Globe editorial: Why did Ottawa kill GPHIN? Because politicians get no credit for averting a disaster that hasn’t happened yet

Of note, the overall challenge facing governments with respect to longer-term planning and preparation.

Silent on some of the internal decision-making processes that led to the weakening of GPHIN as it is still not clear whether the decision to shutter GPHIN was bureaucratically or politically-driven. Suspect the former given the small resources involved.

Somewhat normal to have tensions between scientific/medical experts and public service generalists but more serious in this case.

Notable recommendation that touches on this: 2.8 There should be sufficient public health expertise in GPHIN’s management to fully understand event-based surveillance.

A new independent review of the mismanagement of Canada’s pandemic early warning system, which was effectively shuttered by the Trudeau government in the months before COVID-19 made itself known in Wuhan, China, says all the right things.

Released Monday, the report urges Ottawa to better fund the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), and to make better use of the invaluable intelligence on disease outbreaks around the world that it gathers by scanning medical reports, media and other markers on a constant basis.

That, of course, is very good advice. It’s a given that, in the future, there will be more outbreaks in our connected world; it’s not a question of if, but when. Maintaining a well-funded early warning system, and creating a risk assessment group inside Canada’s Public Health Agency to analyze its finding and directly advise decision-makers, is a no-brainer.

But here’s the thing: Coming up with good advice on how to prepare for the next pandemic, and getting politicians to act on it, isn’t hard when a disease that has killed more than four million people worldwide, including more than 26,000 in Canada, is still spreading.

As the report itself says, “The best time to discuss pandemic preparedness is when it is most present in the minds of Canadians and of the governments who serve them.” 

Okay. But what happens in five or 10 years, if there’s been no outbreak in the interim, and those same governments start to lose interest in life-saving measures that don’t make headlines but which, if successful, prevent them?

The fate of GPHIN is just one of several glaring examples of what happens when Canadian governments decide that, since a disaster hasn’t happened recently, now must be a good time to cancel the insurance policy.

Created in the early 1990s, and eventually folded into the Public Health Agency of Canada, GPHIN was a world-leading scientific body that tracked outbreaks such as SARS, H1N1, MERS and Ebola, and shared its findings with the World Health Organization.

The Harper government indirectly weakened GPHIN in 2014, when it stripped PHAC of some of its independence. But the Trudeau government delivered the coup de grace in May of 2019, when it told GPHIN to stop its international monitoring and focus on domestic outbreaks.

It’s impossible to say for sure that turning off Canada’s early warning system contributed to Ottawa’s sluggish and confused response to the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020. It certainly didn’t help.

What may be more important, though, is how the evisceration of GPHIN fits a pattern in Canadian politics.

For instance, after the scare of the SARS epidemic in Toronto in 2003, Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care prepared for a future outbreak by spending $45-million on 26,000 pallets of masks, face shields, needles, disinfectant wipes, disposable thermometers and other vital medical equipment.

But in 2017, the province’s Auditor-General found that more than 80 per cent of the supplies were no longer usable. The stuff had been left to rot, because the government never allocated money to manage and replenish the stocks.

In another example, this one from before the SARS crisis, the Ontario government in 2001 laid off a group of PhD-level scientists hired to watch for emerging diseases. “Do we want five people sitting around waiting for work to arrive?” a Health department spokesman asked at the time.

Yes. Yes we do.

This is going to be the real test of Canada’s postpandemic response: Can measures urgently agreed to while COVID-19 is still an omnipresent threat survive subsequent governments that start to chafe at the independence that GPHIN and PHAC need in order to do their jobs, or become annoyed at money being spent on what may at times look like just a bunch of scientists sitting around waiting for a crisis to arrive?

The GPHIN report is wrong: The best time to discuss pandemic preparedness is not when it is top of mind, but when it has receded to the background and there is no political gain to be had by talking about it.

That’s the critical moment. Canadians won’t automatically be at risk the next time a virus threatens to become a pandemic somewhere on the planet. The danger will come before that, when governments decide to cut back on the vital but unheralded work that could have kept them safe.


Coyne: Shared ideals are a sturdier material to build a nation than mere ethnic or cultural difference

Valid concerns regarding making reality reflect the aspirational values in the Charter:

I still see people quoting that line from Justin Trudeau’s interview with The New York Times in 2015 – the one about there being “no core identity, no mainstream” in Canada – as if it were some sort of darkly revealing gaffe, in which he incautiously lets slip his globalist agenda, or his woke radicalism, or his hatred of Canada.

In fact, as the next line in the interview makes clear, he was merely repeating a commonplace, almost a truism. What ties Canada together, he said, are “shared values,” among which he listed “openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.”

This does not make Canada, as the Prime Minister claimed, “the first post-national state.” It is simply a different kind of national state. As it is defined in the literature, ours is a civic, rather than ethnocultural, nation: one rooted not in blood or language, but in common beliefs and aspirations.

Contrary to what both Mr. Trudeau and his critics seem to believe, this is neither a new nor a radical idea. It has been the basis of American nationhood, for example, for more than two centuries. And it was very much the idea of our own founding fathers, who spoke often and movingly of the “political nation” they hoped to create.

But what if there are no common values or ideals that tie us together? What if we cannot agree on what we stand for – or even that we should exist? What if, in short, we are neither an ethnocultural nor a civic nation? What then?

What distinguishes civic nationhood is the element of choice, or at least the consciousness of it. (The ethnic or cultural idea of nation is just as much a choice, even if it seems more “natural” to its proponents.) In Ernest Renan’s celebrated definition, a nation is a permanent daily referendum of its citizens.

For Canadians, that choice is particularly acute: the pull of the American nation to our south, or the smaller, ethnocultural nations within, is ever-present. If the Canadian national idea is to succeed, then it must make an especially compelling appeal to those shared values, common beliefs and collective ambitions (Renan, again: “having done great things together” in the past, a nation is defined by the wish “to do them again” in future). And yet that is not what we have done.

Far from soaring ideals or rousing ambitions, postwar Canadian nationalists obsessed over the rather more mundane project of cultivating a distinctive Canadian cultural identity – an identity that, so far as it was not wholly ersatz, looked remarkably like their own: white, English-speaking, southern Ontarian, social democratic.

Hence the stereotype of the polite, diffident Canadian, so naturally inclined to statism, and (above all) so different from the Americans. And hence the reflexive recourse to the state, as both the emblem of our national difference and the vehicle for its preservation.

For a time they were able to ignore or shout down those who dissented from nationalist orthodoxy – who preferred, say, free trade to protectionism, or markets to public enterprise. But having invested so heavily in the idea of difference as the fount of nationhood, they found they had nothing to say when their compatriots – Indigenous people, Quebeckers, Western Canadians – replied, in effect: hang on, we’re different from you.

And the more that our political leaders have tried to paper over those differences, essentially by denying that Canada means anything or has any foundational principles – or none that it would insist on in the face of sectional opposition – the less argument they can offer for its continuing existence as a nation-state.

The Charter of Rights was an attempt to put this right: to define the nation in terms of its commitment to a short list of universal ideals, rights to which every Canadian citizen was equally entitled. But the proposal was doomed from the start. Rights are an American idea, said some. For others the problem was not rights, as such, but the idea that they should be guaranteed equally.

At any rate, the critics have won the day: With the notwithstanding clause now almost routinely invoked, the Charter is fast becoming a dead letter. It joins a long list of other national institutions and symbols – Parliament, the Crown, the flag, the anthem – that, by a combination of disuse and abuse, have been rendered more or less inert. Or maybe it is simply that there is no longer any nation left to symbolize.

The consequence is not disintegration, but paralysis. The moral basis of nationalism – the vindication of it, in spite of its manifest failings – lies in its capacity to expand the bounds of empathy beyond the merely familiar. It is what makes us willing to make sacrifices for one another in a way we would not do for those not of the same nation. It is what makes democratic government possible, beyond the local level – for without it, we will never accept to be on the losing side of any vote.

Which brings us to our present condition, in which the discovery that Canada has, like other nations, its own list of past crimes and present failures, has led to a kind of collective emotional breakdown, wherein the very existence of the country or the idea that it is, on balance, a good thing, is called into the question: as if the world would be a better place had Canada never been born.

If this means an end to our peculiarly Canadian sense of superior virtue – the Canadian identity, again – all well and good. But to say that we have fallen short of certain ideals does not mean it is hypocritical even to aspire to them. We should understand “Canadian values” for what they are – not as qualities of character with which we are exceptionally endowed, but as moral duties to which we we are called.

The Americans, for all their faults, get this. The nation has never lived up to the ringing phrases of its Declaration of Independence; it falls far short of them even today. Yet it remains a defining statement of Americanism – like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a beacon to which it is perpetually drawn. That way is still open to us, if we choose to follow it.


Canada has an access-to-information system in name only

Have encountered some of the same frustrations:

The Treasury Board is quietly conducting a long-promised review of the Access to Information Act, which governs how Canadians can obtain records held by the government. Unfortunately, these consultations appear to be more of a public relations exercise than a serious effort to improve Canadians’ right to access.

The original act dates to 1983 and has barely changed since then. It has not kept up with the advent of the internet, nor have fundamental weaknesses been fixed. Changes made by the Trudeau government in recent years have failed to fully open promised classes of records and have not advanced pro-active publication as far as needed.

Today, we have an access-to-information system in name only. A lack of firm timelines means requests regularly stretch on for months, if not years. Broad exemptions mean crucial information is withheld from the public. A culture of secrecy in many departments undermines the act almost entirely. The Office of the Information Commissioner is underresourced to handle the deluge of complaints.

The current review process is not going to fix all that. Unlike in past consultations, the Treasury Board is not releasing any kind of green paper or other consultative document to chart a course for the reforms, nor has the government sought independent expert advice.

A green paper is essential to capturing and conveying the essence of the innumerable public reports on problems with the system, which go back decades. Drawing on outside experts is equally important for any real reform agenda, especially one that might return the Canadian government to an equal footing with many allied jurisdictions. Canada was an early entrant into the arena of freedom of information; now we are a disappointing laggard.

Reform and revitalization of the Access to Information regime must include significant legislative changes, but must also consider the ecosystem in which it operates.

As it stands, the act allows for the government to exempt and withhold information “obtained in confidence,” information deemed “injurious to the conduct of international affairs,” virtually any information relating to defence and security, and nearly every record that could be described as providing “advice” to the government. These exemptions, as currently worded, simply reinforce practices of hoarding records and a culture of entrenched secrecy. We propose strict limitations on these exemptions, and a test that would require the government to prove the harm of releasing such information.

Some records are completely excluded at present, such as Cabinet confidences. These should be brought under the act, with appropriate restrictions so disputes over access to them can be adjudicated by the Information Commissioner. In addition, information practices are changing in government with ever greater reliance on text messaging, verbal briefings and other transitory material. The act should oblige all government agencies to properly document their decision-making processes and retain these records.

Equally important, a real public-interest override clause must be added, with an oversight role for the Information Commissioner.

There needs to be a declassification regime for all government records. Other governments declassify documents after 30 years or less: Canadians are lucky if these files are ever released. Library and Archives Canada, in particular, should play a role in receiving such records and educating Canadians on their importance.

Once processed and released to an individual requester, the information in question should be made publicly available on a consolidated and searchable government database, including both the metadata about the record and the record itself. We should do away with the wasteful cycle of returning records back into the hands of departmental gatekeepers after every request is fulfilled.

These measures need to be accompanied by a major change in culture within government, including a lowering of the walls of secrecy and an alignment between the Access to Information Act and the principles that underscored the National Security Transparency Commitment promised by the Liberal government in 2017.

A broken access system wastes government resources, does not serve Canadians and does not illuminate our governance history and practice. But it is not yet beyond salvation. The Treasury Board review needs to embrace a bold vision for the future and make a deep change to the legislation and administration of the act.

Dean Beeby is an Ottawa-based independent journalist, author and a specialist on freedom of information. Justin Ling is a freelance investigative journalist. James L. Turk is the director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University. Wesley Wark is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.


Fadden: Canada needs a national inquiry into its handling of COVID-19

Fully agree this is needed. And hopefully, the results and recommendations will lead to action, in the short and medium term, unlike the forgetfulness following the SARS enquiries:

As COVID-19 case counts continue to decline and Canada looks optimistically ahead to our future after pandemic restrictions are lifted, it may be time to also start looking back – specifically, at how this country handled the pandemic and how we should organize ourselves to deal with the next major disruptive event. The only way this can be done comprehensively and objectively is through the establishment of a public inquiry with national scope and freedom from political interference.

Two points can be made in favour of such an inquiry. The first is that it is indisputable that the pandemic could have been better handled. We were not properly prepared and many of the decisions taken from the very beginning were the wrong ones, or were at least not explained nearly as clearly as they might have been. The expiry of much of our national stockpile of personal protective equipment and the confusing initial advice on the wearing of masks are just two examples. A careful examination of the reasons for these types of mistakes could help us avoid repeating them in the future.

The second point underlying the need for an inquiry is the worldwide consensus that serious disruptive events will continue to occur and are likely to grow in intensity and variety. Other pandemics, flooding, fires or migration are the most obvious and likely. To fail to better prepare for such events will border on criminal, and proper planning requires a clear understanding of how the management of past events can be improved upon.

There are a number of ways to review our management of the current pandemic, but nothing short of a nationally oriented public inquiry established by – but not beholden to – the federal government will do. Internal reviews by the public service would be too narrow and they would be undertaken by the very institutions whose activities and advice need to be reviewed. Review by Parliament would fall prey to the excessive partisanship that seems to govern relations within our various legislatures. Auditors general will have a contribution to make to our understanding of what happened, but they are limited to their respective jurisdictions and have little if any ability to consider activity in the private sector and in civil society.

The COVID-19 crisis is unquestionably a national and international challenge that paid little attention to borders, and as such the inquiry must be structured to allow for a review of all aspects of how Canada fared. Three issues should be of particular focus.

The first is the need to consider to what extent Canada should ensure that certain essential goods be available, no matter what. This is not a matter for governments alone; it requires the participation of the business sector and the provinces.

The second issue is one of personal freedoms. We live in a country of rights and responsibilities, and that balance always needs to be carefully calibrated. The question of whether an individual’s right to refuse public health advice supersedes government efforts to ensure the greater good needs at least some measure of resolution.

The third issue involves the roles and responsibilities of the numerous levels of government within Canada, as well as the roles of other countries and of international institutions. The management of interprovincial and international borders is perhaps the most obvious example of something in this area that needs to be probed. The broad distribution of responsibility and action to deal with COVID-19 may or may not have been essentially correct. Either way, it needs an objective review to determine if any adjustments are necessary for the future.

A process like this could also help us recognize and fortify our strong points. The objective of an inquiry is not to assume bad faith or assign blame, but rather to look into what was done and how, with a view to proposing corrective action. Any inquiry must recognize what went well. In this respect, the relatively positive response of the public to instructions and the general level of co-operation between the federal and provincial governments (as evidenced by many First Minister virtual meetings) need mention.

Given the number of deaths Canada has seen throughout this pandemic, the enormous social and economic adjustments Canadians have made, and the unprecedented cost to taxpayers, this country needs a credible, practical and comprehensive look at how we can be better prepared for the next pandemic. A public inquiry established by the federal government, but independent of it, is the only practical vehicle to accomplish this. It needs to be set up before the next election to prevent its work from becoming a matter of partisan debate. Now is not too soon to get started.

Richard Fadden is a former national security adviser to the prime minister. He was director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service from 2009 to 2013 and served as deputy minister of national defence from 2013 to 2015.


Selley: Justin Trudeau’s symbolic agenda collides with itself at the Supreme Court

Can’t satisfy all groups on a nine-member court (more latitude with respect to all judicial appointments where government, as per the contrast between the 2016 baseline and subsequent appointments highlights. And while symbolism is important, the harder work lies with reducing inequalities and long-standing issues:

A few headlines from the past week: “Justice Mahmud Jamal is first person of colour nominated to the Supreme Court of Canada” (CBCthe Toronto Star, and The Guardian). “ ‘Taunted and harassed’ as a youth, judge Mahmud Jamal receives historic Supreme Court nomination” (CTV and the National Post, quoting Jamal’s application statement). “Judge Mahmud Jamal, who finished high school in Edmonton, nominated to Supreme Court of Canada” (the Edmonton Journal, scoring the all-important local angle).

The first sentence in The Globe and Mail’s story mentions that Jamal is a “frequently cited author on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” We learn later on about his copious qualifications and impressive record as a jurist. But the second sentence explains a conflict: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was “under pressure from minority and Indigenous organizations to make the Supreme Court more diverse.” And so “the Indigenous Bar Association is disappointed.”

The Supreme Court has some pretty spicy meatballs on its plate, not least the future of certain religious practices in certain parts of Quebec’s public service, and will have more spicy meatballs in the future. The retiring Rosalie Abella is no ordinary Supreme Court justice, but rather the standard-bearer for a very activist and flexible brand of judge. We might hear more about Jamal’s approach when he meets with parliamentary committees. But surely it’s odd how much more we seem to care about who he is than about how he thinks or how he might rule.

Justin Trudeau isn’t the first prime minister to be concerned with the symbolism of his appointments, and nor have the Canadian media only recently acquired an interest. Globe and Mail headline writers greeted Bertha Wilson’s appointment in 1982 with “First woman is appointed to Canada’s top court” (March 5). (This was followed by “Woman judge still avoiding press” (March 9) and finally “Woman justice to take oath” (March 26).) Abella’s and Louise Charron’s appointments in 2004 were hailed for approaching near-gender-parity on the top bench.

This is all for the good, to a large extent. In a jury trial, we are ostensibly judged by our peers. We shouldn’t want judges to be members of an exalted class. Ideally, the jurisprudence they create would reflect the full scope of Canadian experiences — of class, race, ethnicity, faith and so on.

But it’s not a stretch to say that Trudeau — Mr. “Because it’s 2015″ — is more obsessed with symbolism than is typical. And sometimes it makes his life far more difficult than it needs to be. On the Supreme Court, his wish to appoint an Indigenous justice runs smack into his pledge never to appoint a justice who can’t manage a hearing in both official languages — which is to say, his wish to placate Quebec nationalists at every possible turn.

“A fully bilingual Indigenous candidate who also meets regional requirements and conventions” is a very tough order to fill, as many articles in the press have explained. Fewer articles have noted how far offside this requirement is with Trudeau’s reconciliation agenda. Trudeau’s new rule for judges doesn’t just discount Indigenous languages entirely; it also demands Indigenous lawyers learn not just one settler tongue fluently, but both! In a recent interview with APTN, Harry LaForme, Canada’s first Indigenous appellate court judge, likened the policy to the assimilation of children at residential schools. It would be very awkward, if only more people noticed.

You see a somewhat different problem when it comes to the unfilled vacancy at Rideau Hall, which is seeing similar demands for a minority or Indigenous appointment. Either would be fine, obviously, just so long as they’re not on a mission to do anything other than be the Queen’s representative on Canadian soil. You can just imagine Trudeau and his advisers struggling with the concept, even after Julie Payette’s flameout and Paul Martin’s near-miss with obvious-separatist Michaëlle Jean. This is a chance to make a splash, to send a message!

But the returns diminish. Real people who need real improvements in their lives cannot be impressed by symbolism. And weakness for symbolism makes us overlook things. It’s a distraction. Many of Trudeau’s detractors, especially to his left, would suggest it has distracted him from actually making significant progress on issues central to his brand, and to which these symbolic appointments are meant to nod.

A pledge to eliminate boil-water advisories on reserves is worthless without eliminating boil-water advisories. Adopting or not adopting the UN declaration on Indigenous rights is worthless without implementing what’s in it. At some point after accepting the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had a whole section on unmarked and forgotten children’s gravesites, someone was going to have to pony up the money to look for those gravesites. It took until now.

I often argue there are maddeningly few fundamental differences between Liberal governance and Conservative governance in Canada — certainly not nearly enough to justify the intensity of the battles between them. Privileging action and disdaining empty symbolism is one principle Canadian conservatives should guard jealously, even if they don’t always apply it consistently themselves. It’s the only way to help real people with real problems.


Canada’s data gaps hampered pandemic response, hurting vaccination tracking: report

An area that governments need to address:

The pandemic has exposed significant problems with how Canada gathers and processes data on everything from case numbers to vaccinations, which has hurt the country’s response to COVID-19, a new report conducted for the federal government says.

Canada could not track the spread of the virus as effectively as it needed to last year, according to a report prepared by the Pan-Canadian Health Data Strategy Expert Advisory Group that will be made public Thursday. The country is now struggling to keep tabs on vaccine effectiveness because of flaws in the system, including how different jurisdictions record and share information.

These data gaps, created by a patchwork of health systems that don’t always work together and often code data in different ways, need to be addressed with a national approach, the report warns.

“There is no doubt that our response to the pandemic has been severely limited as a result,” says an advance copy of the report, which was reviewed by The Globe and Mail.

The report was ordered by Ottawa last year to examine data problems exposed by COVID-19. The group will put together a list of recommendations to the Public Health Agency of Canada and other departments on how to fix these weaknesses, said Vivek Goel, who chaired the review.

When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, problems in reporting new cases, symptoms and other crucial data became apparent in Canada’s patchwork system. Since provincial and territorial jurisdictions don’t necessarily use the same standards for collecting or codifying information, pooling crucial data on a national level became difficult.

“Early on it was challenging to get a full national picture, even of basic case counts,” Dr. Goel said, noting that crucial information such as the sites of the outbreaks, or the occupations of those who became ill, weren’t always collected, codified, or shared between health jurisdictions. This prevented policy makers from knowing where and how hot spots were developing, and where the next crisis might be lurking.

“That [information] is something that is collected on the front lines of public health as people do their interviews, or it is collected at the time someone goes for testing. But if it’s not collected in a consistent way in every place and then coded and loaded into the system, we don’t wind up with a good picture,” Dr. Goel said.

“I would say if we had some of that information in a more timely manner, we might have had some decisions [by the government] being made sooner,” Dr. Goel said.

The country got better at processing information as the pandemic progressed, but “Canada had had some pretty significant challenges early on in even getting some of that basic data shared and uploaded,” he said.

These data gaps have become magnified as the country tries to mount a rapid immunization campaign across those same varied jurisdictions. Lacking the ability to quickly and effectively pool data from around the country, Canada is struggling to track, in real time, how effectively the vaccines are working in the broader population.

“Probably the most important question around vaccination in Canada is around the effectiveness of the vaccines in the real world with the dosing schedules and approaches that we’ve taken in Canada, because we’re the country that’s taken the longest dose interval,” Dr. Goel said.

“We’ve got reports that have started to come out, but they’re coming out at the provincial level,” he said. “We don’t have a national report, and every province’s systems are slightly different. So we wind up with slightly different estimates. They’re not going to be comparable.”

More detailed data on vaccine uptake is also difficult to compile, he said. “We need to have data coming together around how many people have been immunized by age group, occupation codes, all sorts of information. For example, people want to know how many teachers have had [the vaccine]. But we don’t have systems that really allow us to easily bring that kind of data together,” Dr. Goel said.

Questions specific to Canada, such as the effectiveness of mixing vaccines, are also hard to answer without properly collecting and analyzing data from across the country, he said. “We’ve got more of this mixing and matching coming up, so we need to be generating real-world evidence on how well it’s working,” Dr. Goel said.

The findings echo a report by the Auditor-General of Canada in March that said the government lacked proper data procedures to accurately track the spread of the virus. Dr. Goel said the issues are due to a number of causes, from lack of investment and concerns over privacy breaches to provinces simply wanting to oversee their own systems.

He also noted that various reports and governments have tried to address these issues in the past, but the problems were never fixed. After the 2003 SARS outbreak, Ottawa oversaw the creation of a database system known as Panorama, intended to improve infectious-disease surveillance and immunization tracking on a national level. However, the project struggled to gain support, ran into numerous roadblocks and was never effective.

“Despite all these good intentions, we don’t seem to make the progress we’d like to see,” said Dr. Goel, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health who is leaving to become president of the University of Waterloo next month.

The report calls for Ottawa to work with provinces and territories, as well as First Nations, Inuit and Métis organizations, to build a system where health data, including information on outbreaks and immunization, can be pooled effectively, and governments can act faster. Overcoming privacy concerns is a key challenge, and any such initiative must ensure that personalized information is protected, the report says.

“We need to tackle the root causes of the problems that have plagued our ability to make progress toward a common aim for all Canadians,” the report says. “Put simply, our systems, processes and policies are geared towards an analog world, while we live in a digital age.”

Dr. Goel said there are several examples of countries that collect, share and process data better than Canada, while still protecting privacy and respecting regional autonomy. Several Scandinavian countries have systems Canada should seek to emulate, he said, while the British, despite having data challenges of their own, have a more effective surveillance system implemented across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“There are models for how we could approach that in Canada, but until we get to the point where we work together on these things, we wind up with these siloed sorts of approaches across the country,” Dr. Goel said.

“These issues have been underscored through Canada’s response to COVID-19,” the report says. The challenges include “timely collection and use of testing, case and vaccination data; assessing impacts of the pandemic in specific populations; sharing genomic data for management of variants; and the persistent challenges of long-term care.”


Government’s failure to keep stock of PPE reserves hurt us when we needed it most

Good commentary on the long history of government data management and use issues, brought to prominence during COVID-19, along with systemic accountability issues.

And yes, the default option for government data would be public (and to be fair, the open government initiative has resulted in more availability of data):

Seventeen years ago, there was a cabinet minister named Reg Alcock, the President of the Treasury Board, who invited people to his office for lectures about data.

The late Mr. Alcock was a hefty, 6-foot-8 mountain of a man with two main interests: Liberal Party organizing in Manitoba and dragging the government into the digital age. Part of the lecture he gave in 2004 was a question: Why is it that corporate executives have computers that can tell them, for example, how many trucks their company owns, but a prime minister would need a year to get the same answer from government?

On Wednesday, Auditor-General Karen Hogan issued a report on the government’s handling of stockpiles of PPE that let it be known that Mr. Alcock’s question is still hanging in the air, nearly two decades later.

Ms. Hogan’s team reported that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) had a stockpile of personal protective equipment and medical devices, but it didn’t have a policy about what should be in it, or what was in it, or whether the equipment had expired.

When the biggest public-health crisis of modern times hit and provinces needed N95 masks and ventilators from the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile, well, there wasn’t enough useful stuff there. The data were so unreliable the auditors couldn’t tell how badly it fell short.

The haphazard management of the stockpile wasn’t a new thing. Internal audits in 2010 and 2013 raised those issues.

Citizens might think a decade of disregarded warnings is a scandal that will shake the halls of power in Ottawa. But for a politician, it is cause for relief. The best kind of failure is one that was going on long before you took office. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s advisers will be happy enough that the Auditor-General credited the government for responding after the crisis hit.

But note that PHAC did draft a proposal to develop a better inventory management system in January, 2020 – just as COVID-19 was spreading – but agency officials told auditors “it was put on hold because of budget constraints.”

Mr. Alcock, back in the day, didn’t just want government to get computer systems – they have a lot – but to manage data, to make more information available and usable, so that government knows better what is happening within government.

But politicians in charge aren’t good at driving change in long-term, systemic issues that voters don’t even see. Mr. Alcock, for example, was preaching for IT in a Paul Martin government busy with Liberal scandals and non-confidence votes in Parliament.

Two PMs later, and governments still have a hard time seeing what government is doing. The National Emergency Strategic Stockpile wasn’t much use in a crisis because it didn’t do the kind of information management that that happens at a grocery store: figuring out what you will need, buying it, tracking what goes in and out and what is going bad.

By now we know that bad data management, not knowing what you don’t know, raises risk in a crisis. And there’s something else: Most of that data can and should be made public.

Why not let the public see the running tally of N95 masks in inventory, or ventilators on the web? Most people won’t look at it, but perhaps a few experts in universities and elsewhere will analyze the policies, crunch the data and, we can hope, point out when they’re messed up. Or just missing. That applies to other kinds of data, too.

In Britain, this week’s remarkable testimony of Dominic Cummings, a former aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, about the chaotic initial response to the pandemic made it pretty clear that it’s no longer necessary, or wise, to leave the data inside government.

Mr. Cummings testified to a parliamentary committee that false assumptions, bad analysis, and groupthink inside government led Mr. Johnson’s government to a disastrous notion that it should try to reach herd immunity rather than slowing the spread of COVID-19. Scientists outside government, notably a mathematician, helped convince him that was “catastrophically wrong,” he said. He and the government’s top science adviser later agreed data should have been released earlier, to get input.

That’s not the same thing as PHAC’s failure to keep track of a stockpile. But then, if we want to encourage the government to keep tabs on the data, one good way is to demand to see it.


Is it time to move Ottawa out of Ottawa?

Valid question given experience over more than a year with remote work. Some colleagues who are still working have indicated much easier to engage the regions given everyone on the same platform, rather than the Ottawa folks meeting in person and regional staff being on a telephone conference call.

And of course, the broader question of what percent of public servants, or what percentage of their time, requires physical presence compared to working remotely, along with the associated (but often overstated) management challenges:

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in much of the federal public service shifting to remote work. Ottawa invested in telecommunications and found new ways for employees to work effectively from far-flung locations.

The transition was sufficiently successful that the federal government is considering continuing some remote work, possibly reducing its office rental spaces.

This raises the question — if work doesn’t need to be done in Ottawa-area offices, does it need to be done in Ottawa at all?

The centralization of federal jobs

Canada has more than 300,000 federal employees, with over 230,000 in core public administration (CPA) and just under 70,000 employed in separate agencies like the Canada Revenue Agency. 

The proportion of agency jobs concentrated in the National Capital Region, which includes Ottawa-Gatineau and surrounding areas, has declined since 2016. The opposite is seen with CPA jobs. The concentration of CPA employees was only 33 per cent in 1995, but was up to 46 per cent in 2020. 

graph shows the number of federal public service jobs in the capital region
The number of federal public service jobs in the Ottawa region, according to the Government of Canada Open Data Portal. Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, 2020

Most CPA workers are skilled knowledge workers. These are good jobs. It is time for more federal jobs, including CPA jobs, to decentralize.

The case for decentralization

Research suggests decentralizing public service jobs reduces costsstrengthens national security by spreading government functions across the country and reduces cynicism toward government

Decentralization also distributes the economic benefits of the public sector across the country. According to one 2019 British study, “the arrival of 10 civil service jobs in an area spurs the creation of about 11 jobs in the private sector,” including professional service jobs like law and consulting.

Most importantly, it gives federal governments more ability to directly engage with communities. Regional voices within government increase as career opportunities are more accessible to qualified people nationally. Advocacy and community groups across the country enjoy a more level playing field to engage in the policy process. 

This increased geographic diversity of voices working within and connecting with government can result in improved strategic policy advice. 

Creating a national strategy

Now is the perfect time to make a serious effort to decentralize Canada’s federal jobs.

The COVID-19 remote work experience demonstrates the remarkable potential of technology to overcome distance. We have learned how efficiently we can use technology to reduce unnecessary travel and connect easily across the country. We must use the disruption of the pandemic to rethink what jobs and services need to be in Ottawa at all.

We can expect growing calls for this in Canada’s economic recovery, particularly from Alberta. Just before the COVID-19 shutdown, four MPs identified the centralization of federal headquarters as an example of systemic unfairness towards Alberta. A few months later, Alberta’s Fair Deal Panel recommended western premiers request “a distribution map of federal civil servants across Canada and a list of federal government agencies and decision-making bodies that can be recommended for relocation to Western Canada.” 

Recent surveys find decentralizing jobs may be publicly popular. The 2021 Viewpoint Alberta survey, which included over 800 respondents in Alberta and Saskatchewan, found strong support for increasing federal jobs in each province.

Similarly, the 2021 Confederation of Tomorrow survey of more than 5,800 Canadians found almost three-quarters (73.5 per cent) support “moving more government offices from Ottawa to other cities in the country so that more Canadians would have access to jobs in the federal public service.” 

A graph shows support for moving federal public service jobs out of the Ottawa area.
Support for moving federal public service jobs out of the Ottawa area. Confederation of Tomorrow 2021 Survey, Author provided

The time for action is now. In fact, Canada faces an immediate decision regarding the location of the new Canada Water Agency. While the decision process has yet to be announced, Regina and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., are already vying for the agency headquarters. Other cities may also be planning to do so.

Canada already has experience in decentralizing federal jobs, including moving the National Energy Board headquarters from Ottawa to Calgary and creating regional Canada Revenue Agency tax centres. These serve as precedents for a bold new strategy.

Moving forward on a national strategy

To be sure, decentralization faces political challenges. As the benefits of job decentralization are long-term and the challenges are immediate, politicians more focused on the next election might be disinclined to take up the task.

Vested interests are loud. Strategies are needed to address relocation costs, including staff turnover and the associated loss of experience, though remote work options can reduce these.

A national strategy is required. The United Kingdom’s Places for Growth program will move thousands of London jobs, including policy advisory roles, to 13 regional hubs over the next decade and could provide ideas or a blueprint. 

Canada might also consider efforts to shift civil service work out of national capitals in Mexico, Norway, South Korea, Denmark and Malaysia

The COVID-19 remote work experience suggests that distance is not insurmountable for federal government work. No one is suggesting that public servants work from home forever, but the public’s business does not always have to be done in Ottawa. Let’s use this as an opportunity to rethink how we distribute federal work across Canada.


Delacourt: Justin Trudeau isn’t fighting his father’s battles in Quebec. But maybe we should

Of note:

Justin Trudeau issued no statements on Thursday to mark the 41st anniversary of Quebec’s first referendum on sovereignty.

So the prime minister’s comments from earlier this week — on Quebec’s bid to unilaterally declare itself a nation in the Constitution — will have to stand as his remarks on how far Canada has travelled from that fateful moment on May 20, 1980.

“Our initial analysis …. (is) that it is perfectly legitimate for a province to modify the section of the Constitution that applies specifically to them and that that is something that they can do,” Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday.

There is no way to view those remarks in isolation from the signature battle of his father’s career, much as the current prime minister tends to resist the historical comparisons.

Forty-one years ago this week, Pierre Trudeau was soberly, cautiously celebrating the victory of federalism against the forces that wanted to make Quebec a separate nation, with words such as these:

“To those who may wish to recreate in this land those old nationalistic barriers between peoples — barriers of which the world has been trying to rid itself — I say, we Canadians do not have to repeat the mistakes of the past,” Pierre Trudeau said in a statement after 59.5 per cent of Quebec voted “no” to a bid to embark on separation from Canada.

“All of us have the opportunity to show the whole world that we are not the last colonials on earth, but rather among the first people to free themselves from the old world of nation-states.”

That old world has re-emerged in 2021 with a twist in the form of Quebec’s new language law, which has been presented — and disturbingly accepted by Trudeau and other political leaders — as a none-of-your-business bit of provincial housekeeping. Just keeping the French language alive, drive on, nothing to see here.

Source: Justin Trudeau isn’t fighting his father’s battles in Quebec. But maybe we should

Public servants say they work better from home, despite stress: survey

Interesting (on my to do list, look at the survey’s disaggregated data):

During the pandemic, employees of local, provincial, and federal governments from coast to coast to coast have provided essential services while working from home.

And it would appear that federal employees are happier now about their workplace than they were before the pandemic, according to the 2020 Public Service Employee Survey released by the Treasury Board Secretariat last week.

While we don’t know the full story of the “big pivot” over a single weekend in March 2020 — when public servants started working from home — we do know many have been working over weekends and statutory holidays and forgoing annual leave.

This isn’t sustainable over the long term. If not attended to, such behaviour could result in a crash or organizational failure.

Stress has increased since 2019. A third of employees said they felt emotionally drained after their workday, up from 29 per cent in 2019. Just over a quarter said their workload was heavier, up slightly from 24 per cent in 2019.

However, new questions in the 2020 survey about work-life balance during the pandemic revealed some silver linings:

  • 39 per cent of employees had requested flexible work hours since the start of the pandemic; and
  • 83 per cent said their immediate supervisor allowed them.

Employees said the quality of their work improved, too. For example:

  • only 23 per cent of employees said their work quality suffered because their department or agency lacked stability, which was down from 30 per cent in 2019; and
  • just 24 per cent of employees said their work suffered because of high staff turnover, down from 32 per cent in 2019.

Employees’ perceptions of change management also improved in 2020, with 59 per cent saying change was managed well in their department or agency, compared to 50 per cent in 2019.

They also reported better feedback from their supervisors in 2020, compared to 2019:

  • 69 per cent said they received meaningful recognition for work well done, up from 65 per cent in 2019; and
  • 77 per cent said they got useful feedback from their immediate supervisor about their job performance, up from 74 per cent in 2019.

Overall job satisfaction improved in 2020, too:

  • 83 per cent of employees said they liked their job, up from 81 per cent in 2019;
  • 78 per cent reported getting a sense of satisfaction from their work, up from 76 per cent in 2019;
  • 75 per cent said they were satisfied with their department or agency, up from 71 per cent in 2019;
  • 75 per cent said they would recommend their department or agency as a great place to work, up from 70 per cent in 2019; and
  • 71 per cent of employees said they felt valued at work, up from 68 per cent in 2019.

Respondents also felt their workplace was “psychologically” healthier. For example:

  • 68 per cent said their workplace was psychologically healthy, up from 61 per cent in 2019; and
  • 81 per cent said their department or agency was doing a good job of raising awareness of mental health in the workplace, up from 73 per cent in 2019.

In response to a new question in 2020, 69 per cent of employees said they’d feel comfortable sharing concerns about their mental health with their immediate supervisor.

The survey included new questions about working during the pandemic:

  • 70 per cent said senior managers were taking adequate steps to support their mental health during the pandemic;
  • 84 per cent felt their department or agency was effectively communicating the mental-health services and resources available to them; and
  • 81 per cent said they were satisfied with the measures their department or agency was taking to protect their physical health and safety during the pandemic.

Employees were also asked about the information they received from their department or agency about the pandemic:

  • 78 per cent said it was clear and easy to understand;
  • 81 per cent said it was consistent with the information they got from their immediate supervisor; and
  • 92 per cent said the information was available in both official languages.

And finally, instances of harassment also fell. In 2020, 11 per cent of employees said they’d been harassed on the job in the previous 12 months, down from 14 per cent in 2019. In addition, 71 per cent said their department or agency worked hard to create a workplace that prevents harassment, up from 69 per cent in 2019.

So while the pandemic isn’t over, public servants remain engaged. It would appear that working from home and away from the office has improved their view of the workplace and of their senior managers.

Stephen Van Dine is the senior vice-president of public governance at the Institute on Governance.

Source: Public servants say they work better from home, despite stress: survey