Leveraging the Benefits of Canada’s Cultural Mosaic: Diversifying Policy Thinking

4 minute read

By: Paul Mayers, Senior Associate

How do you get innovative policy solutions to the challenges governments face? If all of the policy analysts charged with coming up with ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking are, themselves, from the same box, the answer is, “you don’t.” The reality is that when a policy team is an exact reflection of the leader, then there is little hope for true creativity. The ‘bread and butter’ of Canada’s federal public service is its policy advice and for Canada to have a strategic advantage globally, the quality of that advice is critical. Therefore, widening the inputs of perspectives and ideas in the ‘sausage-making’ of policy development, that is, analysis and options development, represents an opportunity to improve policy outcomes.

An admission: this is a brief essay on diversity in the public service; however, this is not a call to improve the level of representation of designated groups at all levels of the public service. Instead, this is an argument for leveraging the benefits that Canada’s cultural mosaic can provide to ensure diversity in our policy thinking so that the most creative solutions are available to policymakers.

Canada has long identified a commitment to diversity and the Public Service Employment Actrecognizes that Canada will “gain from a public service[…] that is representative of Canada’s diversity.” However, a focus on representation alone is not enough to ensure harnessing the potential of a diverse population. The best policy comes from seeing problems from many angles and therefore the roles – not just the numbers – of members of designated groups, must be considered if that wider range of perspectives and ideas are to be effectively included. A former Deputy Minister of mine, David Dodge, once said that “as we work through challenging issues, there must be tables where contrary views within the department can be expressed and, if necessary, pounding can occur to highlight these views.” However, a table surrounded by the like-minded is unlikely to generate the passion from which a divergent idea might take hold.

One important challenge to diversifying policy thinking is, therefore, the creation of diverse policy teams. When a leader is asked to undertake staffing and creates a series of interview questions along with an assessment guide reflecting responses that leader might expect or desire, then there is a high likelihood that the successful candidates will be a direct reflection of the leader. This will generate a team that is very likely to get along, but may not be best suited to challenge each other with ‘outside the norm’ ideas or a non-centric position. The biggest challenge in a policy team’s staffing process should not be for the candidates to manage the stress of an interview, but for the leader to create opportunity for candidates to express new ideas and creative analytical skills in their responses. There are no ‘right answers’ and when the first reaction to some of the things said is to be dismissive, these may in fact be the most important to listen to carefully. Policy team leaders therefore need access to training in the design and conduct of inclusive and bias-free staffing processes, which is available. More important is that such leaders be exposed to the value proposition of enhancing policy outcomes through diversifying policy thinking if they are to internalize a commitment to diversity that goes beyond meeting representation targets. This is a more challenging feat that will require effective dialogue and demonstration of results when more diverse policy thinking has yielded better outcomes.

Canada’s visible minorities and Indigenous People bring perspective sand thinking shaped by cultural context that is different than the majority sub-population of European descent. Inclusion of those perspectives and ideas will enrich policy debates, broaden analysis, and generate a wider array of policy options which can only improve the potential for more innovation and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking. The result would be a federal public service that serves Canadians by providing policy makers with policy advice that is more meaningful to all of Canada’s peoples and that generates a Canadian advantage from our rich mosaic.

The Institute on Governance is well positioned to serve as a catalyst for the required dialogue and its research and analysis capability can aid in exposing policy leaders to relevant examples within Canada and around the globe.

Paul Mayers is a Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance. He retired from the federal public service as a senior executive having served as Vice President, Policy and Programs and Vice President, Science, at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

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Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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