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Hugh Segal, Master of Massey College, is a former associate secretary of cabinet (Federal/Provincial relations) in Ontario, chief of staff to the prime minister and president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
Complexity in government and all forms of public administration rarely happens by design. In fact, complexity often emerges when different regimes and regulatory purposes, or a hierarchy of competing accountabilities get in the way of clear-minded and straightforward engagement.
Under the immense pressure of war, Winston Churchill would write "action this day" on memos to the British public service who took it upon them themselves to decide why certain things could not happen quickly or at all. There is a famous story on this about the rusted flag poles throughout the UK that could not be fixed. A public and civil administration beset by Nazi bombings, the risk of an invasion and a war effort that was not always going well, saw no reason to bother with flag poles. Mr. Churchill concluded that this was a simple matter of morale and could not be delayed. He issued an "action this day" memo for the painting of flag poles.
We need not look far back in history to see how complexity, either by virtue of flawed translation from legislated purpose to street level implementation, has frustrated public purpose. Lyndon Baines Johnson's "War on Poverty" legislation looked very different when specific policies and administrative details surfaced on the streets of Harlem or Watts. Think about the myriad complex rules around the administration of welfare programs in different Canadian provinces that actually frustrate the poverty abatement goals of those well-meaning programs.
Reflect on how the genuinely constructive purposes of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms have been interpreted in complex ways that, for example, now mean that no one has to retire ever from some public institutions in the educational field. This is a purpose never contemplated by those, including the undersigned, who were part of the negotiating teams that worked on the charter in 1981-83. Think about the way financial, broadcast, or foreign investment regulation often work in a fashion that produces perverse and complex outcomes and procedures that do not necessarily improve the public interest. In health care, think of the different professional licensing bodies that make it harder for competent health professionals from abroad to be licensed to practice, even when there is a need for more practitioners.
Part of the challenge in government in a modern democracy is the unpacking of complexities so that a singular clarity of purpose and measurable outcome can be achieved. Too much of government is about measuring inputs, confirming processes, ensuring broad involvement from different parties rather than measuring actual outcomes. It is, of course, the outcomes that matter, in policing, in health care, in poverty abatement, in education. Yet it is the inputs (how much are we prepared to spend, how many person years are involved in the program, who are the groups to be consulted in program design?) that dominate the public debate or legislative discussion.
Part of this emerges from the estimates process which is almost always about prospective program design and delivery, or statutory frameworks, than about actual measurable outcomes. Even when a government moves to facilitate more transparency, as in mandating in law quarterly financial reports by all federal government departments and Crown corporations and agencies so that there can be a real time discussion in parliament, the media and the community at large, about comparable outcomes quarter by quarter, very few if any legislators, journalists or civil organizations (beyond the Parliamentary Budget Officer) actually engage in serious measurement.
One must also be clear that certain aspects of the public sector have an interest in the salutary obfuscation of complexity. National security agencies, finance departments, central banks, some immigration and social service regimes find complexity and conflicting goals and applications helpful in maintaining their unchallenged jurisdiction and broad discretion. Their intent may be constructive but constructing through rules, regulations, contradictory and time-sensitive criteria and related machinations a cloud of uncertainty raises complexity and its construction to an act of sheer artistry.
The challenge for governments and those who care about democracy is not of doing away with complexity – which in a multifaceted, multi-racial and economically diverse society is unavoidable. The challenge is in finding ways to reduce it, simplify it and manage it so that the complexity itself does not destroy the efficacy of public institutions but even the public desire for those institutions to exist and be of service in the first place.
This article is part of a Globe and Mail series on the role of Canadian institutions in partnership with The Walter Gordon Symposium – a two-day public policy conference March 25-26 co-hosted by the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College.
This year's symposium, titled Confronting Complexity: Better Ways Of Addressing Our Toughest Policy Problems, will explore how the media, private sector, governments, and supranational organizations factor into the policymaking process in our increasingly complex and changing society.