Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Digital Era Policy Advising: Clouding Ministerial Perspectives?

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Digital Era Policy Advising: Clouding Ministerial Perspectives?

Article excerpt

Introduction

It is late Friday afternoon. Public servants and political staff around the table are grumpy. This is the umpteenth version of this briefing and they are still wrestling between policy options. As the Minister, you need to bring something to Cabinet, and soon. But you are seeing billions in cost, imagining the inevitable angry calls from key stakeholders, and being told that there are no guarantees the program will actually work with the dated technology in place. Two videoconferences with officials and stakeholders from across the country stand between you and your next rubber chicken dinner, and yet another keynote speech. You need an answer, and fast. How will "going digital" get you out of this mess?

Ministers, like the rest of us, are unable to escape the implications inherent in the shift towards an increasingly digital society and governance. Yet Ministers are unique in that they wield democratic power to make decisions on behalf of citizens. Not that long ago ministers would not have to worry about something "going viral" on social media or how well a government program or service works on a smart phone. "Big data," algorithmic analysis, web-enabled consultation, and data visualization, are all examples of disruptions that have yielded new channels for policy advice and produce qualitatively different inputs for policymakers. They do not however absolve ministers of the dilemmas inherent in governing: representation and accountability imperatives, decisions regarding values and resource allocations, and the use of coercive state authority, to name a few (Pierre 1998). Digital era governance (DEG) (1) will not only result in new disruptions and dilemmas as modern technologies displace older ones, but it as likely to intensify as it is to resolve fundamental "legacy" dilemmas and disruptions linked to governance.

As an example, it remains unclear if DEG will help or hinder well-known features of advisory work involving the very capacity--political, managerial, organizational, and analytical--of government to address policy challenges (Howlett, Wellstead, and Craft 2017; Tiernan 2015). For instance, the data deluge that accompanies digitization may enrich and democratize policymaking. It may facilitate broader and deeper consultation, generate new inputs for decision makers, or provide innovative instruments to strengthen inclusiveness and equity. Conversely, it may cloud policy relevant learning dynamics by overwhelming or paralyzing decision makers, or those who are charged with generating and sorting the advice that flows to them. DEG may be used to justify the exclusion of some policy participants or serve to alienate others. It may foster governance battlegrounds dotted by advocacy coalitions and instrument constituencies who clash on the basis of digital or non-digital problem definitions, policy options, or instrumentation and implementation preferences (Howlett, Wellstead, and Craft 2017; Weible 2008; Voss and Simons 2014). We know already that in some cases digital information and communication technologies expedite or slow the very pace of decision-making, altering the nature and place of advisory work as a component of the policymaking process (Hochtl, Parycek, and Schollhammer 2015).

To tackle the disruptions and dilemmas of DEG advisory work we borrow existing theoretical frames on digital governance, but focus on the micro-processes surrounding ministers of the crown. We posit that three concepts are essential for understanding the implications of digital governance for advisory systems: (1) information processing, (2) policy entrepreneurship, and (3) control and coordination. These three concepts feature prominently in the digital governance and policymaking literature (see Clarke and Craft 2017). However, our focus is novel in that is reappraises them from the vantage point of ministers. The article begins with an overview of policy advisory systems and the longstanding dilemmas they embody, in particular what advice has influence within PAS and why, along with whether these systems have the requisite capacity to serve decision makers well. …

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