Adapting Westminster governance to a digital world - Centre for Public Impact (CPI)

Adapting Westminster governance to a digital world

The Westminster system of parliamentary government is widely credited with the capacity to adapt well to social and cultural evolution. Yet the reality is that, in recent years, governments the world over have struggled to keep up with the rapid pace of change – especially change associated with the rise of digital culture and technology.

As a result, the trust between governments and their citizens has eroded. A more sophisticated, demanding and sceptical public is increasingly aware of the limits of what government can do for them. The Westminster system of governance was once seen as a model system for peace, order and good government, but it is becoming less and less relevant as an ‘intermediator’ for achieving a collective purpose. If governing institutions are to meet the complex challenges of the 21st century, they will need to adapt – and fast.

Times are a-changing

Westminster was not designed with the digital era in mind. Its institutions are under pressure. For example, the principle of ministerial responsibility, a mainstay of the Westminster system, has become an unintended obstacle to progress because of the institutional structures, operations and culture it is presumed to require.

In addition, driven by social, cultural and technological pressures, the overall governance landscape has changed over the course of recent decades, becoming more distributed and variegated, with many newly-created governing institutions lying outside the control of traditional government departments.

All the while, the proliferation of low-cost communications technology and the superabundance of readily available information have given rise to networks in which interests can quickly coalesce, knowledge can be exchanged and actions taken. As networks form and re-form around complex public policy issues, governments are realising that they no longer hold the monopoly on defining citizens’ roles, responsibilities and interests. Citizens no longer necessarily turn to governments to solve problems, and governments no longer necessarily turn to the public service for authoritative expertise.

In this context, in which many public institutions have been ‘disintermediated’ – or cut out of the policy and governance equations – new tensions have emerged. One such tension is between the siloed, compartmentalised and often insular Westminster system, with its need to control, and the emerging networked environment, with its need for information-sharing, collaboration and increased public engagement. As a result, the digital age is giving rise to new conceptions of power and democratic governance in which horizontality and citizen-focused design are key.

Authority and accountability are the cornerstones of a well-functioning state and a healthy democracy. But in this age of transformation, the state’s traditional regulatory functions are increasingly called into question, and it is far from clear that governments possess an adequate picture of the risks they face (and the oversight regimes required to respond to these risks). As a result, the legitimacy of governing institutions teeters ever closer to the precipice. The very concepts of authority and accountability require re-examination.

What’s next?

The first wave of digitally enabled e-government strategies delivered some important benefits, but too many of these initiatives focused on automating existing processes and moving existing services online. The coming wave of digitally-inspired innovation presents an opportunity to stop tinkering at the margins and fundamentally redesign how government operates, that is, to rethink what the public sector does, how it does it and, ultimately, how governments interact and engage with citizens.

This is truly an exciting time for governments – a time of challenges, to be sure, but also of opportunities. Governments can play an active and positive role in their own transformations. The process itself is likely to be both exhilarating and painful, but the price of inaction is a lost opportunity to redefine governance and defend, shape and advance the public good.

We are at an exciting and at the same time alarming juncture. The challenges and opportunities introduced by the rise of digital culture and technology, along with shifting public expectations, an evolving public sphere, and associated pressures for change in our governments and public institutions, may even present a fundamental challenge to the traditional relationship between the citizen and the state – a push to rethink the social contract in modern industrialised democracies.

Did you know?

The Centre for Public Impact is teaming up with the Institute on Governance to examine how the digital era is reshaping governance systems. Interested in joining the conversation in Ottawa? Register here.



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