Lynch: Federal government must better deliver core services [more interesting would be his reflections on how Service Canada didn’t live up to its promise]

Hard to disagree with Kevin’s arguments about what is ailing the federal government nor his prescriptions to address these issues, which reflect a reasonable and, more debatable given the need for political buy-in, approach to addressing these.

However, what he leaves out is any reflection on the creation of Service Canada and how the government and the bureaucracy pulled back on Service Canada’s potential to develop and implement citizen-centred service and reverse, or at least rebalance, towards service delivery compared to policy and program development.

He was the Clerk at the time and his insights on the reasons for the pullback would be more insightful than the more general points he makes.

When Clerk, the aggressive and innovative (but certainly not risk free) Deputy was replaced by a much more cautious Deputy, likely chosen deliberately to engineer the pull-back.

More generally, he is silent on the bias within the public service culture for policy and program development, rather than service delivery. He, of course, as one of the most brilliant policy minds of that period, exemplifies that bias:

What is going on with the delivery of government services?

What do the provision of passports, airport security screening, immigration processing, dealing with refugee claims, military procurement, public service payroll systems, keeping border crossings open, preserving public order in the nation’s capital, handling harassment in the military, responding to the mass casualties in Nova Scotia and enforcing anti-money laundering have in common?

All are core government services and they are not being delivered well at all.

Canadians certainly differ in what they think of the government’s proposed policy initiatives. But the unasked question is, can the government actually deliver on them while maintaining the core public services Canadians expect? Indeed, critics accuse this government of being more about announcements than implementation, that it is not focussed on, or good at, delivery.

Delivering requires complex, exhausting, and time-consuming work by a highly capable and empowered workforce of public servants. That it’s not being done well suggests that the delivery issue is not solely the fault of the politicians, that it also lies in the hands of the public service.

If you believe what government does and how it does it matter, then less-than-quality delivery of public services neither serves the public interest nor bolsters the public’s trust in our institutions of government.

The questions are why is this happening, and what can be done? As with any complex problem, there are multiple reasons, but four stand out.

The first is that the sheer volume of new policy initiatives of the Trudeau government is a major impediment to implementation. In either the private or public sector, there is only a limited number of priorities you can manage well, and it’s often said that a government with too many priorities is a government with none. Efficient and timely implementation of policy promises and effective oversight of core government services is the unintended casualty of over-crowded policy agendas.

The second is excessive centralization of power and control in the Prime Minister’s Office. As more and more decision making, on more and more aspects of both policy and operations, as well as communications, is centralized in the PMO, the consequences for effective cabinet governance, ministerial accountability and the role of a professional public service are profound.

The third reason is a compliance regime run amok. In government today there are too many layers of checking, too much reporting and too many different central agencies involved in oversight, all in the name of compliance. This consumes a ridiculous amount of a department’s time and resources, and encourages excessive process, paper work and caution. The end result is risk aversion, not effective risk management.

And fourth is a bureaucracy that spends too much time in reactive mode, too little time on professional advice and getting things done, and is burdened by a proliferation of self-inflicted red tape. The public service has under-invested in hiring the new skills it needs, such as digital operations, data analytics, and project management. Its advice to ministers is too often vetted in advance by political staff rather than discussed when received by ministers. These practices influence public service culture, where today there is reduced emphasis on “speaking truth to power” and taking initiative to “get things done.”

What can be done?

The start would be for the government, and Parliament, to recognize that there is a real and present problem with policy and program delivery. Time will tell whether the Prime Minister’s recent creation of a special ministers’ task force on service delivery will actually move beyond the announcement phase.

The fixing of the problem will take pragmatism, determination, common sense and non-partisanship. Here are some ingredients of a solution.

First, back to basics for ministerial mandate letters. No more lists of 40 to 50 priorities. Instead, focus on the key priorities for ministers and their departments and the expected outcomes and delivery milestones, and abolish the endless reporting back to the PMO. This would re-establish clear accountability for policy and program execution by ministers and departmental officials.

Second, let ministers be Ministers again. Implement the Prime Minister’s promise when he took office in 2015 to move away from excessive centralization of control in the PMO. This is necessary for better governance as well as improved policy and program execution. Ministerial accountability and collective cabinet decision making, not the PMO, are central to our Westminster system of government. Ministers should select their own staff, be responsible for their communications and stand accountable for departmental activities and outcomes.

Third, tackle the compliance morass. This will require eliminating overlap in oversight mechanisms, reducing controls, cutting red tape, stopping needless reporting, and chopping the number of people on the compliance side of government. To do this well, and enhance public trust, an independent external group composed of experts in compliance should provide a clear, focussed and expedited roadmap for reform. In so doing, they could also advise on whether changes to the 15-year-old Accountability Act are needed as well. A further step would be to reform procurement, which has grown complex, risk-averse, and so prone to administrative challenge that it serves no one well.

Fourth, stop the slide toward a reactive “administrative service.” This requires a clear undertaking by the Clerk of the Privy Council to reinforce the core tenets and key capabilities of a proactive, independent public service. Restore the non-partisan voice of the public service to provide frank, unvetted, professional advice to ministers.

And fifth, do something now. What is essential for the credibility of the government is to show it is serious about improving the delivery of core government services and programs. Canadians would prefer better government to bigger government. Fixing the unacceptable problems with passport renewals, airport screening and immigration processing would be good places to start.

Good government is about more than lofty rhetoric. It’s about turning worthy intentions into reality for Canadians through effective and efficient delivery of government programs and services. Canadians invest great responsibility and power in their elected governments; in return, they rightly expect peace, order, and good government.

Source: Lynch: Federal government must better deliver core services

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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