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.

About the author

Toby Fyfe

Toby Fyfe


Toby Fyfe is President and CEO of the Canada-based, not-for-profit Institute on Governance. He is focusing with his team on providing support to government institutions and leaders as they respond to the challenges of public sector governance in the 21st century.

Before assuming this role, he was Vice-President of the Learning Lab at the IOG where he led the IOG’s public sector leadership and capacity-building programs and courses providing tools for, and insights to, executives and officers at all levels of government.

He spent over twenty years with the government of Canada in central agencies (Privy Council Office, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat) and government departments. His last post was as Assistant Commissioner, Corporate Services at the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

Before he joined the Institute, he worked with the Commissioner of the RCMP on a change initiative.

Toby was an Adjunct Professor of Communication at the University of Ottawa and was editor-in-chief of Canadian Government Executive magazine for five years.

He was a broadcaster with CBC radio and television for 17 years where he produced programs such as The House, Cross Country Checkup, and the first commercial-free version of Ottawa Morning.

He has an MA from the University of Ottawa and has attended the Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education program.

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