Griffith: Passport delays risk undermining our trust in government

Interesting to see the reaction on Twitter to my op-ed in The Star. Most reaction to anything I have written over the past 10 years. A real mix. Beyond the usual Trudeau or Conservative derangement syndromes, some of the themes that emerged:

  • Interest in and support for the analysis and background
  • People have personal responsibility to renew in time rather than expecting government to ramp up quickly to meet demand
  • Not important compared to healthcare wait times, war in Ukraine, SCOTUS decision on abortion etc
  • Generalized distrust of media coverage

With some of the comments, clearly people reacted to the tweet or other comments rather than reading the op-ed (I have also been guilty of doing the same).

The depth and breadth of reactions, along of course with general media coverage, indicates the extent to which wait times and delays have captured public attention. But of course, this is very much a “first world” problem compared to the more fundamental short and longer term challenges facing Canada and the world:

Though the government anticipated that the relaxation of travel restrictions would mean long waits and delays in passport issuance, it neglected to act on the knowledge. This lack of attention to service delivery risks undermining overall trust in government.

Part of the reason for the government’s failure to ramp up capacity for the pent-up demand post-pandemic is the complexity of interdepartmental roles. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has overall policy and program responsibility; Service Canada is responsible for processing and service delivery; and Global Affairs Canada is responsible for international delivery, following the 2013 transfer of the passport program from Global Affairs to IRCC.

Service Canada has evolved from initially providing a limited receiving agent function (verification of passport applications at a number of locations) to being responsible for all in-person passport offices and passport processing centres.

As Service Canada’s responsibilities increased, co-ordination and accountability issues became more apparent. The 2020 evaluation of the IRCC passport program identified the need to “review and clarify departmental accountabilities and responsibilities for the Passport Program, as well as reconfirm decision-making authorities and governance processes to effectively support program management and delivery.” Given the pandemic, it is unlikely that this and other recommendations were fully acted upon.

So while IRCC, in its 2022-23 departmental plan, anticipated increased passport demand as travel restrictions were relaxed and Canadians resumed travel — “Forecasts predict that a recovery to pre-COVID-19 demand will begin in Spring of 2022” — this analysis was not acted upon by Service Canada, resulting in the delays we are seeing today.

Analysis by others confirms that while demand has increased significantly, it remains only about 55 per cent of pre-pandemic demand, highlighting the degree that Service Canada has failed to provide timely service.

Other consequences of these unclear accountabilities and responsibilities, along with weak management, include the absence of regularly published passport data on the open government portal website (also flagged in the 2020 IRCC evaluation), and the fact that the last Passport Canada annual report dates from 2017-18. The departmental plans of both IRCC and Employment and Social Development Canada have minimal details on the passport program.

While attention has understandably been placed on Service Canada as the public face of the delays, more attention needs to be placed on IRCC for failing to exercise policy and program oversight for passports. Unfortunately, this adds to IRCC management failings — as the large backlogs in temporary and permanent immigration, along with citizenship, attest.

These short-term problems cast doubt on the ability of IRCC and Service Canada to deliver on current passport modernization initiatives, particularly a new passport issuance platform to replace the current IT infrastructure and online applications. Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Karina Gould has floated a longer-term goal of issuing “passports to people as they get their citizenship.” It’s a meaningful and overdue improvement, but highly improbable given the complexity of the IRCC/Service Canada relationship.

Passport delays are not the only government implementation problems being encountered by Canadians. Airport customs and screening delays are a related element impacting Canadians wishing to travel again, whether to see loved ones or to discover the world.

Despite the success of pandemic financial measures and vaccination efforts, these various delays are adding to a general sense of government not being able to deliver on its core responsibilities. 

This risks further undermining trust in government and public institutions. The government needs to focus as much on service delivery and implementation aspects as on policy and program development.

Source: Passport delays risk undermining our trust in government

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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