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David McLaughlin is president and CEO of the Institute on Governance. He is a former clerk of the Executive Council and cabinet secretary in Manitoba.

“By almost any objective measure, the public service has not adapted to meet the heightened demands of citizens when it comes to service delivery.”

This isn’t a quote from last week’s damning report on the ArriveCan app scandal by the Auditor-General, but it could have been. It’s from a December report to the Clerk of the Privy Council – Canada’s top public servant – on values and ethics in the public service.

The ArriveCan scandal was a failure of public servants, not politicians. While ministers are still accountable to Parliament for this failing, the public service was responsible for the fiasco.

Commenting on the Auditor-General’s report, Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre said he would cut back on consulting contracts by the federal government: “Public servants do the work more accountably and they do it more affordably.”

As positive as this may be, the Clerk’s report shows it will take far more than swapping consultants back for public servants to fix what ails the federal public service. ArriveCan is a symptom of a bigger problem of inertia at the public service’s core. It is systemic and cultural, fuelled by expansive policy agendas and inadequate attention paid by those at the top to both operational delivery and results.

Fixing this should, therefore, begin with leadership. It’s time to create a new top-rank public service position – a chief operating officer, or COO – at the apex of authority in the Privy Council Office. That position should have one main focus: public-service delivery for operations and outcomes.

To give it clout, the COO position should be formalized as the second-highest-ranking public servant in the federal public service – as Deputy Clerk. This would then be mirrored in each department, with a designated COO at the senior associate deputy minister level who acts as a true “Number Two″ for the deputy minister.

COOs are common in the private sector. With governments delivering billions of dollars in services and spending billions more on procurement, it’s time for them to be just as common in public-sector governance. It is hard to imagine the ArriveCan scandal occurring if it had the top-level oversight and accountability of a direct COO.

Creating such a position recognizes the demands of daily life for deputy ministers and the Clerk. Deputy ministers’ accountability is incredibly complex, fielding demands from the PMO and ministers’ offices, central agencies, Parliament and compliance commissioners of all types. They are regularly pulled away into extended interactions with the prime minister and ministers on the issue of the moment. They cannot always devote time and attention to the detailed diligence of program and service delivery.

If operational delivery is important to the government, then it must be someone’s full-time job – otherwise, as experience dictates, the outcome is not good. It cannot be an additional “side-of-the-desk” project for busy deputy ministers. Plus, having a COO in the room would be a useful and persistent reminder to politicians and their staff that good policy ideas need to be supported by equally good service delivery.

As former PCO clerk Gordon Osbaldeston argued in his book Keeping Deputy Ministers Accountable, ministers should be politically focused but operationally sensitive, while deputy ministers should be operationally focused but politically sensitive. Creating a COO position in all departments and agencies would help serve as a reminder of this, and reinforce this balance for everyone.

Britain’s Cabinet Office has not one but two COOs: one for civil service efficiency and reform, and one for oversight of the delivery and operations of the government as a whole. This need not be a heretical leap of faith in our Westminster-style system in Canada.

The pandemic reminded us of the importance of public services that are reliable and resilient. In a crisis, lives and livelihoods are on the line. Public servants truly stepped up with creativity and innovation, coping with creaky IT systems while working remotely and navigating one of the biggest challenges the country has ever faced.

It’s been a few years since Ottawa’s much-touted focus on results, called “deliverology,” has faded into obscurity. A more tried-and-true approach is required if the public service is to address what the Privy Office Clerk’s December report found.

In the wake of the sponsorship scandal, a new Conservative government created the role of “accounting officer” for various departments, as part of the Federal Accountability Act in 2006. In the wake of the ArriveCan scandal, it’s time to create the role of chief operating officer in ministries across the government.

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