Kevin Lynch was clerk of the Privy Council and vice-chair of BMO. Jim Mitchell is an adjunct professor at Carleton University and a former assistant secretary to the cabinet.
Most Canadians expect value for money in their spending, especially in these uncertain and inflationary times. With worker shortages, empty offices, supply chain woes, high energy prices, soaring inflation and painful accommodation costs, Canadian consumers are worried about their financial health.
But what about governments? Are they delivering value for Canadians’ hard-earned tax dollars? For anyone seeking a passport or visa, lining up for airport security screening, trying to get a Nexus card, waiting for a routine medical procedure or watching government procurement systems that cannot deliver payroll, the answer is unambiguously negative.
Core government services are not being delivered well today, and this not only erodes confidence in government as an institution – it also undermines productivity and competitiveness in the Canadian economy.
What are the causes? While there is no single answer, it is clearly not due to a shortage of spending, public servants, consultants or debt. At the federal level from 2015 to 2022, the size of the public service grew by 30 per cent, the use of consultants shot up 40 per cent, government spending skyrocketed by 66 per cent and government debt almost doubled. In short, the size of government expanded, considerably, while the efficiency of government declined, noticeably – not a good combination.
In fact, the stratospheric and scattered spending is one root cause of the delivery problem.
Before, during and since the pandemic, the federal government has unleashed a vast array of new programs. New program delivery is complex and time-consuming work, requiring highly capable, experienced and empowered public servants. Indeed, “delivery” is the nuts and bolts of policy implementation and program operations – it encompasses the design of new programs, the stress testing of the design to avoid unintended consequences, ensuring robust IT and data systems to support the program, the hiring and training of staff, establishing quality control and compliance systems, and communicating to the intended beneficiaries how the program works.
There is a risk of moral hazard here – as governments try to do more and more, they may end up achieving less and less. The problem arises from the scale, scope and speed of new spending. Too many new programs, with too little prioritization, that are too quickly rushed to the “press release stage” is a recipe for delivery problems, not only of the new programs but also related existing programs on common platforms.
Today’s reality of government not being particularly good at actually delivering things – both core services and new programs – should be a matter of concern well beyond the Ottawa bubble. If you believe what government does matters to Canadian society and the economy, as we do, then less-than-stellar delivery of government services neither serves the public interest nor bolsters the public’s trust in our institutions of government.
What can be done? Like any complex problem, there is no single solution, but four possible actions deserve serious consideration.
First, pause the proliferation of new spending and new programs. This is needed to restore operational integrity and program delivery capacity as well as to support fiscal sustainability in a period of high inflation, high interest rates and high debt. And yet, the risk today is a proliferation of new government programs and the scaling up of existing ones ranging from new industrial policies to new energy transition programs, national dental care and pharmacare, new health transfers, increases in defence spending and expanded immigration. Whatever the policy merits of these proposed initiatives, this is simply not the time to expand government. Rather, it’s the time to refocus on meeting the expectations of Canadians for quality and timely delivery of government services.
Second, reverse the extreme centralization of decision-making within government. This is necessary for better governance as well as better program delivery. Too much decision making has been vested in the Prime Minister’s Office at the expense of ministers, cabinet and Parliament. Ministerial accountability and collective decision making, with fearless advice from an empowered, non-partisan public service, are central to our Westminster system of government. The sad fact is we have strayed far from that guiding ideal.
Third, modernize the architecture of compliance and oversight within government. This requires a profound shift from an operating culture of control and risk avoidance to one of innovation, risk taking and delegation. In the name of protecting the taxpayer, there is a compliance morass pervading government today, with overlapping oversight bodies, excessive red tape and needless reporting – all of which impedes getting things done and delivered.
Fourth, invest in the public service. This is not a call for a larger public service but a better equipped one. The public service needs the IT and data systems that allowed the banks to develop online banking and companies like Amazon to revolutionize delivery. It needs the skill sets for a digital world not an analog one, and should engage consultants as the exception not the rule. The public service should be an exciting place to work, empowering public servants to make a difference and attracting the best and brightest – and public servants are up to the challenge.
Better service delivery is in everyone’s interest. These changes would result in a higher-performing, more productive public sector. That should be part of Canada’s competitive advantage in a challenging world.