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opinion

Miles Corak is with the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality and is a professor of economics at the Graduate Center, the City University of New York.

Big government rode into town just in time, but alas, when he jumped off his bronco and reached for his six-gun, it became clear he wasn’t just-in-time government.

What is clear from the COVID-19 crisis is that we should always choose our leaders with one thing in mind: character. Character determines how they will stand up to the unexpected. That’s what matters, and whether it is François Legault, Doug Ford, Jason Kenney, John Horgan, Naheed Nenshi, John Tory or Justin Trudeau, Canadians feel they are all passing the test.

Opinion polling shows that strong majorities see their leaders as doing a good job responding to COVID-19. And it’s impressive, their sensibility to consult, their conviction to act. Now, when we need them, they’ve all shown up, just in time.

But we can’t be governed by character alone. Good governance needs an infrastructure that can deliver, and thank goodness Canadians can also count on a professional public service. But at the same time, we fear its muscles can’t flex in real time.

The biggest stumble of the past week was Ottawa’s overreaching ambition in the first draft of Bill C-13 – the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act – an attempt to skirt parliamentary oversight and seize control of taxing and spending for two years. Not immediately tasteful, not in character – and certainly not contributing to the we-are-in-it-together spirit that is crucial for good governance and success.

It was probably driven more by insecurity than partisanship, springing from having to look through the veil of uncertainty that has fallen over Ottawa. Staring into the mirror and seeing no reassuring reflection, Finance Minister Bill Morneau wished for a pot of gold, just in case, you never know, down the road, we may need it.

Insecurity about a fluid situation, and about how quickly programs can be delivered, flows out of clogged government plumbing, a hard constraint on Big Think. For years we’ve neglected, cut, denigrated, and now the public service has a tough time doing just-in-time.

Take, for example, Employment Insurance, that grand social insurance scheme born from the disaster of the Great Depression, intended to offer income support to all in need, to insure against the great social risks we collectively face – risks that would bankrupt private insurers in no time. How is it performing during a collective crisis of the very kind it was intended to address?

It is straining, with computer code written in the 1980s running its servers, processing power and devoted personnel stretched to the limit, service centres now shut down. The public service is doing the best it can with old plumbing.

Ottawa mandarins often muse about an “all of government approach,” a busting across the silos of different ministries to address all aspects of a policy challenge. But the biggest silos of all have never been breached, those between policy development and service delivery. And now the delivery plumbing is conditioning the choices that Big Thinkers can make.

What is also clear from the COVID-19 crisis is that we should always be investing and innovating in public service delivery, something that’s easy to ignore in normal times.

There is no doubt that the income-support programs the federal government moved quickly out of the drawing room and into legislation last week were designed with an eye, not simply to whether they were big enough, but to how they would be delivered. The cheques won’t be in the mail for weeks. In a time of pandemic, that’s a lifetime.

Our governments have to think big, but they can only implement incrementally, a couple of quick steps forward, one back. Events are moving too fast, capacity is too limited, for Canadians to expect otherwise, even if what they really need is both big and just-in-time government.

When Mr. Trudeau’s team first came to power, they were enamoured with the idea of governing with data. Measure outcomes, set targets, recalibrate in the face of results and move forward with a “there’s more to do” attitude. But lags in information and delivery make all that fall short.

There is always a big gap between intention and result, even more so in times of crisis, and that gap has to be filled with the trust that character instills in partners and citizens.

Trust gives us the assurance that the cheque is indeed in the mail, and character, now more than ever, needs to deliver. It can’t stumble too many times before trust rides away.

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