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government in transition

Justin Trudeau was elected on the promise of change and a mantra of hope. But how does he turn those aspirations into effective policy? Doug Saunders decodes the strategy the Liberals are borrowing from the U.K. for setting up a different kind of government shop

Justin Trudeau is now facing the most difficult moment for any newly victorious political leader. It is the moment when the campaign's words must be sculpted into the new government's actions using the silty clay of overworked bureaucracy and the blunted tools of hierarchy. It is, for Mr. Trudeau in particular, the moment when the unstop-pable force of an absolute majority propelled by a bold set of reformist promises runs headlong into the immovable object of a public service that has become fractured, dispirited and deeply dysfunctional after the Stephen Harper years.

There is a long history of prime ministers, premiers and presidents getting stuck in this moment, spinning their wheels in the bureaucratic mud for months, years or entire terms of office, with few of their promises ever becoming fully formed transformations. The public sector, its harried managers facing competing and sometimes impossible demands, proves difficult to budge.

And the Trudeau Liberals are trying to deliver a sprawling array of new policies and reforms into some of the most dysfunctional sections of the public service: An impressive but deeply complex set of promises directed at troubled First Nations communities will collide with an Aboriginal Affairs department widely seen as ossified and inflexible. A new health-care and home-care accord is seen by many as being beyond the capacity of Health Canada. A big infrastructure-spending promise will become a tug-of-war between cities, provinces, reserves and multiple ministries.

It would be easy for any of these files to run aground, and the stakes are high for the Liberal Party, the public sector and voters who pegged their hopes on Mr. Trudeau.

'Delivery units' will push key goals across the public service

In Ottawa this week, Mr. Trudeau's campaign staff, and the newly hired executives of his transition team, were drawing on the lessons of past failures to try to avoid this trap. They're drafting blueprints for a new structure at the top of government, designed to turn a handful of the Liberal Party's most valued promises into new institutions.

Members of Mr. Trudeau's staff say they are drawing on a set of ideas that emerged in Britain more than a decade ago under Tony Blair's prime ministership and applied in a different version in Ontario under the Dalton McGuinty government, with results that pleased insiders but have left a questionable legacy. (It is no coincidence that Mr. Trudeau's two top aides, Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, were products of the top-level machinery of that Ontario government.)

It is a system which, in its most complete form, uses high-level "delivery units" to push key goals across the entire public service, sometimes bypassing the hierarchy of cabinets, departments and administrations, putting multiple government departments under the watchful eye (and sometimes forceful hand) of new organizations that report straight to the prime minister and impose their own goals and measures on the workings of government.

Their plans are likely to disappoint officials hoping to see a return to the sort of cabinet-driven government of the Lester B. Pearson years, where powerful ministers were given the autonomy and trust to shape their departments and legacies on their own. It is also likely to disappoint those who wish for a complete turn away from the top-down, prime minister-centred approach of Stephen Harper.

True, Mr. Trudeau has made it clear that his ministers will have a lot more independence and authority. He has sent signals that he will reinstate the long-form census, thus giving public officials the tools of fact-based policy they have sorely missed. And he has reassured public servants by hiring former senior bureaucrat Peter Harder, a deeply respected figure in the federal public service, to the executive of his transition team.

Mr. Trudeau's staff say their key mission is to establish a set of five high-level delivery offices to cut through bureaucratic layers on the most difficult and important promises in his agenda. These are likely to include a national child-care policy, the many complex and difficult pledges involving indigenous relations, his health reforms, national policies on climate, and a big new infrastructure plan and tax system.

"We're trying to wed modern delivery systems with traditional cabinet government," says Mr. Butts, who travelled to Britain a decade ago to learn delivery-unit methods from Mr. Blair's Labour government and played a key role in applying them in Ontario. There, the delivery units were melded with existing cabinet committees. But the Trudeau team says it's taking advantage of the "blank slate" of a new government to build a new structure.

A major hurdle: dismal morale in the public service

Mr. Trudeau's greatest obstacle to achieving these promises, veteran observers say, will be the 260,000 employees of the federal public service. Fragmented, demoralized, disorganized and marginalized under Mr. Harper's top-down administration, they are not going to simply spring into action on orders.

"The public service has been debased over the past number of years – not just the past nine years, I think it extends beyond that," says Donald Savoie, the University of Moncton professor who is among Canada's best-regarded experts in public-service reform. "And you really can't get much done in public-policy terms without having the public service on side, and we've lost that. I never imagined 10 years ago that morale could get lower, but it's much lower – it's Trudeau's biggest problem, and if he doesn't deal with it, it's going to hobble them."

Mr. Harper's approach to these challenges was to use an expanded Prime Minister's Office (he ballooned its staff from 68 in 2005 to a peak of 109 in 2010) to manage the fine details of policy across all departments, going over the heads of ministers, senior bureaucrats, generals and ambassadors by handling everything from ministers' media quotes to the vetting of individual refugee claims.

This may have been an effective way to cut a resistant bureaucracy and a largely distrusted cabinet out of the loop and enable bold and consistent-sounding policy announcements, but it managed to alienate and demoralize much of the public service (not to mention all but a few cabinet ministers).

So it might seem surprising that Mr. Trudeau and his staff are exploring their own top-down, centralized approach to policy. But adherents of this "delivery" system say that it is designed, at its best, to operate invisibly between the prime minister and the bureaucracy and to make Harper-style government-by-diktat unnecessary.

"The job of delivery units is to make clear what the prime minister's priorities are and to make sure that the prime minister's office is focused on delivering the things that matter most to the prime minister and to the Canadian people. It's their job to secure the delivery, but not to do the delivery," says Michael Barber, the British official who invented this system in the early 2000s and has become an outspoken advocate for it in books such as Deliverology 101 and his recent How to Run a Government. (He spoke to me from Pakistan, where he is helping set up a delivery unit in the government of the province of Punjab.)

"You're building a relationship to help the department deliver something, but you do most of your work behind the scenes – you're not taking a job away from them; you're enabling and helping and assisting them and keeping the prime minister focused, making sure that the government is meeting its priorities and achieving its goals."

A system used in Britain and Ontario to spearhead key promises

This model got its start when Mr. Barber, a former education bureaucrat and MP, was hired in the early 2000s by Tony Blair, who felt that during his first term as prime minister, beginning in 1997, had become trapped in a confusing array of sometimes undeliverable promises. Mr. Barber created the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit to spearhead key promises in hospitals, schools, courts and the immigration system. Its structure of targets and goals became part of the mythos of the Blair era, inspiring the scorn and hatred of many senior civil servants and ministers, but also inspiring other countries to imitate it. (David Cameron dropped the system almost immediately after coming to office in 2010, although he has returned to using targets.)

It was the version introduced by Dalton McGuinty soon after he began his decade as Ontario premier in 2003 that is likely to inspire the Trudeau team. This did not rely on a central, all-powerful delivery unit, but rather on specific teams, reporting straight to the premier, each responsible for a big, system-wide promise – in his case, large-scale reform of the health and education systems.

While the Ontario model is lauded by delivery-unit advocates as having been a success in bringing policy change through a huge and tradition-bound bureaucracy, it was not without controversy in either the health or education departments: For example, the spending scandal involving Ontario's electronic health-record system, estimated by the provincial auditor to have cost taxpayers $1-billion, took place under the guidance of the delivery teams.

But Tony Dean, who was Mr. McGuinty's cabinet secretary, and the architect of this system, says it is badly needed in the federal government (and acknowledges that he's been contacted by Mr. Trudeau's team).

"People need to know what the prime minister wants and expects. The prime minister needs to have the support and capacity from a central agency that will let him know the extent to which his priorities are on track or not. And he needs the ability to intervene if things aren't on track in the way that he would ideally like to see. You don't just say 'Here's my platform – implement it.' It requires pretty active leadership from the top on both the political and public-service sides."

Concerns about more red tape, but relief nonetheless

But the delivery approach has its skeptics. They include Prof. Savoie, who sees them as yet another level of complication for public servants who already have far too many layers of oversight.

"Half of what delivery units do is create extra capacity at the centre of government to drive the main priorities. So you're setting up another unit. As if we need another unit in central agencies – we have enough of that. The second half is to measure the progress of programs. And we've been down that road for the past 40 or 50 years, and we haven't been able to crack that nut. There are only certain problems that can be properly assessed. How do you assess an old-age-pension program?"

Mr. Savoie feels that Mr. Trudeau should simplify the public service, not add a new layer: "If he wants to help program managers, he should say, 'We've clustered government too much, we need to de-cluster it. It's not delivery units we need; we have too many oversight agencies, 13 or 14. What public manager wants to go to work with a smile on her face knowing there are 14 people looking over everything you do?'"

Even advocates of the delivery-unit system acknowledge that it can be a step too far toward centralization, and is capable of alienating as many people as Mr. Harper's PMO-driven system. "What we've learned from the U.K. experience is that it doesn't work well or sustainably to just try and drive delivery from the centre of government," says Mr. Dean. "Now, there's a much more balanced view taken, where the assumption is that ministers and ministries will deliver on their part of the priorities, but there will be a close monitoring function and reporting function by central agencies – the PMO or the Privy Council Office. And where there's a need, where things to do go off track, then the central agency will be ready to jump in and help."

And, even if the approach is controversial, Mr. Trudeau is starting off with one enormous advantage: No matter how top-heavy or mechanistic the new system may seem, bureaucrats and ministers are sure to see it, at least at first, as a welcome improvement over anything Stephen Harper did. And in government, perceptions have a way of becoming reality.

Doug Saunders is The Globe and Mail's international affairs columnist, and was based in Britain from 2004 to 2012.

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