Jane Philpott is sworn in as Treasury Board President at Rideau Hall on Jan. 14, 2019. She’ll also assume a key role as digital government minister.
Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Last July, a little-noticed title was added to then-Treasury Board President Scott Brison’s job: Minister of Digital Government. When Jane Philpott took over at Treasury Board from Brison in January, she, too, took on this new digital role.“Digital government’ sounds really modern, a recognition of changing times. One might think it promises a more interactive, electronically accessible government.But it also brings a conflicting pair of responsibilities into one key central agency cabinet post, with serious privacy and taxpayer implications.Here’s one example of the implications for taxpayers. Treasury Board’s main role is to monitor and check government spending. Yet its digital work is already spending largely unchecked and large amounts of public money on government-wide electronic data delivery.“Digital government’ sounds really modern, a recognition of changing times. One might think it promises a more interactive, electronically accessible government.My inquiries to Treasury Board show, for instance, that there is no overall idea of how much is being spent on collecting and putting out quarterly “pro-active” disclosures (such as officials’ travel spending, or inputting completed access to information requests into the open government data portal).Treasury Board wants little outside scrutiny of what it spends on “pro-active” disclosures or for the portal. Bill C-58, currently in the Senate, specifically excludes the Information Commissioner of Canada from investigating the fullness or accuracy of such government-controlled releases, or reviewing complaints directed at finding out the real costs of such releases.Business groups, though, have greeted with enthusiasm a full digital ministry that will permit them to obtain more government work. Unexamined and unscrutinized digital spending can and will lead to more Phoenix-type snafus, whether done in-house or outside. A government/corporate partnership in a digital economy can create many frictions and conflicts.Added to this is that some of the digital data being expensively produced comes out months late and is self-serving, such as ministerial briefing-note lists that turn out to be largely government talking points.Bill C-58, if passed before the election, makes this unchecked government publishing system legal, and eligible for yet more public monies.The danger is that the new digital ministry can be very powerful, secretive, and unaccountable, a place where filtered digital materials go ahead with no known price tag while operating outside the Access to Information Act’s reach.Meanwhile, there has not been a privacy impact assessment done by the Privacy Commissioner on the implications of moving to a more digital government under a combined Treasury Board/Digital Ministry.Treasury Board, which has a lead role in privacy protection, however, can find itself in a conflict because its dual role as a digital ministry means Canadians using its services may be in for more, not fewer, privacy invasions and breaches.Helping Canadians obtain more digital services can mean asking them to give up more of their personal information every time they access interact electronically with government agencies.In fact, the House of Commons access to information, privacy and ethics committee has begun a study, and hearings are going on using the Estonia example, where digital government services mean everyone has to have an electronic ID as a starting point to access government services, including voting on-line. A national ID card is not likely what most Canadians are prepared for as a trade-off to more digital access to government services and information.A further potential downside is that digital interactions give the government a much quicker tool for monitoring, tracking and profiling citizens.Canada needs to rethink its first-ever digital ministry: where it should be housed, what its budget should be, how accountable and accessible its work should be, and how user-friendly and useful its services are. It should carefully look at its privacy and spending practices and identify the safeguards needed.The digital ministry has to be more than another unaccountable empire-building exercise that squanders public monies and is vulnerable to breaches of personal information.Ken Rubin monitors government secrecy and privacy issues and is reachable at kenrubin.ca.