Unpacking the 2021 Digital Government Survey

Since we launched FWD50 in 2017, we’ve run an annual survey of public servants worldwide to capture their thoughts on the challenges, needs, and opportunities around digital government and public sector innovation.

Who answered the survey?

This year, we received roughly 100 responses. Roughly half were from Federal governments, primarily in Canada:

The top roles our respondents have are in program management, policy design, systems engineering, software development, and data analysis. In the private sector, top respondent roles included sales & marketing and consulting services. Note that we aggregated some respondent-entered titles to consolidate the results.

12.24% of respondents had an executive role in government, including executive director, senior executive director, director general, ADM, or senior ADM.

Roughly half of respondents live in Canada’s National Capital Region, but we received responses from several provinces, and the US, UK, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and even Djibouti.

More than half of respondents had completed a Masters or Ph.D.

A quarter of respondents work in technical services, but we received feedback from a wide range of government departments:

We asked a number of questions around policy priorities, the relative importance of various technologies, and the obstacles governments face. We also added some questions this year around resilient democracy, fake news, and free speech, since these have been hot topics throughout the past year.

What policies are most important?

We asked respondents to rank the relative importance of government policies. Because people tend to rate everything highly, it’s easier to understand this data based on how far above or below the average it is.

High-ranking policies include providing services for the most vulnerable; digital resilience; preparing for climate change; and ensuring digital rights. Border security, public space for free speech, reinventing transportation, and enforcing laws rated lower than other policies.

Some responses varied significantly by role or organization.

Private sector tools

Respondents in academia and the federal government are much more concerned about over-reliance on private/for-profit technologies than consultants, nonprofits, and (as should be expected) the private sector.

Regional policy differences

We found differences in the relative importance of policies based on where respondents lived:

  • Respondents from the Canadian Midwest (Alberta, Saskatchewan) rate law enforcement, free speech, better fiscal decisions, and policing and secure borders the highest while rating preparing for climate change had the lowest rating.
  • Respondents from the Canadian National Capital Region (Ottawa/Gatineau) rate digital rights, the economic consequences of automation, policing and secure borders, and tackling disinformation the highest while modernizing transportation is the lowest priority.

Our list of policy priorities was relatively small, so we asked respondents which policies we missed, then aggregated them to cluster them around related topics. Here’s what people added:

What technologies matter most?

We offered respondents several technologies and asked them to rate their relative importance to governments. 

Changes in technology priorities over time

One of the advantages of running this survey over several years is the ability to measure changes in relative technology priorities.

Cloud computing , accessibility, AI, and digital process optimization rank high, but overall the importance of every technology is down from last year—suggesting perhaps a realization that many innovation challenges are human and cultural, and there’s no “silver bullet.” Remote work and SaaS climbed in importance, while accessibility dropped significantly—despite many respondents listing it as an overlooked topic in the survey, which seems contradictory.

A world of information

Government has always been in the business of information, from the first vote to the last law. There’s a reason the public sector is a leading buyer of information technology. After last year’s discussions on resilient democracy and disinformation, we asked some new questions around the theme of how governments listen to their denizens, and what information is most often overlooked.

Respondents were concerned about the impact of fake news:

Despite these concerns, fewer respondents felt government should be regulating free speech. It will be interesting to see whether this opinion shifts in coming years.

We also asked respondents what information is most often overlooked by governments in their decision-making, and what changes would most help align governments with the citizens who put them in power. The responses varied widely—and were often contradictory—so these explanations are necessarily subjective; but we think they’re worth sharing.

What information about society is most often overlooked by its leaders?

If there’s one thing to take away from the qualitative responses to this question, it’s marginalization. Whether that’s accessibility, systemic racism, gender inequality, the dehumanization of people by machines, or just a general lens of diversity as a strength, respondents felt governments did not factor this information into decisions. At the same time, several respondents cited the need to factor in feedback from the “silent” or “middle” majority that’s less heard in traditional media cycles.

A second theme was transparency and accountability—a lack of access to concrete data on policies and their impact on citizens, or on the effectiveness and user experience from government services. A related, but orthogonal, concern, was privacy and digital tracking.

Several respondents suggested government is not spending enough time looking at how technology changes a society’s ability to make collective decisions, and on our mental health. Others suggested that sustainability, ease of compliance, and real purchasing power, should be factored into policy and technology decisions. Others mentioned digital literacy and a lack of education overall as serious impediments to governing.

What one change would most align government decisions with public sentiment?

Once again, responses varied widely and were highly subjective in this category, but they boiled down into a few main groups:

  • Stoicism
  • Transparency and fact-based decision-making
  • Citizen engagement
  • Restructuring government
  • Data sharing and tell-us-once


Respondents cautioned that “not everyone will be happy, but that “decisions based on facts, not influence,” were needed and “it is not always a good idea” that policy and sentiment align. Some called for algorithmic implementation of laws, rational approaches, and leaving politics out of decision-making.

Transparency and facts

Many respondents worried about sharing true, trusted facts widely. This might include “accountability for the ROI of public spending,” a “better-funded” national broadcaster, measuring public sentiment, and “using it when explaining complex decisions” or “tailor the message to the recipient.” One respondent suggested “Having a publicly-funded but independent organization for measuring and championing public opinion, and then using that collected information for policy decisions.”

Other respondents cited concerns over facts coming from “whoever yells the loudest on social media.”

Citizen engagement

The most common response was improved citizen engagement in public policy decision. One wanted the “ability for an average citizen to directly respond to proposed policy direction,” to encourage a “dialogue with the public.” Given the abundance of tools to collect public opinion and the fact that most people have some form of digital connection, several respondents pushed for “getting the public’s point of view on many matters” through “more user research & genuine engagement with citizens.”

The structure of government

While FWD50 is a nonpartisan event, the number of responses we received about changing the structure of government to adapt to modern realities was so high we feel it necessary to mention it here. Some called for “abolishing the 2-party hegemony,” or in the U.S., running “top 5 primaries and ranked voting” as well as “integrating Indigenous governance models.” Some wondered if this would mean “changing the entire electoral system” or at least the “format of elections.” And several called for more empowerment of public servants on the front-lines working directly with citizens.

Direct democracy was another hot topic: “Implement a mechanism to give constituents the ability to vote on decisions directly, to ensure decisions reflect the wants/needs of people,” or “rethink our traditional representative democracy model for the digital era,” with “more frequent votes on key topics” and “more referendums.

Data sharing and tell-us-once

A less common response was changing data management in governments. The “Tell-us-once” approach—in which a piece of information about a person is shared once, consistently, across government bodies at federal and state/provincial levels—was cited several times.

The biggest obstacles

We listed seven possible obstacles to digital innovation in the public sector, and asked respondents to rate those from “not a problem” to “huge problem.” While the averages are informative—a lack of holistic views of services, retaining talent, and inconsistent digital identity are significant challenges—it’s also useful to look at the relative spread around each challenge to see where there’s disagreement and where there’s consensus (put another way: Averages lie.)

In this chart, we’ve shown the distribution of responses from “not a problem” to “huge problem” as well as the average score for each challenge. There’s more polarization, for example, around concerns stemming from a reliance on for-profit/private sector tools.


The appetite for technology has diminished this year. It may be that the technical acceleration of the COVID pandemic has given us digital “indigestion,” or a realization that even with more rapid adoption of digital systems, the hardest problems are human ones.

There’s also a significant concern that governments as we know them will have to adjust how they work significantly to address everyone’s concerns—which, given regional differences, may be impossible. Compounding this is the abundance of “alternative facts” and a general lack of trust in information.

Citizens are realizing that digital advances should give them greater visibility into the effectiveness of their government, and that governments should find new ways of listening and enacting policy at scale.

As always, these insights will be shared with the FWD50 faculty and people who want to propose a talk for the conference in November. And once again, we’d like to thank the people who devoted their time to helping us better understand the course of public sector innovation.