One of the great shop-soiled political bromides of our time is that taxpayers would be better off if governments operated more like businesses.
It’s a lazy cliché that derives its thin air of gravitas from the fact that businesses exist to turn a profit and therefore can’t operate on endless budget deficits, as is the fashion in government, and that the profit motive makes businesses enviably lean and efficient in ways bureaucracies almost never are.
It’s bunk. Applying a for-profit business model to the work of government, which has to provide invaluable but not profitable services equally to all citizens – national defence, health care, firefighting, public schools, roads and parks to name a few – is beyond simplistic.
More often than not, a campaigning politician who boasts that a government led by them would be some sort of sleek corporation is tacitly admitting that they probably don’t know much about either business or government.
Bill Morneau, on the other hand, is someone who knows quite a bit about both.
A respected Toronto chief executive who served as Canada’s finance minister from 2015 to 2020, he makes the case in a new memoir of his time in office, Where to From Here, that there was indeed a need in the Trudeau government for something that is taken for granted in the business world – managerial competence.
“Define the process of governing in any manner you choose, but at the core of it all are the ability and the impetus to manage,” he writes.
Based on Mr. Morneau’s version of events, the basic practices of sound management – focusing on people by recruiting the best candidates for office and for senior government jobs, building solid working relationships with them, collaborating with them to set goals, empowering them to meet those goals and holding them to account when they don’t – were “strangely absent from the thinking at the political level of the Trudeau government.”
Instead, a government that began with much promise after its unexpected election victory in 2015, and which had some early successes – the Canada child benefit, a needed reform of the Canada Pension Plan – quickly fell into bad habits.
Chief among them was the consolidation of power in the Prime Minister’s Office at the expense of capable ministers like Mr. Morneau and others, and an overemphasis on the next news cycle that meant that “effective management was being sacrificed at the altar of image and presentation.”
A telling example of the latter came during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when the Trudeau government was developing what became the CERB program of support payments for unemployed workers.
Mr. Morneau and his team in the finance department submitted to the PMO “a range of weekly incomes justified by our carefully considered calculations,” but were overruled in favour of distributing higher amounts – $2,000 per month or $500 a week – because Mr. Trudeau and his advisers said those numbers “sounded good.”
Mr. Morneau resigned as finance minister and left politics in August of 2020, wiser about the reality of politics, and how it differs from the world he came from. “Failure in business can be viewed as an accepted element in the risk-reward equation. Failure in politics is more likely to be fatal and unforgiven,” he writes.
He takes responsibility for his own failings in his book, and he is complimentary of Mr. Trudeau’s obvious strengths as a retail politician.
But he is right to argue that politicians, once in office, should put aside the short-term mindset that wins elections and get to work formulating and executing long-term goals that extend beyond the next voting day.
Doing so requires leadership and management practices that have always been the foundation of successful businesses and of strong, effective governments.
There is, in fact, no good reason for those practices to have become more associated with business than with government. That they have is the fault of governments in Canada that are unable to deliver such basic services as health care, or to develop a working payroll program for federal employees, to name two obvious failures.
Government doesn’t need to be run more like businesses to be successful. Politicians just need to live up to their obligation to govern competently and for the long term.