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Michael Wernick is the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management at the University of Ottawa and a former clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to cabinet.

The Canadian public sector is having a moment. Typically, it only draws attention from politicians and pundits in episodes, usually as a response to a specific problem or breakdown. This feedback loop has been an essential driver of change, as governments look to make the pain go away and pledge to fix the problem and make sure it doesn’t recur.

In 2022, dark clouds rolled in and the brief period of good feelings about the public sector during the pandemic shifted to a generalized gloom. I am not going to contest the diagnosis here. Instead, I want to contest one of the remedies being floated – a one-off royal commission – and propose an alternative.

To improve the way the public sector works, governments should always invest in ways to bring in fresher and more objective perspectives and advice, challenge incrementalism and orthodoxy and help the public service craft implementable options for governments to consider. We don’t do as much of this in Canada as other countries do, and far less than we did in the past. Canada has allowed its supply chain of idea generation and debate about its public sector to erode to a pitiful state and has become more dependent on consulting firms for outside perspective.

What would a royal commission do? It would commission research, hold consultations, host discussions and generate a report with recommendations. However, royal commissions have a mixed track record in quality and influence. They end up reflecting the perspectives and idiosyncrasies of the people chosen to lead them, and sometimes of the senior staff who nudge them along behind the scenes. Some turn out to be duds.

Here are some ideas for practical measures that would pursue the same objective but generate a much bigger return than a one-off commission. You could think of it as investing in a portfolio instead of just one stock.

The federal government should recreate the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on the Public Service, modelled on the one that assisted Stephen Harper and was disbanded by Justin Trudeau. This was a useful mechanism to draw on a group of top leaders in the private and not-for-profit sectors.

The government should work with Parliament to create a new Joint Committee of the House of Commons and Senate on the Public Service. The point would be to give it a mandate to look ahead and explore ways to “future-proof” the public service and make implementable recommendations. This would be a valuable focal point and a complement to the other committees that always focus on specific newsworthy episodes in the recent past and unfortunately often descend into a sterile blame game. There is a lot of potential to tap into expertise among the senators and to engage MPs in crafting solutions.

The government should create a permanent Better Government Fund in the care of the Treasury Board, which is the government’s management board. There is a dearth of resources to fund deeper research, convene conferences, workshops and online fora and bring in visiting experts from outside the public service and Canada. Instead of a one-time exercise under a royal commission, Canada needs a lot more permanent capacity. The Better Government Fund could be used to provide core and project funding to the think tanks across Canada that work on public-sector issues. Many of them are now running on fumes but they could scale up quickly. The fund could provide money to foundations and universities’ schools of public administration and public policy. A fund of $20-million a year would generate far more return than any one-off commission’s research program. It would be a small investment in R&D, considering the federal government spends $360-billion across the board every year.

A good way to open the public sector to new perspectives and ideas is to have people move back and forth with other levels of government and with the private and not-for-profit sectors. Exchanges can be a win-win to make both partners better. The government should scale up the tiny Interchange Canada program so that at any given time not just a handful, but at least 100 people, are moving in each direction for paid assignments. Over time this would help close a wide gap in mutual knowledge and understanding and create a more diverse talent pool.

The management, administration and service delivery challenges of the public sector are shared by the federal, provincial, municipal and Indigenous governments. These governments are always working together on services and common policy challenges – why not management issues, too? The federal government should reach out to the Council of the Federation (the voice of provinces), the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, (the voice of cities and towns) and the National Indigenous Organizations (the voice of Indigenous governments and service agencies) to develop a common work plan to build the capacity of the broader Canadian public sector. The work plan should encourage mobility of people and ideas across jurisdictional silos and would try to speed up the pace at which best practices are disseminated.

Rebuilding the depleted supply chain of ideas to keep Canada’s public sector thriving will take time, but it will pay off. The public sector is the largest set of institutions and the largest employer in the country and it affects everything else. Whether we choose to elect politicians who believe in bigger or smaller government and a bigger or smaller role for the federal government in the federation, they should all care about delivering good government. Peace and order may be elusive. Good government need not be.

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