So how are those ‘sunny ways’ working out so far?
While the pundits have mostly completed their prognostications regarding the new government’s fortunes in the year ahead, in the area of public governance many challenges still lie in wait for the Trudeau Liberals that could have an impact on the success of their agenda.
Our new prime minister has placed a good deal of emphasis on the open and collaborative style that his government plans to pursue — the celebrated “sunny ways”. And while tone in public sector engagement matters, there is one overarching question on the governance front: How well will this approach weather the challenges that lie in wait for it?
The government has committed to broader and deeper public engagement in charting its policy course. It is easy to appreciate how this will be critical by considering some of the policy areas that took center stage in the government’s first few weeks, such as the refugee crisis, climate change and forging a new relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. In each of these areas, the federal government cannot act alone — the first two affect provincial jurisdiction, and in the Indigenous sphere the government has signalled a desire for “nation to nation” discussions.
However, in each case the habit and even some of the machinery of public service consultation has atrophied and will need to be renewed. The government is off to a good start, but the precise shape of (for example) “nation to nation” dealings has yet to be scoped, while goodwill in the federal/provincial/territorial sphere can be sorely tested when fiscal pressures mount.
As it contemplates new engagement strategies, the government confronts a broader question — how governance needs to evolve in the digital age, when ubiquitous information and the instantaneous ability to collect it have challenged the position of many traditional intermediaries, governments included. Governments have already ventured into the twitterverse, with mixed results.
But for the most part it has yet to confront a host of issues. For example, what are the benefits and risks of massive “virtual” engagement in policy making? What are the best techniques? What happens to so-called ‘message control’? What frameworks might guide interaction between the public service, citizens and the media?
The governance challenges of the digital age don’t stop there. In an age of near-frictionless connectivity, why do citizens have to deal with multiple government silos to address various aspects of the same issue — whether it’s a disability, a business start-up, or becoming a senior? And given the ever-expanding applications for data, why do governments continue to sit on vast stores of information they can’t begin to fully use in the name of “confidentiality”?
Here again, the government is off to an encouraging start. In his (no longer secret!) mandate letters to ministers, the prime minister charged several of his colleagues with working toward single-window service. The government also has committed to a policy of open data by default. Some traditionalists have cautioned that it may come to regret such a commitment, but among other considerations, it’s far from clear that a generation accustomed to the digital sharing of information is invested in the information-hoarding ethic of an earlier age.
The Federal Accountability Act reinforced the rules-and-mistrust-based approach that has long dominated government and the public service. This approach can actually hinder accountability by providing a safe harbour for managers who can complete checklists and follow processes while treading water when it comes to actually delivering.
The government also has said it is very interested in outcomes-focused approaches to delivering on its priorities, including the possible creation of so-called “delivery units”. This term is sometimes used to describe a small, empowered senior-level group that is charged to keep an eye on the implementation of key government priorities. The unit meticulously maps the “delivery chain”, sets data-driven targets for outcomes and monitors progress against those targets, trouble-shooting any problems that arise along the way. The jury is still out on just how much value they would add to a system like ours, but the focus on outcomes — and on accountability in terms of outcomes — is a sound one.
Indeed, this touches on another vital concern: re-visiting whether our risk, oversight and accountability systems are aligned to achieving outcomes in a digital age. The Federal Accountability Act reinforced the rules-and-mistrust-based approach that has long dominated government and the public service. This approach can actually hinder accountability for results by providing a safe harbour for managers who can complete checklists and follow processes while treading water when it comes to actually delivering.
Most of the daily grind on the delivery front will fall to the public service, and here the government has indicated it is keen to forge a new relationship. Treasury Board President Scott Brison has spoken of a return to a “golden age” of the public service, when, presumably, the non-partisanship of public servants was respected and their evidence-driven advice duly weighed (if not always followed). The aspiration is laudable and the expectations are high.
They may be too high: Respect is one thing, pay and benefits are another, and it’s tough to do much about the latter when there’s pressure on the budget and programs are under review. And with an ambitious agenda for change, the working environment is likely to be more exciting than relaxed — especially in areas where the muscles have gone unflexed for years.
Of course, if any element in the governance agenda captures headlines, it’s not the operations of the public service — however critical they may be for success. Democratic reform is the celebrity guest on the governance show, the sphere where high stakes and direct public impact are the most apparent. This has two broad elements: the workings of Parliament itself and the way we elect our parliamentarians.
On parliamentary practice, the government, through its leader in the House and with the benefit of a majority, has a lot of sway. Even without the benefit of legislation (such as Michael Chong’s Reform Act) or changes to the Standing Orders, the government can have a huge impact in areas such as party discipline, question period responses and general decorum. Will the relative restraint on view during the early weeks in the House be sustainable? Wait and see.
Another key area is the work of standing committees. In recent years, committees — where legislative refinement and public-spirited compromise should take place with quiet effectiveness — have been the locus of increasingly debased partisanship. In the review of C-51, for example, members whose substantive knowledge seemed limited to their talking points launched bitter partisan attacks on respected experts who had come to testify in good faith.
The government has promised that committees will be more independent as well as better resourced for research and outreach. This includes a commitment to the election of chairs and vice-chairs by secret ballot — but since this is already required by the Standing Orders, the practical impact of the commitment remains to be seen.
Who could possibly be against a referendum on democratic reform? Me, for one. By their nature, referenda are reductionist. The harder it is to reduce an issue to a single value judgement, the less apt a candidate it is for a referendum.
Then there’s Senate reform, where the government has prudently rejected the morass of constitutional change in favour of a more open and merit-based appointment process that appears to have the Justice Canada seal of approval. The prime minister’s office has signalled that the 22 existing vacancies will be filled soon (as they must be, if we’re not to hit a constitutional crisis at some point). It has set up an Independent Advisory Board on Senate Appointments chaired by a former senior public servant, Huguette Labelle. (It should be noted that British Columbia’s government, evidently preferring the desired to the possible, has signalled that it’s not in a cooperative mood regarding this approach, but frankly their cooperation isn’t really necessary. Stay tuned.)
Finally (and most glamorously) there is electoral reform. Contrary to what some people think, this is not a constitutional matter, which would engage all provinces. In fact, it is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada, which incidentally happens to be the only elected body this country has at the federal level.
The shortcomings, and to a lesser extent the merits, of the current first-past-the-post, constituency-based system have been widely commented on in recent months, as have the pros and cons of the key contending alternatives, notably ranked ballots and various forms of proportional representation. There isn’t much question that our current system compares unfavourably to others on the democratic principle of ensuring that every vote counts equally. Its defenders tend to raise other points, particularly its (allegedly virtuous) capacity to produce stable majorities with 40 per cent of the popular vote.
The point here is not to weigh these pros and cons but to note that some people (and some parties) have a vested interest in the status quo that makes it difficult to take supposedly principled positions at face value. This brings up the thorny question of whether a referendum is needed to legitimize electoral reform.
Who could possibly be against anything as democratic as a referendum on democratic reform? Me, for one. I won’t belabour the point that the advocates of a referendum include some of the very politicians who declined to submit their own electoral reforms to such a process. Instead, I will emphasize that there’s a reason we elect representatives to Parliament in the first place: Parliament is (or should be) a forum of informed consultation and deliberation, one where complex trade-offs are weighed and competing interests are negotiated. By their nature, referenda are reductionist: Options need to be presented starkly and the capacity to weigh what’s at stake with each of them is simply assumed. The harder it is to reduce an issue to a single value judgement, the less apt a candidate it is for a referendum.
I began with the question: Are sunny ways sustainable? For those of us who believe in the power of government to catalyze and lead societal change, it’s hard not to be optimistic. But the governance challenges the government faces — including the way the public service goes about its mission after years of government retrenching — remain daunting. But government — at its best — is the platform for societal change.
Maryantonett Flumian is the president of the Institute on Governance and a former long-serving federal deputy minister.