Kevin Lynch was the former clerk of the Privy Council and vice-chair of BMO.
Much attention is devoted to the numerous policy priorities of the Trudeau government, particularly at budget time. Scant attention, however, is paid to the government’s capacity to actually implement its policy promises. And that’s a problem.
Canadians may differ in what they think about the government’s wide-ranging policy agenda, but the unasked question is, can the government actually deliver on it? Policy implementation is complex, time-consuming work and, frankly, the government has not been focused on or good at it.
One impediment to policy execution is the sheer number of new policy initiatives launched by this government. There is only a limited number of priorities that you can manage well, in either the private or public sector, and it’s often said that a government with too many priorities is a government with no priorities. Effective and timely implementation of policy promises is the unintended casualty of crowded policy agendas.
But the government’s execution problems are not just a question of delivering on promised “new stuff.” There are shortcomings in the effective delivery of “old stuff” as well – the so-called core public services. Here the issue is not solely the fault of politicians, it also lies in the hands of the public service.
Keeping essential border crossings open; preserving public order in the nation’s capital; unacceptable backlogs in refugee claims and immigration processing; the Phoenix pay fiasco; dysfunctional military procurement; RCMP failings in the Nova Scotia mass-murder tragedy – these and others are all areas where the execution of essential government services has been below the standards Canadians can and should expect.
Less-than-quality execution of both new policies and existing programs does not serve the public interest nor build the public’s confidence in our institutions of government. Why aren’t things working as they should? Like any complex problem, there are several reasons in addition to a public service stressed by too many initiatives.
One is that the bureaucracy has become too bureaucratic – too much internal red tape, too many steps to get approvals, too many layers of management, and too little clarity on accountability for results.
A second reason is the excessive concentration of power and control at the centre of government, primarily the PMO. The consequence is a less nimble, less innovative and less empowered public service.
The third is a compliance regime run amok – endless layers of checking and rechecking, and risk aversion and not risk management becomes the de facto operating principle.
And fourth is a public service that is slow to hire and value people with the new skills it needs – particularly in operations, systems development, data and analytics, and project management.
The consequences of government not being particularly good at actually delivering things affect all Canadians: The competitiveness of our economy is reduced; the trust of Canadians in our core institutions is eroded; the “Canada brand” abroad is tarnished; and the country of “peace, order and good government” simply doesn’t work as well when government is not executing smartly and smoothly.
What can be done? The essential starting point is to recognize there is a problem. Fixing it is neither easy nor complicated.
Step 1, followed by both the Chrétien and Harper governments, is to prioritize a limited set of policy priorities, with transparent outcome objectives and delivery milestones for each. This establishes clear accountability for policy execution by ministers and officials.
The second step is to begin to reverse the decades-long trend toward centralization of power and control within government. This starts with reducing the number of people in the compliance business inside government, and moving away from the excessive centralization of control centred in the PMO.
And the third step is a corresponding undertaking to reflect this new direction in the management of the public service – in Treasury Board policies; in the culture and leadership of the public service; and in the renewal of the public service to ensure it has the skills and attitudes needed for the future.
How could the government demonstrate that it is serious about this change in orientation and ethos? Clearly the commitment of the Prime Minister is essential, as is that of the senior leadership of the public service.
Equally essential is for the government to take concrete actions to demonstrate this commitment to reform. The opportunities are, unfortunately, numerous. It could, for example, simplify and speed government procurement, including military procurement, which is now so complex and so risk-averse that neither the government, suppliers or the public are well served. It could set and meet best-in-class immigration processing standards. It could create the capacity and laws to deal effectively with any future border disruptions. It could prod the Canada Infrastructure Bank into actually banking strategic infrastructure.
The bottom line is that good government is about more than expressing good intentions. It is about turning those intentions into reality for Canadians through good delivery of policies and programs. Execution is key, and it shouldn’t be a problem in Canada.
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