year’s international Open Government Partnership.
Governments are waking up to how artificial intelligence could transform their economies, public services and workforces, and Canada is among the seven countries with a national AI strategy. Oxford Insights put Canada at third spot for AI readiness.
Benay said Canada’s investments in superclusters will draw international talent. He said the use of blockchain technology at the National Research Council for its grants and contributions program and by Canada Border Services Agency to track and monitor passengers at airports are “up there with the best if not one of the best.”
“We are not behind on any of these and in some cases we are ahead,” said Benay.
During the summit, ministers from member countries signed the D7 charter, which calls for commitments to open standards, open source, open government and teaching children to code.
The forum, which was initially coordinated by the UK, the seven countries have committed to work together, exchange ideas and invest in ways to promote digital initiatives and make them part of the daily lives of their citizens.
“In the 21st century, as an organization, you’re either digital or you’re dead,” Brison said. “If a company fails to get digital right, it’s out of business. But if a government fails to get digital right, it’s out of touch with its citizens.”
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