Blog Post

The federal budget misses a key opportunity to address digital inclusion

By: Marco Campana
April 4, 2023

I was asked to contribute to a Future of Good article evaluating the recent federal budget. My high-level evaluation in is the article, but I thought about it a lot when I replied. I'm posting my entire response here. I meander a bit, but I hope you find it of interest.

What score would you give the federal budget out of 10 for how well it addresses the needs of the sector?

As I go through the Budget I find myself repeatedly saying, “Yes, but here’s what’s missing”. Giving it a number seems too simple.

What is one thing you are happy to see included?

Probably investing in better health care data. I tend to look to the health sector for examples of how we can harness data, secure technology, treatment of personal information, and interoperability in service delivery, for the broader nonprofit sector. We will hopefully be able to learn from investments here.

What is one thing you are disappointed by?

I’m most disappointed by what is missing when considering strong foundations in an increasingly digital government, economy, and community. As well as a lack of support in this area for more vulnerable Canadians and residents. In a budget that speaks to “Making Life More Affordable and Supporting the Middle Class”, we need to support those who truly suffer from affordability and a lack of access. Common chargers for your devices is a nice item but is a micro-project compared with what actually needs to be done on digital inclusion. Things like addressing cost and access to high-speed internet, mobile data costs and device costs.

In the budget, there is discussion of “Skills for Success: Helping Canadians at all skill levels improve their foundational and transferable skills, like problem-solving and digital skills, through free training resources and online skills assessments.” With no details, no budget numbers, and no national digital inclusion strategy this is an empty investment. The budget indicates that investments have been made in this area since 2017, but they are clearly not having the necessary impact as the Auditor General recently pointed out.

Given that municipalities are the most active level of government on digital inclusion, expanding support to make the Smart Cities Challenge an Inclusive Smart Cities Challenge would be an interesting and welcome investment.

Where it serves them in the budget the government references previous investments rolled into this budget (see Investing in Skills for a Clean Economy as an example). So omissions in areas I’ve outlined below suggest that they’re not prioritizing areas such as access to affordable broadband internet, lower mobile data costs, as well as access to devices, which are essential for a strong Canadian foundation. 

For example, access to Connecting Families is very limited, and increasingly privatized to the very companies that make access unaffordable, such as the Rogers Connected for Success program, which also only serves 3 provinces. Canadians are left to navigate a complex system of inconsistent supports, donations, and community programs.

Protecting Federally Regulated Gig Workers is useful and appears to align with what provinces have been implementing (at least in Ontario). Important, but inevitable.

Making Life More Affordable and Supporting the Middle Class Needs Digital Inclusion

In a budget that speaks to "Making Life More Affordable and Supporting the Middle Class", we also need to support those who truly suffer from affordability and lack of access.

Common Chargers for Your Devices is nice, but is a micro-project compared with what actually needs to be done on digital inclusion. And what we know of things like high speed internet, mobile data costs, as well as device costs.

Automatic Tax Filing is a good example of supporting vulnerable Canadians by taking burdens away from them as well as community agencies who spend hundreds of hours each year supporting community members to file their income tax forms. Sending "an invitation letter from the CRA to use File My Return" but is it available in multilingual formats?

These are only small pieces of the digital inclusion puzzle. 

Given what we know and as the Auditor General recently pointed out "In 2019, the Government of Canada recognized that high-speed connectivity will become more critical as Canada's economy evolves and embraces the technologies of tomorrow. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this evolution as it shifted much of Canadians' lives online. This made it more important than ever that individual Canadians and small businesses in every corner of this country have access to fast and reliable high-speed Internet and mobile cellular connectivity."

Investing in People and a Canada that Works for Everyone should include a national digital inclusion strategy especially as we see the full report on Connectivity in Rural and Remote Areas from Canada's Auditor General shows that there's a long way to go to close the digital divide. But “We also examined the extent of spending to date on federal connectivity initiatives. The amount of $2.4 billion in federal funding for connectivity initiatives was available for use by the end of the 2022–23 fiscal year. We found, however, that by January 2023, only 40% of this funding had been spent (Exhibit 2.3).”

Investments like $2.6 billion for the new Canada Innovation Corporation, which will support Canadian businesses in investing in research and development, need to be matched and exceeded with community investments that create a national, accountable digital inclusion network and plan. This IS a time to learn from our U.S. neighbours and their approaches to digital inclusion, as well as in Australia and the UK.

Where is the Nonprofit Canada Innovation Corporation? Where is the Digital Main Street fund for nonprofits? Or a Code for Canada for nonprofits? Or a Canada Digital Adoption Program for nonprofits? Investments like the Charity Growth Academy need to be scaled widely and deeply across the country. 

This could go easily hand-in-hand with the "A commitment to launch another round of the Smart Cities Challenge, which awards funding to city and regional governments for local-level technical innovation." 

Given that municipalities are the most active level of government on digital inclusion, expanding support and programming to make the Smart Cities Challenge a Smart Cities Inclusive Challenge would be an interesting and welcome investment.

There is a discussion of "Skills for Success: Helping Canadians at all skill levels improve their foundational and transferable skills, like problem-solving and digital skills, through free training resources and online skills assessments."

With no details and no budget numbers, this is an empty investment. The budget indicates that investments have been made in this area since 2017, but they are clearly not having the necessary impact, especially post(?) pandemic as the Auditor General points out.

"...the review on the digitalization of money announced in Budget 2022" is interesting, but it is too narrowly focused on crypto-assets. But it also brings up considerations like the federal Advisory Committee's proposed approach for open banking policy in Canada, which indicates that “Barriers to financial inclusion, such as broadband internet accessibility, will also need to be addressed for the benefits of open banking to be widespread. The impact of open banking on vulnerable, geographically remote and financially marginalized Canadians should be specifically monitored during the implementation phase to ensure public policy objectives are being met.” 

Building dependency on digital inclusion progress, which is not adequately being addressed in Canada, especially by 2023, when Open Banking is set to go live, is a flawed approach to ensuring inclusion of the financially marginalized or vulnerable. Things like this should be addressed by the federal government, including in this budget. As Canadians are increasingly expected to access services digitally, the federal government must do more to ensure all have access, skills, and ability to access those services.

I mean, if bankers are suggesting a need for action on digital inclusion, maybe this can actually be harnessed by advocates!

$158 million to go to the Public Health Agency of Canada for a new suicide prevention hotline supports a plan already in place. It's a shift to a 3-digit number, which will certainly be easier to remember, along with supporting an existing text service. 

But, there is no mention of multilingual supports, or where this number intersects with existing distress lines, or 211 lines, which do support multingual service. 

The 988 number appears to be transitioning the Talk Suicide number. There is no mention of multilingual access, unlike Kids Help Phone which, although limited, offers help to youth in Ukrainian, Russian, Pashto, Dari, Mandarin and Arabic. 

The technology exists and is used by 211 services, to provide interpretation services in 150 languages. Why isn't this being expanded into the 988 hotline?

Investing in Better Health Care Data

"In addition to providing funding to provinces and territories, the federal government will also provide $505 million over five years, starting in 2023-24, to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Canada Health Infoway, and other federal data partners. Together, these organizations will work with provinces and territories to develop new health data indicators, support the creation of a Centre of Excellence on health worker data, advance digital health tools and an interoperability roadmap, and support provincial and territorial efforts to use data to improve the safety and quality of health care."

Useful, but there needs to be language about equity and inclusion here to ensure health equity and virtual care principles are embedded in this investment. Surely The Black Health Equity Working Group's Engagement, Governance, Access, and Protection (EGAP) Framework as well as The First Nations Principles of OCAP should be included.

Improved Immigration Services

"The government is moving more key services online, including the confirmation of permanent residence status and the introduction of online citizenship testing and ceremonies, as well as addressing backlogs of paper-based applications through digitization." (Improving Services for Canadians)

These online services build on services piloted during the pandemic and highlight the ongoing need for digital inclusion. We have, and the government itself has studied, the Newcomer digital divide. Moving more services online will be both useful and frustrating if corresponding investments are not being made in national infrastructure, digital literacy and inclusion, including bandwidth (both wifi and data) and device access, which are unaffordable for many. We've also seen ridiculous processing times for online vs paper-based applications which suggest wildly inefficient implementations of technology by IRCC thus far:

Work permit from inside Canada (initial and extension) - Online applications take 148 days to process vs Paper applications which take 25 days to process. The same trend can be found in the processing time of many applications.

We know that IRCC's own Digital Platform Modernization and Transformation approach and budget is massive: "Budget 2021 included critical investments to support the modernization and transformation of our immigration system. Funding of $827.3M over five years will enable IRCC to develop and deliver an enterprise-wide digital platform."

But we are not seeing discussion of similar investments in the Settlement, Language, Pre-arrival and more funding critical for the successful settlement and inclusion of Newcomers to Canada. Perhaps this will be address in the upcoming national IRCC Call for Proposals, but given the radio silence to date, guessing is what we're left with at this point...

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