In 1967, the World Health Assembly set for itself a goal that was audacious, and so specific as to border on the impossible: eliminating smallpox within a decade.
No disease had ever been eradicated. The World Health Organization’s only other eradication program, for malaria, was failing. And the director of the WHO was deeply skeptical of the project’s prospects.
Nevertheless, the goal was set to eradicate smallpox by Dec. 31, 1976. Public health officials failed, sort of. It took 10 years, plus an extra 10 months, until the last endemic case of smallpox was recorded, one of humanity’s greatest medical achievements.
An audacious public goal created the pressure to turn the improbable into reality. Which brings us to what now passes for ambition in government in modern-day Canada. What is the federal government’s audacious and measurable goal, its equivalent to the 10-year push to wipe out smallpox?
There are more than enough pressing challenges waiting to be tackled: lagging productivity, regional economic disparities, an aging population, reconciliation with Indigenous communities, climate change and a crumbling health care system.
If grandiose vision statements are your thing, the federal Liberals do have an ample supply: A net zero future where everyone has worked hard to join the middle class in a just transition. What is much harder to locate in Ottawa is a vision married to a measurable outcome, a yardstick by which success or failure could be measured.
Take immigration. As we have pointed out, what the federal government calls an immigration plan is really just a running tally of new arrivals, lacking any specific goal such as, say, increasing the average standard of living. The federal bureaucracy is instead only committing to an output – X number of immigrants processed each year.
In fairness, an allergy to setting outcome-based goals isn’t unique to the federal civil service. While there has been a shift within government away from simply measuring inputs of tax dollars and bureaucrats’ time, it is exceedingly rare for the public sector to set the kind of specific and time-bound goals so common in the private sector.
Part of the explanation is the sheer complexity of the issues that confront government. Increasing prosperity is a dauntingly broad ambition, for instance. How could one realistically determine if a single policy has the desired effect?
But complexity cannot be a catch-all excuse. The Liberals’ medium-term climate change policy is a partial exception to the haziness that otherwise envelops the Trudeau government’s agenda. On that issue, at least, the government is doing the work to set specific targets that together form the broader goal of reducing emissions 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Even there, the government falls short with platitudes of a net zero future in 2050, six or seven elections hence.
Still, imagine the Liberals bringing that degree of commitment and precision to the goal of increasing economic prosperity.
Fear of risk and of accountability is a more plausible explanation. A bold public goal contains the possibility of failure, and the possibility of an embarrassed minister being grilled by the opposition and the media. Better to set a hazy target within easy reach to avoid such unpleasantness. All of that is a peril for any government. But the federal Liberals seem particularly adrift, as former finance minister Bill Morneau has devastatingly described in his recently launched book.
If further proof is needed, look no further than the Liberals’ mandate-letter tracker, launched with great fanfare in 2017 as a way to keep pressure on the government to keep its promises. The tracker hasn’t been used in years, and its web page has this telling epitaph: “We have archived this page and will not be updating it.”
On that now-defunct list: clean water for all First Nations reserves by 2021. Ottawa’s response to the failure to meet that deadline was to simply get rid of the deadline. That certainly eliminates the danger of future failure.
That is the real reason for the federal Liberals’ allergy to committing to ambitious and specific goals, even as spending programs sprout in every direction and the size of the public-service swells.
If there is no definition of success, there cannot be failure. And if there is no failure, there is no risk of accountability.