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Ask basically any citizen on the street what they think government does for them, and it is unlikely that they will respond with direct reference to a particular public policy. Instead, they will likely refer to a specific set of government interventions in the form of services or initiatives. In other words, they will refer to a program.
While Canadians are principally concerned with government program delivery, governments seem more interested in speaking about policy. Yet, public policy proposals without program implementation remain in the realm of ideas. So why are policy-wonks getting all the attention? Perhaps it’s time we start contemplating how to encourage and enable “program-wonks”?
It’s not simply about the Program Manager, it’s about the Citizen
Governments are being re-shaped through the lens of service delivery. In a world where knowledge is ubiquitous, where governments no longer hold all the pieces, we have to ask what roles contemporary governments, citizens, and non-governmental organizations play. Open data arrangements and digital technologies are beginning to create platforms from which citizens can share in decision-making, dialogue, information sharing, and even co-development of policies and programs. In other words, the public has the opportunity – and expectation – to share in how governments create value and address complex societal issues.
Citizens need to feel that service provision has been organized with their needs in mind, not based on the needs and processes of the government. While this begins with quick, convenient access to services, it must go further toward realistically anticipating citizen needs and providing solutions that integrate programs and jurisdictions. Without exception, the needs of the citizen must be visible in the outcomes that governments are trying to achieve.
It is important to acknowledge that governments have made progress in moving toward citizen-centred program delivery. Moving services online has been one strategy that has enabled citizen-centred delivery. However, the full logic of citizen-centred program delivery inevitably leads to opening the entire policy and program development process to citizens. In recent years, governments in countries as diverse as Brazil, the United States, and Kazakhstan, have opened their processes to the co-design and co-development of policies and programs. Canada’s own national commitment under the Open Government Partnership speaks to moving beyond public consultations and enabling opportunities for civic input to government decision-making.
Investing in Public Service Capacity and Learning are Necessary Steps for Becoming More Citizen-Centred
Across jurisdictions, Canada’s public service has continually ranked among the best in the world. In a context of changing citizen expectations, however, facilitating an increasing and meaningful role for citizens in government policy and program development, design, and delivery requires more than political willingness: it requires a willingness to take risks. It also requires active support from the senior ranks of the public service and the development of citizen-centred skills and competencies. Senior leaders across Canada’s public services – including the federal Clerk of the Privy Council’s “enterprise-wide commitment to learning” – increasingly understand and support the need to invest in professional development that supports the changing nature of the policy and program development process. Intentions are all well and good, but implementation takes a specific set of skills.
Invest in a Citizen-Centred Skillset
The reminders from the senior levels of the public service about the future of policy and program design should be heeded throughout the ranks. A future-oriented, citizen-centred skillset must include (although it is not limited to): leadership, citizen engagement and public deliberation, human resources management, and communications. Developing these skills should start with a meaningful conversation about individual roles and responsibilities and their relationship to the delivery of citizen-centred results and outcomes. This conversation could form the basis for a learning plan, or toolkit, that is adapted to mid- and long-term professional development goals, so that current and future ‘program-wonks’ can develop the skills and competencies they, and by extension, the citizenry, require.
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