Decorative photo of Parliament Hill

Transparency – Good Governance’s Healthy Nuisance

3 minute read

The CBC chronicling of Covid-19 spending in their series The Big Spend examines the unprecedented $240 billion the federal government handed out during the first eight months of the pandemic. The series puts a spotlight on Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election commitment to have more open and transparent government.

Transparency is essential to accountability and with it a core principle of Good Governance. Transparency takes many forms in government and is governed by a mix of laws, policies and conventions such as the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act… as well as Treasury Board policies relating to Open Government and the values of candour and sincerity in government communications.

Amendments to the Access to Information Act were passed prior to the 2019 Election and brought in mandatory proactive disclosure of Ministerial Briefing Binders as well as other changes.

Canada’s parliamentary institutions are an important source of transparency in our system. The CBC story reveals the Government has been disclosing spending plans regularly, but has been less transparent or clear on ‘who’ has been receiving such funds. Parliament’s ultimate authority is the ‘power of the purse’ in approving the Government’s appropriations. For Parliament to exercise this power, access to accurate and timely information on spending is critical. Parliamentary support also serves as a proxy for public trust. Failure to satisfy Parliament can translate quickly into the public’s confidence that the Government is not acting with its financial interests in mind.

Transparency can be inconvenient. First, it takes limited resources away from what could be argued as a higher priority (addressing the pandemic for example). It also creates a dual risk to the Government on both its content and accuracy. A timely number, data point or detail that is incorrect could be more damaging than taking additional time to be more accurate. The dual edge of transparency sword is therefore competence and trust. If managed well, competence can be demonstrated and to some degree celebrated while public trust also increases. The reverse is also true. Therefore, commitments to transparency, its systems and its completeness are critical to the longevity of governments, particularly minority governments. Spin can be employed as a form or an approach to transparency; however, spin is the domain of communications specialists and political strategists.

The CBC series raises important questions that can be uncomfortable for decision makers. However, the CBC uncovered ‘good news’ too that had been buried in the flood of announcements and spending plans such as the timely and needed distribution of funds to Women’s Shelters Canada.

Significant government spending will always attract the interest of the media and a concerned public. Covid-19 spending and the recent Economic Update have generated numbers including public debt levels not seen since the Second World War.

The Government will need to provide greater transparency on spending either through proactive disclosure or in requests through Parliament, its Standing Committees or the Auditor General of Canada.

While disclosure may reveal some poor decisions, it is that ‘inconvenient truth’ that makes transparency an essential element of Good Governance. The public airing of both good and poor decisions and the systems that generate them are a necessary nuisance that is healthy and vital for good governance.

By Stephen M. Van Dine, Senior Vice-President, Public Governance

Born in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Stephen spent his formative teen-age years finishing High School at Sir John Franklin Territorial High school in the Northwest Territories. He also began his career as a community planner with the City of Yellowknife and later with the Government of the Northwest Territories, Department of Municipal and Community Affairs. In 1997, he began working at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, in the Yellowknife Regional Office and transferred to the National Capital Region in 2002. Since then, Stephen has led a number of program, policy and legislative sustainable development initiatives with respect to northern governance, the arctic, the Devolution of Land and Resource Management Responsibilities in the Northwest Territories, the implementation and modification to the Nutrition North Canada program, co-drafting the Inuit Nunangat Declaration, overseeing the construction of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, as well as supporting the legislation to establish of Polar Knowledge Canada. More recently, Stephen has been working on a long-term asset sustainability strategy for Parks Canada Agency along with overseeing critical corporate functions with respect to Information Technology, Cabinet and Regulatory Business, Asset Management and Security.

Stephen has a degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Ryerson University and a Masters in Public Administration from Queen’s University. Stephen recently completed an Executive Certificate in Energy and the Environment from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Stephen is married and has two children with his wife Marie.

Decorative photo of St. John's Harbour

Hindsight is 2020

3 minute read

On Wednesday, December 16th, IOG President, Toby Fyfe, and Science and Innovation Practice Lead, Rhonda Moore, had a conversation about the impact of COVID-19 on government and the IOG. You can watch the video interview here and/or read Mr. Fyfe’s blog below.

Hindsight is 2020, for we surely didn’t see it coming and, if there is one thing that we can all agree on, 2020 was an annus horribilis. While literally every Canadian has been greatly affected, this piece focuses on the pandemic’s impact on government and the Institute of Governance itself, and looks ahead to the possibilities of 2021.

The lesson for governments and public servants in offices and on the front lines is clear: they provide value. In Canada, all three levels of government demonstrated that they could work quickly, innovate, and collaborate to respond to an unknown, ongoing and rapidly unfolding pandemic.

The lesson for the Institute on Governance is also clear: we can do it too. As a social enterprise, we must generate every penny, and in March like many small businesses, saw our revenues dry up overnight. The team adjusted quickly to the new reality, moving all our leadership programs and courses online, cutting costs and developing new products. It is a tribute to the management team and staff that the IOG today has record numbers in our programs and is sought out to provide valuable advice and insights to government clients.

Looking to 2021, there are three risks that both government and the IOG face. First, fatigue, with the unrelenting pressures to adapt and act with no clearly-defined landing in sight. Second, a rush to normalcy, the desire to go back to the way things were, a pre-pandemic world that is both familiar and comfortable. Three, complacency, that slows down innovation.

For government, it is imperative to understand these risks and to see the signals. While trust in the government spiked last spring, it would be an error to argue, as some have, that Canadians now believe in government unreservedly. Many still feel marginalized and left-out. Many do not believe in what government tells them: think about the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers and those who continue to believe covid-19 is some kind of exaggerated plot. Unlike last spring, there is no consensus on the way forward, with regional and political polarization on the rise.

Governments need to look at themselves to take lessons from their response to the pandemic. They need to rethink the concept of risk based on both successes and failures from 2020. Learning from the speed with which they acted, they must re-think their institutional structures and how decisions are made. They need to become more inclusive and diverse. Most important, they need to prepare Canadians for an unknown future.

At the IOG, the risk is that we get locked into assumptions about our future, for example, that business will go back to a pre-pandemic, office- and classroom-based normal. To be clear: the IOG’s future business model is open, and for the foreseeable future, we will continue to work with our blended at home/office approach and to modernize to take advantage of the new online environment.

Next year is the year of opportunity. While continuing to respond to the pandemic, governments need to plan for a new future, reach out to marginalized communities, build trust and rethink how their institutions work.

For the IOG we must develop and update our public governance products and services to help governments come out of the pandemic with improved capacity and citizen trust in their institutions and in democracy itself. We must focus on our people so that everyone can contribute based on their abilities and interests.

Decorative photo of Shaw Centre

The Nation’s Business Doesn’t Sleep…but you need to

2 minute read

By Stephen Van Dine, Senior Vice President – Public Governance

To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie Wall Street, “(The nation’s) business never sleeps”.

Our local, provincial/territorial, Indigenous and federal governments are front and centre in the ongoing fight with Covid-19. At all levels of government, in the foreground and behind the scenes, thousands of public servants including the military and first responders are working around the clock. Like in other crises, public servants are on guard for thee.

Canadians who have chosen a career in the public service, know our communities face challenging times and circumstances.

However, unlike typical surprise events, which have an arc beginning with first responders, rescue/incident management, and then recovery, Covid-19 just keeps coming. To use a cliché, Covid-19 has gone into its zillionth overtime period.

We should be asking serious questions about the ability of all organizations and their people’s ability to sustain the current level of effort. As we head into the 10th month of the pandemic, and the New Year, we need to pay attention to our people. We need to avoid a ‘crash’ where entire business units fall offline due to burnout and or high turnover. Pockets of this can happen in (large) organizations, but rarely at a whole-of-enterprise level.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some business units actually thrived or re-energized. The mission transformed many less visible teams across government, including often-overlooked internal service members such as procurement, web specialists, IM/IT, accommodations, HR and Finance sections into local heroes supporting working from home for thousands of colleagues. For all public servants, adrenaline and recognition from above have fueled the mission to deliver visible results in uncertain times.

Adrenaline and recognition can be addictive and lead to unhealthy behaviours, unhealthy people, and unhealthy organizations. In small doses, these behaviours can help to overcome inertia and translate into higher performance, and even promotion and increased stature or influence. However, as Covid-19 continues, an overreliance on adrenaline and praise can undermine the sustainability of the pace of the mission.

Looking back, Easter, the May long weekend, and other holidays in the period from June to October, ‘breaks’ were just another workday (and night) as the ‘nation’s business’ did not stand still. As a socially isolated holiday season arrives, can we take time to unplug, uninterrupted, for 48 hrs? Or ideally longer?

Public servants cannot unplug at the same time. However, everyone should be able to get their unfettered 48 hours. Including executives.

For many, the question is how?

It starts at the top.

The top must set the tone. She or he must declare they will be taking 48 hrs (or more) of uninterrupted, unplugged time from this day to this day and that Mary or Mohamed will be in charge. When that boss returns, Mary or Mohamed take their 48 hr period and so on and so on. The top must both set the tone, and ensure everyone gets their turn at a break.

The awkward choices around who gets the 25th/26th of December or possibly New Year’s Eve, really are of no consequence during Covid-19.

Decorative photo of Fall Ottawa

Reconciliation – Ready, Set, Go. Did we forget the “ready”?

3 minute read

By Stephen Van Dine, Senior Vice President – Public Governance

The fifth anniversary of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Report and its 94 calls to action to respond to the legacy of the residential school system is a natural time to review how far we have come and how much further we need to go.

While in Opposition, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau committed to implementing all 94 calls to action. In forming Government in 2015, the Trudeau Government began in haste to advance an agenda that put the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples at the centre of its relationship compass.

Momentum was visible immediately. The new Government launched pre-consultation on the subject of a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) within hours of being sworn in. The Speech from the Throne, Mandate letters and Budget 2016 revealed action on boil water advisories, billions of new dollars for infrastructure and housing, plans to establish “Permanent Bi-lateral Mechanisms” with each of the three national Indigenous Organizations, changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, child protection reforms, the start of specific apologies for historic grievances and much more.

Despite introducing Bill C-15, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act two weeks ago, momentum to respond to the 94 Calls to Action is slowing. This is evidenced by the recent acknowledgement that the Government will not meet its own boil water advisory elimination targets, strife on the East Coast in the lobster fishery, and criticism over the pace of change to respond to the National Inquiry into MMIWG. So…where to from here?

Reconciliation is a difficult concept to pin down as an endpoint. The TRC itself said:

“Reconciliation requires that a new vision, based on a commitment to mutual respect, be developed. It also requires an understanding that the most harmful impacts of residential schools have been the loss of pride and self-respect of Aboriginal people, and the lack of respect that non-Aboriginal people have been raised to have for their Aboriginal neighbours. Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem; it is a Canadian one. Virtually all aspects of Canadian society may need to be reconsidered.”

Reconciliation, therefore, is ongoing.

Yet, the lack of definition puts the current government in a difficult place to measure progress and to define a solution or end.

To solve the Canadian problem of Reconciliation, Indigenous people and colonial settlers have some work to do to define reconciliation, build a plan, and identify key milestones so that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can all measure, see, and feel the progress of this momentous journey.

Where are we in our journey? The Truth chapter of the TRC process uncovered difficult and painful truths of the residential school system and provided a cogent set of prescriptions to address those truths. The government received the 94 calls to action produced as a result of that process, and began work almost immediately.

Before undertaking the process to Reconcile, did we ask ourselves “Are we ready?” To date, actions taken towards Reconciliation have left some Canadians wondering whether the recent investments have been worth it while others are impatient for more and faster change.

What if some action was devoted to readiness? What if organizations including companies, public education systems and governments had access to ‘reconciliation readiness’ frameworks or playbooks to guide them safely through the history, the pain, and equipped them with critical core knowledge to be reconciliation ready? If the federal government did, would we be asking the same questions about reconciliation progress five years from now?

What might these products look like? For starters, they could have five basic elements:

  • An Uncommon History
    • Pre-contact – life and geography of Indigenous peoples before Columbus and Jacques Cartier;
    • Contact and the Royal Proclamation;
    • Colonization, Residential Schools and Federal Policy
  • Rights, Racism & the Socio-Economic Gap
    • The political awakening
    • Two Canada’s
    • Legacy of residential schools and federal policy
  • Know thy Neighbour: A local, regional and national portrait of Indigenous communities in Canada
    • Geography
    • Demographics
    • Governance
    • Language, Culture & Traditions
  • Taking Stock
    • What has been the relationship between you/organization and Indigenous communities closest to you over the past 5/10 years?
      • Socially/Culturally
      • Politically
      • Economically
      • What are the areas of friction and opportunity for reconciliation?
  • Moving Forward Together some Guiding Thoughts
    • Choose a starting point and make an invitation or accept one
    • Its about the relationship and not the task
    • Accept new mistakes will be made
    • The journey is about mutual respect and recognition

Reconciliation is not easy work. Investing in readiness is about doing the background work to get to the staring line much like the dryland training is to an athlete. Once complete, you are set to begin (go) to move the needle forward in reconciliation. It all begins with wanting to.

Decorative photo of Rideau Canal

The economic outlook is sobering, but not surprising.

2 minute read

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland provided an update to federal finances on November 30. The economic outlook is sobering, but not surprising. The fiscal deficit is up a bit from July numbers – to an eye watering $381B – with an acknowledgement that it could go slightly higher before the fiscal year is out. This puts the share of debt to the economy at around 50 per cent. Those arguing for a fiscal anchor or guardrails are disappointed (as we are) although we do have an acknowledgment of the need to “return to a prudent and responsible fiscal path” post pandemic.

The list of items announced in the Speech from the Throne haven’t made it through to the update but we do have the first view of the forward path with the government indicating they expect to spend 3-4 percent of GDP or $100B over several years as part of a stimulus package to jumpstart the economy. For all the talk of a ‘green recovery’ the actual monies here are disappointingly unambitious (less than $5B over the next five years) and a better (but reasonable) plan is hopefully in the offing. As well, childcare would seem to have taken a back seat – to both help struggling families now while pressing an economic lever in the recovery – with only a small downpayment for a secretariat to study the issue further.

In summary, we need a better plan – the stimulus plan is not yet well defined and needs to target those areas that deliver productive growth. Second, we need that plan to be constrained to make sure spending is contained by some economic guardrails and is therefore sustainable. Finally, we need this plan to provide transparency and accountability. The spring budget is an opportunity to do so.

By David Murchison, Senior Vice President, International and Iraq

David Murchison has broad experience in both the public and private sectors. This work has covered strategic planning, organizational design and development, policy development, operations and programming evaluation. He has been responsible for work encompassing the energy sector, economic development, the financial sector, small business and infrastructure to name a few.

David retired from the federal public service in October 2018, where his last position was Assistant Deputy Minister – Policy at Infrastructure Canada. Immediately prior he was Canada’s Executive Director at the Asian Development Bank based in the Philippines. He was with Finance Canada’s Financial Sector Policy Branch for most of his time in the public sector, beginning in the mid 1990’s. He began his career at Imperial Oil in Toronto and held various management positions in the downstream business before leaving to run a mid-sized electronics business, also in Toronto. A little later, he and his spouse sought out Ottawa to better balance work and life with what was then a young family.

His consulting assignments have been largely focused in the financial sector, both domestically and internationally.

David has an MA in Economics from Queens University, Kingston Ontario. He completed the Institute of Corporate Directors program in Asia in 2016. David lives in Ottawa with his spouse Helga Ehrlich, a family doctor. They have 3 sons.