Ibbitson: Ottawa needs to catch up to the private sector in digitalizing its operations

Good column. A real challenge that he identifies, an institutional and cultural one, is changing the culture from one focussed on policy and program development to one focused on citizen-centred service.

The original concept for Service Canada to do just that was smothered by senior leadership in the public service, dominated by the policy folks, who had understandable worries regarding the risks involved in such reversal of hierarchies.

But still a goal worth pursuing:

“Taking out the trash” refers to governments burying awkward news by announcing it late on a Friday afternoon, when journalists and opposition politicians have finished their regular duties and are preparing for the weekend. The Liberals have taken this dishonourable practice to a whole new level.

On Saturday morning, the federal government announced a new task force of cabinet ministers to address backlogs at government offices.

“The delays in immigration application and passport processing are unacceptable and the Government of Canada is urgently working to resolve them as soon as possible,” the release stated.

To deliver such news, not on a Friday afternoon, but on a Saturday morning, and on the St. Jean Baptiste Day holiday weekend, right after the House of Commons has risen for the summer (which means no Question Period for months), and while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is overseas – that’s some trash that needed taking out.

There are both temporary and deep-seated reasons for these backlogs and for interminable lineups at airports.

The waning of the pandemic has resulted in distortions, from sudden surges in travel to rising inflation. All governments are struggling to adjust.

But there are deeper issues. As the baby boomers retire, labour shortages are appearing in all sectors.

In the competition for workers, the federal public service is able to offer job security and handsome benefits. But bureaucrats are bureaucracies, and many workers prefer the more dynamic environment of the private sector. At the federal level, the bilingualism requirement for many positions can also be a liability.

It’s more than that, though. The federal public service is Sears and the world is Amazon.

To respond to the surge in passport applications, Families Minister Karina Gould told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton, “we’ve hired 600 new people to work in the passport section since January. We’re hiring an additional 600.”

To any problem, this government’s solution is: hire more people. Between 2010 and 2015, while the Conservatives were in office, the federal public service shrank from 283,000 workers to 257,000. On Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s watch, it has grown to 320,000, as of 2021. That’s a huge increase.

Meanwhile, the backlog of potential immigrants waiting to hear if their application has been accepted has ballooned to 2.4 million people. Airports are jammed with travellers waiting to board a flight. And people have been lining up at passport offices for days.

And while those backlogs will go away, the red tape that everyone has been complaining about for years won’t. Increasing the size of the public service has not increased its efficiency. Quite the opposite.

Corporations must adjust to changing circumstances or risk going out of business. Sears could not adapt to the digital efficiency of Amazon. But the federal public service is a monopoly, and resists innovation.

When dealing with the federal government, why is so much paper involved? Why do you often have to visit an office? Why are things sent through the mail? Why are wait times so long even in normal conditions? Ottawa is a generation behind the private sector in digitalizing its operations.

The relentless push to concentrate power in the centre also hampers service delivery. Front-line workers need the authority to make decisions, even if mistakes sometimes embarrass the government. Instead, authority is concentrated in the Privy Council and Prime Minister’s offices, creating further delay.

There’s another issue, one specific to this Liberal government. It considers announcing services more important than delivering them. Every budget contains a new child-care program or a new business development bank. It doesn’t contain mechanisms for delivering new and existing services more efficiently.

The federal government doesn’t need more people, it needs fewer people and more software.

Public service reform must start with a relentless focus on serving the customer, also known as the citizen. Reform means measuring the performance of the public service primarily through the lens of customer satisfaction.

Someday, the federal government will have to tackle this problem root and branch. Because the labour shortages are only going to worsen. The backlogs are only going to grow. People are going to get angrier. And no ad hoc task force will accomplish anything, Including this one.

Source: Ottawa needs to catch up to the private sector in digitalizing its operations

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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