The digital government agenda North America needs

In Ukraine today and in many other conflicts around the world, the digital domain has become a battleground for cyberattacks and information warfare. Even in normal daily life, digital platforms can endanger citizens and democracies by encroaching on individual privacy, manipulating consumer attention, fostering social isolation and nurturing extremism. But, while not downplaying these harms, we should also remind ourselves of the many good things that today’s new technologies offer.

One key digital benefit is the potential for vastly improving the delivery of government services. Estonia, where citizens can vote, pay taxes, check their medical records, apply for loans or register new businesses online in a matter of minutes, is the poster child. North American countries are much further behind, but the Covid-19 pandemic has created opportunities for them to catch up.

Although pandemic-related lockdowns and office closures have caused a host of bureaucratic ills—including long delays in the delivery of some benefits—they also accelerated the development of digital public services. In the United States, all levels of government have introduced digital tools, from holding court proceedings via videoconference to launching virtual-education programs across the country.

US state governments that had already invested in cloud capabilities were able to switch to teleworking, enabling rapid establishment of call centres, remote access to business applications and swift distribution of unemployment benefits. Governments at all levels also worked with volunteer technology initiatives, such as US Digital Response, to set up digital services quickly in a wide range of areas, including public health, food assistance, voting, volunteering and small-business support.

Canada and Mexico were similarly innovative. The Canadian federal government rapidly developed a secure Covid-19 exposure notification service and launched the Find Financial Help During Covid-19 website, which Canadians have used more than two million times. It also introduced GC Notify, which integrates email and text-message notifications for government services.

In Mexico, the federal government launched digital initiatives early in the pandemic that offered direct access to epidemiological healthcare data and self-diagnosis tools. State and city governments implemented SMS services to provide key public-health information to those without broadband access. Private platforms born during the pandemic, like URBEM from Cívica Digital, are now helping governments digitise their procedures and services so that citizens can access them remotely.

Such examples of innovation in digital government in Canada, Mexico and the US point to opportunities to forge a regional agenda to position North America as a global leader in the field. These opportunities should take advantage of the region’s growing data ecosystem and place people at the centre of service provision. The goal should be to foster cooperation at the national level and offer subnational governments the opportunity to collaborate and share best practices on open platforms.

The basis for this effort already exists. All three countries are members of the Open Government Partnership, which commits participants to increasing transparency, accountability and participation through a variety of means, including digital innovation. And all three governments have pledged to promote the Open Contracting Data Standard, an initiative that relies mainly on digital tools to foster access to information and public participation in government procurement.

Above all, the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement in 2020, establishes a clear basis for digital integration across North America. Chapter 19 of the agreement focuses on digital trade; Article 19.14 commits the parties to ‘exchange information and share experiences on regulations, policies, enforcement and compliance’ relating to protection of personal information, security in electronic communications, authentication and ‘government use of digital tools and technologies to achieve better government performance’.

Article 19.18 goes further, laying the groundwork for collaboration on open government data. It explicitly recognises that ‘facilitating public access to and use of government information fosters economic and social development, competitiveness and innovation’. In addition, it commits the parties to cooperate to identify ways they can expand access to data that they have made public, with a particular focus on generating business opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Such a statement of intent has historical parallels. In 1951, France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries established the European Coal and Steel Community, which laid the foundation for the ensuing decades of economic and political integration that resulted in the creation of the European Union. North America will undoubtedly chart its own path towards a different vision of continental integration, but a regional digital development agenda that begins with greatly improved government services would be a good start.

As US President Joe Biden’s administration has stated, the primary mission of any government is to serve the public. Canada, Mexico and the US can learn from one another how to use digital technology and public-sector reform to serve their citizens better. Improving the provision of government services is essential to building public trust in government, which is worryingly low in the US—particularly at the federal level—and is critical for preserving healthy democracies.

The US has traditionally looked east and west rather than north and south in setting its foreign-policy priorities. But, amid what Biden has described as a global struggle between democracies and autocracies, the countries of North America have a chance to strengthen their democracies individually and collectively. They have already established a foundation for digital cooperation. Now they need to build on it.