What ever happened to deliverology?

Good article by Kathryn May. May reflect in part an excessive number of commitments in the 2015 election platform as the critical voices cited have suggested. Agree that the release of Ministerial mandate letters may be the most significant achievement but paring down of the number of priorities would have liked improved implementation:

Mention “deliverology” to a public servant working on the policy frontlines, and you’ll get either a shrug or a grumble. The trendy management theory that took the federal bureaucracy by storm three years ago has struggled to live up to the initial hype.

Still, the person responsible for the public management approach believes it is changing the way policy is implemented in Canada.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals came to power in 2015 hailing the governing theories of British political adviser Sir Michael Barber. Barber’s principles on how to achieve results on promised actions had been pioneered in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government 15 years earlier, with the establishment of the important “delivery unit” in the prime minister’s office. The approach became known as deliverology; its goal was to get ministers and public servants to keep a laser-like focus on the government’s priorities and deliver what was promised to voters.

Trudeau invited Barber to three cabinet retreats. He also visited Ottawa, where copies of his presentation to cabinet circulated around departments and were devoured by bureaucrats wanting to see what deliverology was all about. They bought Barber’s book, How to Run a Government: So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy, and signed up for courses on the essentials that popped up around town.

In Canada, the Results and Delivery Unit was created, to be housed in Canada’s Privy Council Office (PCO).  Matthew Mendelsohn, a former Ontario deputy minister and think tank founder, became the new deputy minister who would head the office. Departments appointed “delivery officers,” and a cabinet committee was created — headed by Trudeau himself — to monitor the results.

The buzz fades

Fast forward to 2019, and the buzz has faded out to a murmur. In conversations with senior bureaucrats, management consultants, politicians, and other public administration watchers – none of whom would go on the record criticizing the government’s efforts – the word is they barely hear about deliverology anymore.

“It was such a big deal at the beginning, but it drifted. It’s just not top-of-mind now; no one talks about it anymore. They laugh about it,” said one long-time senior bureaucrat.

“There was all this anxiety and disruption over what it meant. Departments were busy setting up delivery officers and delivery units,” said public management consultant Mark Schacter.

“New performance measures had to be developed and approved. Everyone was trying to figure out what it meant. Then the wave of activity passed and things seemed to be back to business as usual.”

Another senior bureaucrat shrugged. “Is deliverology still a thing? I know the office is still there, but no one talks about it.”

The new approach imposed another layer of administration on some public servants. Their departments had been abiding by evaluation and performance policies for more than 40 years. They were already obliged to report findings to the Treasury Board Secretariat. With deliverology, the public service still did all that work, and now they also had to report the progress on all the government’s goals to a “delivery unit,” which, along with ministers and the prime minister, monitored and tracked these priorities.

Other public servants grumbled that all the resources and attention had gone to bureaucrats working on priorities, at the expense of other day-to-day operations.

Deliverology’s chief steward in Ottawa

Was the approach a total failure?

In a recent interview, Mendelsohn insisted the version adapted in this country works, and much of the criticism is misguided because Canada “never intended to do deliverology from A to Z as articulated in Barber’s book.”

He said the federal government borrowed four core principles from the UK model: to focus on policy implementation, establish routines around all aspects of the delivery process, identify obstacles to progress and remove them, and report publicly on progress in reaching the promised results.

When measured against those standards, Mendelsohn said, the system is working. He argued that the big “unappreciated” shift has been a culture change in the public service. Public servants are now trained to think about results and how to measure them at the front end of policy development, before proposals are ever brought to cabinet.

He said that shift is now baked into all reporting ─ including memoranda ─ to cabinet. The expected outcomes of a new policy or program, how they will be measured and tracked, must be incorporated.

“What we have done is we have brought greater focus on implementation into the initial policy-making choices, so cabinet and ministers are thinking about implementation, project management and delivery at the very beginning,” he said.

The idea behind deliverology was to bring a discipline into management and bridge a longstanding gap between policy-making and implementation, said Independent Senator Tony Dean, a former cabinet secretary in Ontario who helped create a delivery unit for Dalton McGuinty’s government.

For years, governments made big policy and project announcements, turned them over to the public service for implementation, and failed to deliver what was promised. Months could go by between an announcement and implementation, and ministers were not involved unless something went wrong.

The failure of the Phoenix pay system represented a cautionary tale for ministers of what happens when the senior echelons aren’t closely involved in the implementation of their policies and projects.

The ministerial mandate letters

Mendelsohn emphasizes the importance of the mandate letters Trudeau sent to all his ministers when they were appointed to cabinet. These letters laid out each minister’s marching orders and what they were expected to deliver over the government’s four-year mandate.

Up until then, mandate letters had been secret. Trudeau made them public, and he also introduced an online tracker to monitor the ministers’ progress in achieving the commitments outlined in the letters.

The argument was that when the letters are public, Canadians know exactly what the government is doing and which ministers are responsible for the policy — whether it was health care agreements, the Child Tax Benefit, or infrastructure.  Mendelsohn said the letters also created a daily pressure on departments to implement those commitments, because they were on the hook for reporting to ministers and the prime minister on the “progress being made and if not, why.”

Mendelsohn said the public release of the mandate letters, along with the online tracker, are crucial for transparency; they are driving accountability, culture change and “helping to get things done.”

One high-ranking bureaucrat acknowledged the letters became key to managing the government’s agenda in the face of a constantly changing political landscape. Without them, he said, the government would have lost traction on advancing its priorities in the second and third years of its mandate, given the unexpected threats such as the NAFTA 2.0 negotiations.

Many of the people interviewed argued that the mandate tracker backfired and distorted the principles underpinning deliverology.

Instead of focusing on a few top priorities, the government made all its election promises and the commitments in ministers’ mandate letters priorities, so that ─ as one official put it ─ “when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”

The original 2015 mandate letters gave ministers 289 tasks, but that to-do list has since swelled to 432, with new promises around the opioid crisis, irregular border crossings and other emerging issues. The mandate tracker suggests the government met 47 percent of its original promises, which would be 37 percent if the initiatives introduced in Budget 2019 are included.

“They never got it [deliverology] right, right off the bat,” said a former senior PCO official. “To my mind, it was an enormous failure in spirit not to identify just four or five priorities. The way it was handled, everything was a priority, and deliverology was another word for results-based management, which has been talked about since Moses was in short pants.”

Tony Dean said making the mandate letters public is a significant breakthrough, but the government should have picked a “handful of key priorities, elevated them, and shown tangible progress,” which they could be touting as they head into the fall election.

“It’s a method we know works,” said Dean. “If such goals had been set three years ago, the government would be readying to talk about progress made…”

The main question is whether Canadians are better off because of deliverology. Mark Schacter, who is the author of Does “Deliverology” Matter?, said there is no conclusive evidence it makes any “difference to the quality of public management” or to peoples’ lives.

Said Schacter, “A single-minded focus on targets sets public servants focused on targets, but being focused on targets is not necessarily the same as being focused on what’s good for Canadians.”

Source: What ever happened to deliverology?

The changing face of Canada’s judiciary: more women, more diversity

CBC catches up (see my earlier Taking stock of Ottawa’s diversity promises). McGill Professor Salzman makes the  assumption that previous processes were colour, gender, and race blind, as blind cv and other examples indicate is highly questionable if not downright false:

Canada’s judiciary is becoming more diverse, with more women, visible minorities, LBGT and Indigenous people on the bench.

The broader mix of judges — and especially the rising number of women hearing cases — is being hailed as historic progress by many in the legal profession. Some worry, however, that targeting “gross demographic categories” could erode a merit-based appointments system.

The number of Indigenous judges also remains low compared to other demographic groups.

The Liberal government overhauled the judicial appointments system in October 2016 in a bid to recruit a more diverse array of candidates and make the selection process more transparent. It made it mandatory to publicly report the number of applicants and appointees from demographics historically under-represented on the bench.

Statistics for the period Oct. 27. 2016 to Oct. 28, 2018, posted online by the Office of the Commissioner for Judicial Affairs, break down the 153 judicial appointments during that period:

  • 83 women
  • 70 men
  • 26 from “ethnic/cultural” groups
  • 16 visible minorities
  • 10 LGBT
  • 6 Indigenous
  • 3 with disabilities

Ray Adlington, president of the Canadian Bar Association, praised what he called the “significant progress” in boosting diversity in federal judicial appointments — which cover superior courts for provinces and territories, courts of appeal, the Federal Court, the Federal Court of Appeal and the Tax Court of Canada. He said he believes it’s crucial for the justice system to better reflect the population.

“If the judiciary visibly represents the society it serves, then it will give that society more confidence that the judiciary is serving the interests of that society,” he said.

“It will promote access to justice, it will promote confidence in judicial administration if the judges actually represent the society. Historically that has not been the case, but we’re certainly moving toward that objective.”

The most dramatic change in the judiciary has been in terms of gender balance, with 2016 marking the first year more women than men were appointed to the bench.

As of April 1, 2019, there were 1,193 federally-appointed judges, 492 of them women.

Andrea Gunraj of the Canadian Women’s Foundation called that progress, but said more needs to be done to achieve gender equity on the bench.

“There are other intersectional forms of equity to consider as well,” she said. “For instance, how many of the judges are Indigenous women? Racialized women? Women with disabilities? A judiciary that reflects all communities, in all their diversities, is so critical.”

More women in law schools

Acadia University law professor Erin Crandall said the key to transforming a judiciary that, historically, has tended to be made up of white men is to get students from more under-represented demographics into law schools.

“It’s a really slow process, because you don’t have somebody going from being in law school to being a judge in Canada. Typically they have 15 to 20 years’ experience,” she said. “Women started to enter law schools in greater numbers in the 1970s, so we’ve had this growth now over several decades.

“In some cases, we’re still building those larger potential applicant pools.”

The number of Indigenous appointees also remains relatively low. According to the Office of the Commissioner for Judicial Affairs, 46 individuals who identified as Indigenous applied for judicial appointments between 2016 and 2018. Twenty-one of them were ‘recommended’ or ‘highly recommended’ by the appointments process. Just six ended up being appointed.

Crandall said more law schools are beginning to launch special streams for Indigenous or black students to encourage more of them to join the legal profession.

The government’s last report on the appointments showed that, as of December 2018, eight of the country’s new justices were Indigenous, 20 identified as visible minorities, 13 identified as LGBTQ2 and three identified as people with disabilities.

The CBC has asked the federal government for more recent data but it has not supplied the information to date.

Justice Minister David Lametti has been fending off criticism about judicial appointments since the Globe and Mail reported that the government consults the Liberal Party’s database of supporters in the course of the appointment process.

Defending the vetting regime, Lametti insisted this week the government has worked to improve transparency and diversity in a merit-based process. The government has appointed or elevated 296 judges since it was elected in 2015, he said.

“The diversity of these candidates is unquestioned,” Lametti told the House of Commons in question period Thursday. “Fifty-five per cent of them are women and we’re going to continue to ensure that our appointments process is merit-based, continues to be fair, continues to be open and continues to attract the very best candidates.”

LGBT community playing ‘catch-up’

LGBT advocate and Toronto lawyer Richard Elliott said the representation of gay, lesbian and transgender Canadians on the bench is lagging behind other demographics. He pointed out that there has never been an openly gay or lesbian justice on the Supreme Court of Canada.

Part of the problem, he said, has been the small pool of LGBT candidates graduating from law schools and serving in the legal community.

“For many years, we were considered criminals. The law was used to oppress us and we were excluded from civil life in Canada, including the legal profession. So we’ve been playing catch-up for many years,” Elliott said.

Elliott said judges gain valuable insight into the lives of LGBT Canadians when they have colleagues on the bench who are openly gay or lesbian.

Call for a ‘blind’ appointment process

Some question the pursuit of judicial diversity, however. Philip Carl Salzman, professor emeritus of anthropology at McGill University, said he believes the diversity objective is “highly questionable” because it runs counter to recruitment based on merit.

“Diversity is gender, racial, sexual preference, ethnic, etc. Those seem to me to be a very poor basis for picking people who are supposed to make important decisions,” he said.

Salzman said he has seen a similar trend in academia, of people being hired on the basis of diversity goals over scholarly expertise. He said he believes candidates should not be selected as a result of “gross demographic categories” because it amounts to reverse discrimination.

“You’re going to get people who aren’t as good as you would if you had a colour-blind, sex-blind, gender-blind process,” he said.

Source: The changing face of Canada’s judiciary: more women, more diversity

PMO vets potential judges with Liberal database

Inappropriate in many ways. But it would be good to have some comparative data on the processes previous governments used, if any, in their review of possible partisan links to know if this is new or just a more sophisticated version of previous practice (e.g., running names by regional or other ministers).

As I have noted elsewhere, representation of women, visible minorities and Indigenous peoples increased dramatically under the current government (Taking stock of Ottawa’s diversity promises):

The Prime Minister’s Office is using a private party database called Liberalist in its background checks on candidates for judicial appointments, a tool that allows them to see whether would-be judges have supported the Liberal Party in recent years, records show.

The Liberal Party designed the database to be used for partisan purposes, such as helping Liberal candidates track and reach their supporters during election campaigns.

However, confidential documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show the PMO’s appointments branch is also using it to look into the partisan background of applicants for judicial positions. The documents, which were provided by a source, were produced by the PMO and show the results of database checks on judicial applicants. Liberalist is the only one of the databases that is not accessible to the public.

As justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould modified the process under which the federal government appoints judges to superior and federal courts in 2016, promising to increase the “openness, transparency, accountability and diversity of Canada’s judiciary.” In particular, the reforms gave greater independence to the seven-member judicial advisory committees (JAC) that evaluate the candidates for appointments.

However, sources said the process still includes a role for the PMO in vetting candidates further. The records show the PMO used Liberalist to evaluate candidates who had gone through the JAC process.

In the case of two lawyers who were vetted in 2018, for example, the documents indicate that Liberalist showed the years in which they were members of the Liberal Party of Canada, their history of donations to the party at the riding and national levels and the fact they voted in the 2013 leadership race. The database designated each of the two candidates (who were appointed to the bench) as a “supporter” of the party. It is not clear from the documents what “supporter” means.

A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it is “normal and appropriate” for the government to be ready to answer questions on the “political activities and affiliations of government appointees.”

“All judicial appointments follow our new, open, independent, transparent and merit-based process,” PMO spokeswoman Chantal Gagnon said. “Political activity or donations have no impact on a person’s candidacy or selection for a judicial appointment. Our government has appointed people that have donated or been involved with parties of all political stripes.”

Using information from Elections Canada’s public database of political donations, The Globe has determined that about 25 per cent of the 289 judges appointed or promoted by Mr. Trudeau’s government since 2016 had donated to the Liberal Party of Canada. About 6 per cent donated to the Conservative, New Democratic or Green parties.

Of the donations made by these judges, $321,650.58, or 90.9 per cent of the total amount, was directed to the Liberal Party. By comparison, 4.2 per cent of the identified donations went to the Conservative Party, 4.7 per cent to the NDP and 0.1 per cent to the Green Party.

LOOKING FOR RED FLAGS

Judicial appointments have been a frequent source of controversy in Canadian history, given that no rules prevent government officials from favouring lawyers with ties to their party.

The Prime Minister is in charge of appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada, which will have a vacancy in September, when Clément Gascon officially retires.

Lower-ranking judges are appointed on the advice of the cabinet after a recommendation from the justice minister.

In the first stage of the process, applicants are evaluated by one of 17 seven-member JACs across the country. These committees are made up of members appointed by the government to represent the general public and members who are appointed by the provinces and the legal community.

The previous Conservative government appointed four representatives of the public, giving them the voting majority.

Under the process Ms. Wilson-Raybould created, the federal government appoints only three members to represent the public. The other four represent the provincial bar, the provincial chapter of the Canadian Bar Association and the provincial chief justice and attorney-general.

The government said when it announced the new process that it allows the committees to rank applicants as “highly” recommended in order to favour “truly outstanding candidates” for judicial appointments.

According to federal sources and records, the office of the minister of justice and the Prime Minister’s Office then conduct additional vetting.

Under the current government, all the ministers from a candidate’s province are consulted. In addition, some backbench MPs (especially those that are lawyers) and individuals outside government can be asked for their thoughts.

The PMO uses public databases to look into the candidates’ past, putting their names in Google News or the media monitoring service Infomart to see whether they have generated controversy. The PMO also looks in the database of names that appeared in the Panama Papers (a database of people linked to tax havens), the federal registry of lobbyists and a federal website that lists recipients of contracts and grants.

With these and other open sources of information, the PMO compiles the candidates’ history of donations to political parties and digs through their social media accounts (such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram) to look for red flags.

‘SENSITIVE INFORMATION’

Liberalist was put together by Liberal officials and volunteers who compile information from their contacts with members of the public in person, on the phone or online. The information is continually updated and added to the official list of registered voters for use during election campaigns, providing information on the partisan activities of Canadians.

The party has been using Liberalist for a decade. The software was modelled on a database the Democratic Party in the United States used under Barack Obama, who made it part of his campaign to win the presidency for the first time, in 2008.

The Privacy Commissioner and the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada recently expressed concerns that federal privacy laws do not apply to the large databases of information political parties amass on voters.

“Information about our political views is extremely sensitive and worthy of strong privacy protections,” Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien said on April 1. “We know that political parties collect vast amounts of data about voters. Canadians expect and deserve to have their privacy rights respected as they exercise their democratic rights.”

The Globe’s analysis of Elections Canada’s political contributions database looked at 4.95 million contributions, combining two Elections Canada donation data sets (one from 2000 to 2004, and another from 2004 to the present). Contributions before 2000 were not included due to differences in the structure and quality of the data.

The analysis compared the names in that database with those of the 289 judges who were appointed or promoted under the current Liberal government.

To prevent cases of mistaken identity, the judges’ donations were confirmed by cross-referencing their home cities and postal codes. The fact that many lawyers include their middle initials in their names added certainty to a number of matches.

Due to typos or other errors in donation information submitted to Elections Canada, some donations may not have appeared in The Globe’s search. Because the analysis looked for donors’ names, a small number of individuals who share a full name with a sitting judge and live in the same area may have been captured in the analysis.

Over all, 1,187 contributions were matched to 83 judges – nearly one in three of those appointed. Seventy-five judges, or 90.4 per cent of all judges who made donations, gave to the Liberal Party or its candidates. Nine (10.8 per cent) donated to the Conservatives, eight (9.6 per cent) to the New Democratic Party and one to the Green Party of Canada. Ten judges donated to more than one party.

The office of Justice Minister David Lametti said judges were named or promoted based on competence, without any considerations for their political leanings.

“All judicial appointments are made on the basis of merit,” said spokesman David Taylor, who added the minister considers factors such as “the needs of the court, each candidate’s expertise and the strength of their application” in recommending candidates for appointment.

“Citizens are free to make donations to whatever political party they choose. This includes members of the bar. Our judicial appointments process neither disqualifies nor privileges an applicant because of his or her legal donation to a political party,” Mr. Taylor said.

Source: PMO vets potential judges with Liberal database

Ahead of federal election, imams at 69 Canadian mosques deliver message that every vote counts

Similar to 2015:

When Canadians go to the polls in October, a non-partisan group hopes Muslim voter turnout will be higher than ever — and seized one of the year’s most-attended days of prayer to mobilize the community with a single message: every ballot counts.

“As believers, every single one of us has social responsibilities that our very faith is contingent upon,” Imam Faraz Rabbani told congregants at the Bosnian Cultural Centre in Toronto. Voting, he said, is one of those responsibilities.

“The very basis of religion is that the believer is concerned about maximizing the good for themselves and others, and striving to diminish harm.”

Friday’s effort was part of a larger project by the non-partisan, non-profit group Canadian Muslim Vote. It sprang up in 2015 with the aim of breaking what had been a cycle of poor voter turnout among Muslims in Canada — something it says had a tangible impact at the polls.

65 ridings where demographic could make a difference

Good Friday isn’t a religious holiday for Muslims, but being a legal holiday in Canada, it typically sees one of the biggest turnouts of the year for Muslims who hold congregational prayer.

According to the last national household survey in 2011, Canada is home to some one million Muslims. This year, CMV estimates the number of eligible Canadian Muslim voters is closer to 1.6 million.

By 2030, one in 10 Canadians are expected to identify as Muslims, meaning Muslims stand to become one of the largest voting populations in the country, Statistics Canada estimates.

Muslims had historically been less likely to vote compared to other religious groups, according to research by Elections Canada. A 2007 working paper by the elections agency put Muslim voter turnout in the 2000 federal election at 67 per cent, compared with 85 per cent for voters who identified as Jewish, 82 per cent for Catholics and Protestants and 78 per cent for Hindus. Total voter turnout in that election was 61.2 per cent.

That changed in 2015. A post-election poll by Mainstreet Research pegged Canadian Muslim voter turnout at 79 per cent. National turnout in that election was 68.5 per cent.

This year, based on research by Canadian Muslim Vote, there are some 65 ridings where the Muslim voting population is larger than the margin of victory for the 2015 incumbent MP. [Note: The 2011 NHS (the 2016 Census did not include religious affiliation) showed 24 ridings where Muslims formed 10 percent or more of the population, with an additional 45 ridings with between 5 and 10 percent of the population.]

‘A populist movement taking hold’

One area where the Muslim vote could prove decisive is the riding of Milton, Ont. Its incumbent won by 2,438 votes in the last election. And while Muslims don’t vote as a block, the riding has a Canadian Muslim population of approximately 8,000, enough to have a direct impact on the result, CMV’s executive director Ali Manek told CBC News.

So what are the issues of greatest concern to Canadian Muslim voters?

“What we find in the Canadian-Muslim community through our surveys and community consultations is that the majority are concerned with the same things as the rest of Canadians: jobs, economy, taxation, immigration and foreign aid usually top the list,” Manek said. Islamophobia is another big concern, he said.

The group has been working to survey voters heading into the 2019 election and expects to have results on their key issues of concern this May.

Aziza Mohamed, a volunteer with the group, was among those who attended Friday’s event. She said the coming federal election is especially important.

“When we have political parties in our country that are actively courting racists and Islamophobes, it’s really important that we be engaged to fight against that,” she said.

“We have a populist movement taking hold … putting forth ideas that are completely contrary to what Canada stands for and to what Muslim Canadians stand for.”

Among the sermon’s key messages: that Muslims vote not only with themselves in mind, but consider the impact on the wider communities in which they live.

“Think much bigger than your local politics,” Rabbani said.

It’s a message that hit home for Oguz Sarkut, who regularly attends the Bosnian centre with his daughter.

His takeaway from the sermon: “If we don’t vote, we don’t have any right to complain.”

Source: Ahead of federal election, imams at 69 Canadian mosques deliver message that every vote counts

Fake feminist? Trudeau’s track record for appointing women looks real.

Same data as covered in my earlier Taking stock of Ottawa’s diversity promises, with only GiC data, including deputies and not other appointments, most notably judges:

Among the various ways Justin Trudeau is being slammed for his handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair, the charge that the Prime Minister has revealed himself during this controversy to be no real feminist is the hardest to pin down.

Did he fail to properly respect the independence of the attorney general, back last fall when Jody Wilson-Raybould had the job? On this core question, there are meetings and phone calls and text messages to argue about, rules and codes to interpret, in trying to arrive at an answer.

Did he botch efforts to contain the controversy after it exploded, and ultimately go too far in kicking Wilson-Raybould and her chief ally, Jane Philpott, out of the Liberal caucus? On these issues, political strategists, Parliament Hill veterans, and even pundits, have thoughts about crisis management to kick around.

Did he somehow let down the feminist side, though? This question naturally arises because the two former cabinet ministers testing Trudeau’s mettle both happen to be women. And, to quite a few commentators, that fact alone is telling enough. But it is hardly sufficient.

There’s no solid reason I’ve heard to presume that two male cabinet ministers would have fared differently had they dissented from Trudeau’s handling of a file that brings into play hard questions about the administration of justice, worrying possible economic outcomes, and, yes, potential ramifications in the coming fall election.

What’s needed to give the critiques of Trudeau’s feminist credentials heft are facts that don’t require guesses about the dynamics between men and women in Trudeau’s famously gender-balanced cabinet, or speculations about the PM’s own putative biases.

In other words, does any data show that he’s running the government in a way that’s better or worse for woman than what came before him? In fact, there are at least some numbers, and they tend to bolster his feminist credentials.

Maclean’s asked the Privy Council Office (PCO), the branch of the bureaucracy that supports the Prime Minister’s Office, for recent figures on what are called Governor in Council appointees. These are the fortunate individuals who get paid to work on federal commissions, boards, Crown corporations, agencies and tribunals.

As of the end of 2018, 49 per cent of these appointments had gone to women, according to the PCO data, up markedly from 35 per cent in 2015, the year the Trudeau Liberals beat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in an election. That 14-point rise in the share of these plum federal jobs going to women compares to just a four-point increase, from 31 per cent to 35 per cent, in the previous three-year period.

Those numbers represent—to home in on just one significant segment of them—a shift from women filing only about a third of the seats on Crown corporation boards when the Liberals took power to very nearly half now—up from 34 per cent at the end of 2015 to 48 per cent at the close of 2018. That’s up 14 points in three years of Trudeau rule, compared to six points over the previous three-year span.

Looking more broadly at women in the executive ranks of the federal public service—known to bureaucrats by their “EX 01” through “EX 05” designations—there’s been less dramatic change, but still an uptick. The number of women at that level stood at 2,567 last spring, up from 2,264 in the spring of 2015. That meant women accounted for 49 per cent of the government’s executive ranks, up from 46 per cent over that three-year period.

Arguably even more important, or at least more prestigious inside the government, is the cadre of deputy ministers—the top mandarins in federal departments. Overall the number of women filling these powerful posts climbed to 39 last year from 30 three years earlier. That translates into 46 per cent women at the deputy minister level last spring, compared to 41 per cent three years earlier.

Even taken together, of course, these numbers don’t mean Trudeau’s Liberals have excised sexism from the federal government. Still, weighed against mere impressions of what the SNC-Lavalin affair might signify about his feminist bona fides, knowing how many more women are working in key federal jobs these days has to count for something.

Source: Fake feminist? Trudeau’s track record for appointing women looks real.

ICYMI – Federal budget: Most government programs fail, but there are strategies for success

Good suggested strategies. Easier to state than implement, unfortunately:

In its federal budget, Canada’s Liberal government announced plans to create a Canadian Drug Agency to reduce the costs of drugs for Canadians and to expand a program to create 40,000 work placements for students within five years, among other initiatives.

But the documented litany of failures by governments of all levels, far and wide, to effectively implement policy and build programs and infrastructure doesn’t always provide much hope for the future.

Are governments bound to chronically fail, go over-budget or botch the big projects necessary to make major policy changes and introduce new systems or infrastructure to the public? There’s a mountain of research suggesting government projects routinely fail in Canada, the United States and Great Britain.

But now let’s look at a list of key success factors gleaned from the research into failure.

1. Sticky governance

This is more than setting up an oversight process for major implementations. It’s about avoiding the turnover of project leadership, running the project in a consistent way over time and sticking to the objective.

This takes not just dedicated staff — that’s a given — but also a consistent oversight by the real owner of the project. That means regular executive review, real challenges built into the system to protect everyone and an effective and speedy way to make decisions.

2. Multiple-channel risk analysis

A common theme in major implementation failure is that the whole team and organization was working in an echo chamber when it came to risks.

In major implementations, risk abounds since there are so many unknowns. This is new territory much of the time. And so effective risk management is key to dealing with those inevitable twists and turns of doing something differently. So many stories of failure will feature the deliberate glossing over or ignoring of warning signs, mostly in the interest of time or pressure to produce.

As the U.K. National Audit points out in its 2013 study: “The challenges of delivering government projects are compounded by the endemic over-optimism.”

Success is built on a clear understanding of the risks, gathered from a variety of sources, not just the echo chamber that reinforces your world view. That means looking for the requisite variety in both risk analysis and governance. As Karl Weick, a University of Michigan scholar and student of organizational resilience, points out: “…organizations with access to more varied images will engage in sense-making that is more adaptive than will organizations with more limited vocabularies.”

What does that mean for success? You need an organizational curmudgeon. You need to ensure differing views are expressed and not published. You need to fight the tendency for groupthink.

3. Test drive and shop around

The arc of so many failures often starts with a solution in pursuit of a problem. Options for implementation are often ignored in favour the bright shiny object that will solve all the problems.

Look at the recent announcement of a single health agency for Ontario. Much is being promised but there is no clear link between the problems in health and the way the health-care system is organized.

Success seems to lie in the very difficult process of selecting the solution. Central to this effort is to have different perspectives at play and to try out the potential solutions before committing to them.

Part of the test drive is to engage both the end user of the new system or policy and the client as well. They are the two players who will remain when the big project is done.

The end user is the field staff or operational unit that actually has to operate the changed systems. The client is, of course, the beneficiary or recipient of the changes.

In fact, the end user, is often ignored until the solution has been designed. And the commitment to that sole solution is so unwavering that the people who actually have to make it work in the real world had little say.

So get those people involved at the planning and thinking stages. Their real-life experience is an absolute necessity.

4. Bias recognition & the curmudgeon

Cognitive biases can often impinge clear thinking and cause people to ignore major warning signs.

Successful organizations build in many forms of the aforementioned curmudgeon, including process audits, end-user testing and feedback, client feedback and, most importantly, people who do not have a stake in either the favoured solutions or just pleasing the boss.

But it’s critical that the boss commits to protecting them if their input is negative.

5. Memory capture as a survival tool

Failure has a familiar character to it. In fact, many organizations seem doomed to a Groundhog Day existence of one failure after another, with new teams, new directions and new resolutions not to make the same mistakes —and then proceeding to fail again.

Escaping that syndrome requires organizations to learn from their mistakes and successes. How many times have you heard someone say: “You really messed that up. Can you tell me what you did? How can we learn from that?” I’m guessing not often.

That’s because generally, people are running for cover. Too bad. There are a variety of ways to escape the syndrome. Unfortunately, in the public sector, there is also a tendency to avoid even admitting errors to avoid political embarrassment.

But organizations can and should build case studies of both their successes and failures. There are also structured debriefs of the type that first responders use to assess their performance. There are a variety of tools. The key is wanting to use them.

Think small, then big

If one theme is consistent in failure, it’s that the implementers took on too much, too soon, too fast, assuming their premises were right and would, when put out into the real world, stand up to that harsh climate. All studies of the Canadian government’s Phoenix pay system crash point to the fast start, the removal of staff with expertise and the ramping-up of new staff and systems too quickly as central to the failure.

Many successful implementations, on the other hand, began as pilot projects, demonstration projects and localized start-ups that were then rolled out based on the lower-risk, less costly, less visible environment. A ready example of this approach is the successful implementation of full-day kindergarten in Ontario.

The rollout was staged. Many problems were handled as they occurred with a very responsive and consistent leadership team. The process was highly adaptive as new problems arose.

Implementing major policy changes or projects in government is a messy business. Starting with that understanding, adding a heavy dose of humility and learning from others is a good place to move closer to success.

Source: Federal budget: Most government programs fail, but there are strategies for success

To truly modernize social programs, it will take big data and analytics

I may be biased given some of the obstacles I faced when working on “citizen-centred service” in the early days of Service Canada, where even conceptual work regarding integrating disparate programs and services from a pathfinder perspective faced resistance.

The complexity and coordination required, the organizational and even program stovepipes, and the sheer difficulty in developing and implementing such a change agenda make me a sceptic. After all, the government wasn’t even able to integrate pay services for its own employees with Phoenix, and has had less visible problems and challenges with Shared Services Canada.

But of course, better use of big data, and better capacity to analyse the data, offer considerable potential to assess the effectiveness of current programs, identify gaps and improve outcomes:

Finding better ways of wiring for e-government is important and necessary. Nobody would disagree with the need for better computing, electronic communications and information management.

However, digital improvements will bring about only modest gains if they are applied to programs that, at core, are based on pre-computer technologies, as is the case with most of today’s social and health programs. Transformative changes in program objectives and designs based on big data and micro-analytic tools must be brought into the picture. We need to create a trove of “what works” data that will lead to individually tailored social programming.

Most of today’s social programs were designed decades ago and, reflecting the limits of the technology of the day, provide eligible individuals with standard services, products or income supports that are designed to address specific problems.

For example, an unemployed person might be assigned to a training course with a fixed duration and curriculum. A low-income senior will be provided with a top-up pension in an amount that is predetermined based on the individual’s annual income in the previous year. Someone diagnosed with a particular disease will receive a prescription for specific drugs. These benefits are provided by a variety of independent programs funded by different orders of government — and are often delivered by staff in the social work, education or health disciplines. It is difficult to coordinate or even communicate across these programs, which is why they are often referred to as program silos. Individuals who receive benefits are seen as recipients, clients, patients or students, not as citizens or partners.

It’s a reasonably efficient system that works reasonably well for most people most of the time. On balance, the results are positive, near the average of other OECD countries.

However, the system is seriously showing its age.

The underlying weakness shows up most starkly in the way the system deals with the most vulnerable. People who are most in need of health and social services or income support often face multiple obstacles in life. They might lack several types of skills, have inadequate housing and poor jobs, have differing degrees of family support and financial assets, and face a variety of health, disability and addiction issues. People with multiple needs can face an almost impenetrable array of separate programs, each with different terms and conditions and offering solutions that are partial at best. Even with the help of experts and case managers, it is often impossible to create sensible combined packages of benefits to meet individual needs.

For decades, service providers and groups representing the vulnerable have pointed out the problem of trying to shoehorn people into this complex system of fractured supports and benefits.

And for many years, policy documents relating to education, health and social policy have called for a more holistic approach, with benefits directly tailored to the diverse needs of individuals. These have been referred to as student-centred, citizen-centric and, more recently, individually driven approaches. In health, related aspirations are often referred to as precision medicine or personalized medicine, where medical treatments, practices or products are tailored to the individual patient.

However, the called-for changes have not occurred. Experiments, demonstrations and other initiatives that have attempted to cut across the boundaries of the program silos have proven difficult to sustain and have typically had little impact on the design of mainstream programming.

There are good reasons for the lack of success in moving outside traditional silos:

  • Traditional programming makes it relatively easy to provide ongoing funding, to ensure ministerial accountability and to provide the high professional standards that can ensure, for example, the quality of health and educational interventions.
  • No organization has a mandate to develop interventions that cross these traditional program boundaries.
  • The empirical data needed to assess the effectiveness of tailor-made, holistic interventions are underdeveloped and are certainly not yet strong enough to create the needed accountability arrangements. Strong accountability regimes — the monitoring and evaluation activities that ensure that money is spent effectively, transparently and in line with intended objectives — are essential if reform is to be sustained.

But the solution is on the near horizon: big data and predictive analytics. They offer the opportunity for all citizens to become real partners in the design and implementation of the social and health programs that affect their lives. They can provide transformative gains, particularly for people who are most vulnerable.

This technology is in use in other applications and can be applied to social policy. I discussed it in an IRPP essay I wrote in 2015, The Enabling Society. At its core, individuals would have access to information at the very time they need to make big social and health decisions, to make well-informed choices about which combination of training, social services, housing, income supports and health interventions is likely to work best for them. This information would be calculated from large data sets that record the experience of people who have been in similar circumstances and had similar aspirations in the past. This technology produces information that allows all dimensions of the system to work in harmony:

  • The “what works” information would also be available to case workers, teachers, health professionals and other front-line staff so they can become partners in helping individuals put together flexible packages of interventions that are most likely to meet an individual’s particular needs and aspirations, including benefits provided by programs originating in different disciplines and orders of government.
  • The same information would provide the designers and administrators of the many independent traditional programs with the tools to make improvements steadily and automatically over time based on feedback loops that routinely describe which features of the program are working best and for whom — and at what cost.
  • The same information would also support rigorous accountability regimes both for existing program silos and for the flexible arrangements that provide individually tailored packages of interventions.

Such a system would result in huge gains on multiple fronts: in individual and social well-being, in effectiveness, in reduced cost, in the openness and accountability of public programs and in the ability of different orders of government to work together more harmoniously and in a way that treats citizens as main partners in shaping and delivering social programs.

A radically different approach along these lines, one that so dramatically changes the relationship between government and citizen, obviously cannot be attained overnight.

We should start small, in areas where mechanisms already exist to allow cooperation across jurisdictional and program borders and where the needed “what works” information is already well developed. There are a number of possible starting points.

For example, Employment and Social Development Canada could work with one or more provinces in introducing “what works” information into the daily operation of training and other employment programs on an experimental or demonstration basis under the authority of existing labour market agreements, which provide federal funding to support provincial and territorial employability initiatives. These agreements already allow considerable flexibility in the funding and development of innovative employment programs. As well, the needed “what works” data have already been developed and are already routinely used in the evaluation of these projects.

Once their practicality and effectiveness have been clearly demonstrated, these small initiatives could extend naturally and gradually to other areas and would, eventually, become the normal way we do business.

At the same time, the government of Canada should undertake a large-scale exercise to develop big data from administrative sources, such as anonymized information from tax files, employment insurance records and provincial training and social assistance files. It should also develop the associated analytic tools that will allow us to use these rich data to better understand individual behaviour and the kinds of social interventions that are likely to work best at the level of particular individuals.

Such fundamental but gradual changes in the purpose and design of programs need to go hand in hand with the deep reforms in digital processes that have been discussed in this Policy Options series, including a stronger capacity throughout all parts of government in the use of computers, electronic communications and information management. Process reforms could, in some cases, increase efficiency and improve service delivery and customer satisfaction. They could also provide somewhat better information about what programs and benefits are available and allow greater access to administrative data that have been collected. However, if such reforms are made in isolation, divorced from deep “what works” changes in program goals and designs, they risk creating expectations for change that cannot be met.

Those in the e-government community are not directly responsible for changing basic social policy directions or reforming the structure of social programs, but they can nevertheless play a pivotal role in the development and use of big data and predictive analytics. This might at minimum involve active support for reforms along the lines laid out in a paper by the Experts Panel on Income Security of the Council on Aging of Ottawa that describes the kind of micro-level data and microanalytic tools that are needed. Such support, along with process reform, could go a long way in finally enabling the real transition to the digital world.

Source: To truly modernize social programs, it will take big data and analytics

Chris Selley: Here’s why Justin Trudeau’s identity-politics troubles were inevitable

Identity politics is practiced by all political parties, the variation lies more with respect to which identities they are trying to court compared to others.

That being said, Selley notes correctly some of the risks.

And it is amazing the extent to which the PM appears to have destroyed whatever remained of his brand over the past week: “sunny ways,” transparent government, gender equality and Indigenous reconciliation:

One assumes Jody Wilson-Raybould would prefer still to be Canada’s Minister of Justice. But there are certainly worse ways to go out. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau squirms before the cameras, mooting unsatisfying explanation after unsatisfying explanation as to just what transpired between his office and Wilson-Raybould in the matter of the SNC Lavalin prosecution, she’s practically soaked to the bone with praise.

There are serious questions as to how Wilson-Raybould could have stayed on in cabinet, or indeed not resigned as soon as the bad thing happened — whatever it was, assuming it happened. But when she finally threw in the towel on Tuesday, even NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh lauded her record: “Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first Indigenous woman AG of Canada, fulfilled her duties with courage and conviction,” he tweeted. “She spoke truth to power and in return she was fired by PM Trudeau.”

One notes Singh praised her record as Attorney-General, not as Justice Minister. Had Wilson-Raybould been shuffled to another relatively high-profile portfolio instead of being kicked down the stairs, the dominant narrative might have concerned what a terribly disappointing Justice Minister she was: Among many other complaints are the insane, likely unconstitutional impaired driving law and inaction on mandatory minimum sentences and victim surcharges, each of which is likely to disproportionately affect Indigenous and other visible minority Canadians; and of course, the continued wildly disproportionate number of Indigenous defendants and prisoners.

Indeed, Wilson-Raybould had plenty of Indigenous critics when she was in office. Now the dominant narrative is that her firing represents a major repudiation of Trudeau’s reconciliation agenda. It’s more than passing strange, but that’s the politics we have right now: Anywhere centre or left of centre, one’s identity and background count massively in or against your favour. That being the case, the Liberals’ current travails seem almost inevitable.

Trudeau’s first cabinet featured some very impressive resumes from a wide variety of people — but it was “because it’s 2015” that knocked half of Canada down in a swoon. From Day One, there were obvious questions: Why no black cabinet ministers? Why so many Sikhs? Why privilege one kind of proportional representation above another? Liberals waved such complaints away like mosquitoes: Can’t you people just enjoy a landmark achievement from a government that means well?

Well, no. Love identity politics or hate it, that’s not how it works. Eventually it was bound to fall apart. We’re seeing it right now.

At his Tuesday press conference, Trudeau repeatedly referred to Wilson-Raybould as “Jody” and Harjit Sajjan, who takes over from her at Veterans Affairs, as “Minsiter Sajjan.” To some, this smacked at worst deliberate sexism, at best of accidental sexism. To many others, this parsing will seem like a petty reach. (He couldn’t very well call her “Minister Wilson-Raybould,” could he?) But Trudeau can hardly complain. His party banged on forever about how disrespectful it was for the Conservatives to call him Justin.

When an MP or minister (or ex-MP or ex-minister) causes a political leader trouble, what does he do? Same thing an NHL GM does to justify a lousy trade: He has a friendly reporter explain what a nuisance that person was in the locker room. So we have heard various anonymous reports about Wilson-Raybould’s pugnacious, difficult and self-centred performance in cabinet. It’s standard operating procedure — but it’s also anonymously slagging off an Indigenous woman. That doesn’t fly in 2019.

At this point, the Wilson-Raybould demotion looks like a spectacular unforced error. But it would have taken a very, very different kind of politician to have avoided forever the trouble in which Trudeau now finds himself. Trudeau is not a very different kind of politician, and his staffers are not very different kinds of staffers. Several, including principal secretary Gerald Butts and chief of staff Katie Telford, cut their teeth in the office of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty — another supposed breath of fresh air that went rapidly stale and eventually left everyone at Queen’s Park gagging in a green haze of egg fart. McGuinty’s former deputy chief of staff just got out of jail.

The Trudeau gang does seem to truly believe in their own inherent virtue — that when they call up The Canadian Press to slag off a former cabmin, it’s literally not the same thing as when a Conservative staffer does it. They still seem utterly transfixed by the power of symbolism over action. But that doesn’t help any real people who need real help. Setting aside their words and their symbolic gestures, their actions have been little but conventional.

It’s a great disappointment to many — perhaps not least some of Trudeau’s own cabinet ministers. Several have expressed support and praise for Wilson-Raybould’s works since her resignation. Treasury Board President Jane Philpott even posted a photo of the two together.

It would be easy to read too much into that. But it raises the intriguing prospect that some of Trudeau’s MPs might be truer believers in his agenda than he is. These people were promised “government by cabinet,” after all. If they decide to insist on it, even more interesting days may lie ahead.

Source: Chris Selley: Here’s why Justin Trudeau’s identity-politics troubles were inevitable

Statistics Canada is better than you might think. But it can still do better: Munir Sheikh

Sheikh comments on the Globe’s data gap series and offers some practical suggestions of his own:

Canada has huge gaps in our data. That’s the big takeaway from The Globe and Mail’s notable series examining the state of Canadian data, which tells us that we lag behind some other countries, particularly the United States; that these gaps exist because of constrained funding and Statistics Canada’s bureaucratic, secretive mindset; and that these gaps are having a negative effect on our decision-making.

Yes, Canada has problems. But then, who doesn’t?

Citizens and governments around the world make millions of daily decisions on a vast array of issues, and each of these can potentially benefit from more data. The existence of gaps, therefore, is a virtual certainty anywhere in the world. The much-lauded U.S., for instance, does not produce detailed monthly GDP data, while Canada does, and many experts and statisticians feel that Canada’s important GDP data are of better quality than those that the U.S. does produce and require fewer revisions. Canada is also one of just a handful of countries that produced financial flow accounts, which allows policy-makers to better understand the nature and economic impacts of the 2008 financial market crash.

Canada also does an extraordinary job in producing high-quality census data at a much lower cost compared with many countries, thanks to innovations like sampling in census and being among the first to use the internet to gather citizens’ responses. Canada can also boast of higher survey-response rates in many areas than the United States. And all this despite having roughly a tenth of the resources available to the U.S. federal statistical system.

That certainly doesn’t mean all is good and well here. We face serious challenges when it comes to acquiring the highest quality and most relevant data. The quality of data deteriorates automatically as the country evolves amid forces like the ongoing tech revolution (e.g. using cell phones instead of land lines) and efforts to gather survey responses suffer. Data also becomes less relevant over time as the country’s needs begin to differ from the available information. For instance, we continue to produce a disproportionately large quantity of data on manufacturing than on the services industry, even though services now represents two-thirds of the economy. And Canada’s long-form census was, for a time, replaced by a voluntary survey that produced all the information the longer census would have accumulated but with lower quality – and a higher cost, to boot.

In my view, this has produced data gaps in census information, but bad data may be more dangerous than no data at all, since giving credence to bad information can lead to bad policy. The debate around data would be most productive if it’s framed around both quantity as well as quality, which would enable policy-makers and Canadians to deal with the most pressing national issues in an informed way. On this count, Statistics Canada has struggled, as do many others.

There are three things that can be done to proactively deal with data deterioration.

  • First, the government can increase funding for Statistics Canada to close the most important gaps that exist now, including information that measures the digital economy.
  • Secondly, Statistics Canada should, over time, reallocate resources from less-needed data to those that are more important. Despite its efforts, the agency has not been able to establish an effective resource-reallocation mechanism, because it has had to bend many times to the users of existing data. Users of any data become vocally unhappy if theirs stops being collected.
  • Lastly, Statistics Canada should tap new data sources and new ways of collecting information that can replace or augment existing methods.

Indeed, on that last front, Statistics Canada’s paranoia around confidentiality and privacy makes its brass gun-shy in acquiring or sharing new data with researchers. I witnessed it firsthand. Despite best efforts during my tenure as chief statistician, confidentiality concerns made it a slog to make more business-sector microdata available. But while Statistics Canada’s record of privacy-preservation and confidentiality is excellent – better than many of the most sensitive institutions in the U.S. (we have not endured crises like Wikileaks or the Pentagon Papers) – those issues have thwarted attempts to maintain data quality. Through politicians’ invocation of the bogeyman of privacy to try to kill the long-form census and a Global News report that exposed its requests for Canadians’ detailed financial-transaction data, Statistics Canada ironically finds itself in a lose-lose situation – criticized for its poor dissemination of data because it is so concerned about privacy, and denied access to new sources of data because privacy concerns have bred mistrust.

But the institution itself might just provide the way forward. Recent amendments to the Statistics Act established a Canadian Statistics Advisory Council to support the minister and the chief statistician, and this council should be tasked with convincing data users that certain resources should be allocated better. By playing an oversight role on privacy and confidentiality issues, too, the council can earn the trust of Canadians who, knowing that their data are safe and secure, might be more giving with their information for the national good.

There are certainly ways to improve Statistics Canada. But if collecting data is all about getting the whole picture, we can’t lose sight of what we’re already doing well.

Source: www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-statistics-canada-is-better-than-you-might-think-but-it-can-still-do/

In the dark: The cost of Canada’s data deficit

This incredibly valuable investigative reporting. I have excerpted a few of the sections I found most interesting but the entire article is worth a good read, and I look forward to future segments in this series.

I use StatsCan and other data frequently and generally find I can find what I need, or an alternate way to identity issues and trends. So I do have some sympathy for StatsCan Head Anora’s comments that sometimes researchers don’t try hard enough (e.g., see my critique of Karen Robson: Why won’t Canada collect data on race and student success?, weak to non-existent municipal diversity statistics can be found in census occupation group data).

But the example of birth statistics is where I cam up short. The vital statistics agencies do not capture visible minority data or accurate residency data, and do not verify identity documents of the parents. All of which mean, in addition to the all important health-related differences, that births to non-residents are drastically undercounted by StatsCan (in the end, I found better if imperfect numbers from hospital financial statistics: Hospital stats show birth tourism rising in major cities).

I look forward to their analysis of the data available on the government’s open data website as I did an analysis a few years back on the IRCC datasets, the most comprehensive ones available, but where timeliness is becoming an issue (IRCC Datasets: What they say about government priorities):

….

And yet, in fields ranging from public health to energy economics to the labour force to the status of children with disabilities, there’s a lot that Canada simply doesn’t know about itself.

Consider that we don’t have a clear national picture of the vaccination rate in particular towns and cities. We don’t know the Canadian marriage or divorce rate. We don’t know how much drug makers pay the Canadian doctors who are charged with prescribing their products. We don’t have detailed data on the level of lead in Canadian children’s blood. We don’t know the rate at which Canadian workers get injured. We don’t know the number of people who are evicted from their homes. We don’t even know how far Canadians drive – a seeming bit of trivia that can tell us about an economy’s animal spirits, as well as the bite that green policies are having.

Our ignorance is decades in the making, with causes that cut to the heart of Canada’s identity as a country: provincial responsibility for health and education that keeps important information stuck in silos and provides little incentive for provinces to keep easily comparable numbers about themselves; a zeal for protecting personal privacy on the part of our statistical authorities that shades into paranoia; a level of complacency about the scale of our problems that keeps us from demanding transparency and action from government; and a squeamishness about race and class that prevents us from finding out all we could about disparities between the privileged and the poor.

But if the problem has deep roots, it has never mattered more. We live in a data-driven age, when the internet and the processing power of computers has made it easier than ever to hoover up statistics about a society, make them public and accessible, and crowdsource better decisions about how to deliver everything from income support to green incentives to job training. Governments around the world have harnessed that power to make themselves smarter, leaner and more effective.

But government data are a different thing. It’s the information that various ministries, agencies and bureaus collect about citizens through administrative sources – such as tax filings and birth records – and questionnaires such as the census and community surveys. And unlike the tech companies that probe our digital lives for profit, governments aren’t in the business of caring what the numbers say about us individually: They’re looking for patterns.

The best way to spot trends is to enlist the public’s help by making your data open. At its best, this produces a charmed cycle: The government collects numbers, makes them anonymous and puts them on a website; a researcher, or even an ordinary citizen, notices something in the numbers (a spike in deaths! or a decline in productivity!); the government hears the alarm and can begin figuring out ways to address the problem.

….

In Canada, though, this cycle too often breaks down. Either the government hasn’t collected the relevant numbers or it won’t make them public. Important questions go unanswered. That’s especially dangerous for Canadian patients: Our health-care system is pockmarked with data gaps that leave people unsure of the quality and integrity of the care they’re getting, and leaves us in the dark about whether the system is meeting people’s needs.

….

No one asks themselves that question more often than academics. They are patient zero for Canada’s data-gaps epidemic. And the frustration they experience has implications for us all: When scholars work without access to proper data, they are unable to tell us stories about our world and ourselves that can only be unearthed when expert analysis is applied to a thorough rendering of the raw facts.

Lindsay Tedds, a professor of economic policy at the University of Calgary, has been struck recently by the difference, between the United States and Canada, regarding one of the most fundamental subsets of demographic data: birth records.

To begin with, the standard U.S. certificate of live birth collects all kinds of detailed information about the child’s parents – particularly their level of education and their race. “We know that African-American women die in childbirth at an alarming rate. We know that non-white babies are born smaller and earlier,” says Prof. Tedds. “Both of these factors are highly related to [the] poverty of the parents.” In Canada the picture is far less clear. “Imagine,” she says, “if we had similar detailed, population-level data, including for pregnancy and birth outcomes, for Indigenous moms.”

But even if the records were more detailed, she notes, the information would be harder to dig out: “The United States birth data, you just go onto a website and download it.”

In Canada, by contrast, birth data are kept in a series of facilities called Research Data Centres – the bane of many researchers trying to unlock tricky problems in Canadian social science. Statistics Canada opened the first RDC in 2000, with the aim of giving researchers access to so-called confidential microdata – the previously hidden guts of Statscan’s collections, such as census responses, health-survey results and birth records – without compromising anyone’s privacy.

But while they contain a rich trove of data, the fact that it is embedded with potentially identifying details about individual Canadians – not names, which are scrubbed ahead of time, but occupation and gender, for example – means that researchers must jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops before they can get their hands on it. Wendy Watkins, a Carleton University sociologist and former Statscan analyst, calls the centres “little data jails.”

There are 30 RDCs across Canada, almost all on university campuses – although Brandon, Sudbury, Trois-Rivières, Charlottetown and Peterborough, Ont., all university towns, have no such research centres. There are no RDCs at all in Nunavut, Yukon or Prince Edward Island. Because researchers have to visit them in person, that often means travelling hundreds of kilometres.

And that journey only gets them to the jailhouse gates. Then the real hurdles emerge. These can include providing a five-year address history, submitting a research proposal well ahead of time, and being formally sworn in as a government employee for the duration of your visit, complete with a legally binding oath of secrecy. If you are not a graduate student or university faculty, you’re likely to face more than a dozen steps before being able to actually publish your research. In some cases, researchers have to pay a sizable fee – routinely more than $5,000 – to access the information.

“I had to get fingerprinted,” says Prof. Andersen of Western, “even though I had my passport. What did they think, I was faking my passport?”

In other countries, the kind of data we keep cloistered in RDCs for privacy reasons is often simply scrubbed of identifying details and opened to the public. Says Calgary’s Prof. Tedds, “We know enough about how to censor and anonymize data that those concerns … they shouldn’t be concerns.”

Placing the burden of security onto individual researchers, in turn, means that reams of information, painstakingly gathered by our government and waiting to be sorted, distilled and interpreted – and, possibly, put to use improving Canadian lives – remain untapped. “I’ve had a few colleagues tell me they don’t study Canada because it’s too much of a pain in the neck,” Prof. Siddiqi says. “Of course I also want to study Canada, but at a certain point you have to throw your hands up.”

The recent controversy over Statscan’s plan to request customers’ personal financial data from Canadian banks might have given the impression of an outfit with a cavalier attitude toward privacy. In fact, the episode was deeply out of character for the agency. Typically, Statscan suffers from the inverse problem, what former assistant chief statistician Michael Wolfson calls “excessive privacy chill.”

The secrecy, bureaucracy and plain eccentricity that have come to characterize the country’s central data-gathering agency are far from unique among federal departments and ministries. Almost every one of them gathers and publishes its own significant stores of data – and Canada’s Auditor-General has spent years quietly pointing out how badly they tend to manage the task.

Glenn Wheeler, a principal in the federal watchdog’s office, says ministries often don’t gather enough data about their own policies to have a good sense of whether those policies are working – or don’t release enough data to convince the public, which is paying for the programs through tax dollars. “It’s a serious issue we find across our audits, across departments, across a number of years,” he says.

What Mr. Wheeler doesn’t mention, but is hard not to notice, is the number of data gaps that threaten to undermine policies the government of Justin Trudeau has put a lot of stock in – policies meant to address such issues as sexual abuse, the settlement of refugees and improving the lot of Indigenous Canadians. “Good policy is impossible without good data,” said Finance Minister Bill Morneau in a 2016 speech. But this government’s trademark policies often don’t have good data behind them.

In an audit of the Canadian Armed Forces released last fall, the auditor-general found that the military had “no centralized system to collect and track incidents of inappropriate sexual behaviour in a systematic way,” despite launching Operation Honour to combat sexual misconduct in its ranks in 2015. An Armed Forces spokesperson told The Globe that the military is now addressing the issue: a sexual-misconduct tracking system was “implemented” this past October and it will be “fully operational” some time in 2019.

Meanwhile, a 2017 study of the government’s efforts to settle Syrian refugees – one of the Trudeau government’s signature initiatives – found that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada was not gathering numbers on such key measures as the average number of months those refugees spent on income assistance, the effectiveness of the language training they have received, or the percentage of refugee children attending school.

….

As the benefits of open government data become more widely accepted, Canada is falling behind many of its peer countries in making use of the stuff. Ireland publishes a comprehensive biennial data set on the well-being of children; Denmark tracks every aspect of gender equality; Britain breaks down many social-welfare indicators by ethnicity; and Australia publishes national workplace-injury rates – none of which can be said of Canada.

But no country throws our data failures into starker relief than does the United States. You might expect our southern neighbours to be data laggards: After all, theirs is a country that tends to prefer small government and emphasize individual rights over the common good.

Instead, Americans are world leaders at gathering and sharing an abundance of national numbers. “The U.S. has awesome data on almost everything,” says Jennifer Winter, director of energy and the environment at the University of Calgary school of public policy.

Some attribute U.S. public-data excellence to the country’s (small-r) republican form of government, which treats government property as the people’s. But it’s not just a question of national DNA. The United States has made strides in recent years as a result of deliberate government policy.

In 2013, then-president Barack Obama signed an executive order making government data open and machine-readable by default – a move which, remarkably, Donald Trump signed into law just this month after being presented with a bipartisan bill giving Congressional approval to the broad strokes of president Obama’s order.

During his tenure, Mr. Obama also hired Silicon Valley whiz D.J. Patil as the country’s chief data scientist. Mr. Patil’s marching orders: to free up more of the information that had been mouldering, unseen and unused, in federal government vaults. He realized, in short, that the country could solve more of its problems if it had more eyeballs trying to identify them. “Through these data sets, you get brilliant insights,” he says. “We’re harnessing the power of the country’s entire knowledge base.”

Embedded in Mr. Obama’s health-care law, meanwhile, was a sunshine list for payments made by drug companies to doctors. The data helped reveal some chastening facts. Among them: The more money the average doctor receives from opioid makers, the likelier she is to prescribe opioids; and even such small gifts as a single meal tend to tilt doctors toward prescribing more expensive brand-name drugs.

That analysis would not be possible in Canada; the numbers aren’t there. (Under its previous Liberal government, Ontario was on the verge of forcing pharma-payment disclosure, but the program has been put on hold by Doug Ford’s Conservatives.)

A disarming number of people who have spent time thinking about the problem come to the same conclusion about why this is: Yes, federalism creates data silos, and yes, Statscan is too risk-averse and cash poor, and yes, provinces and federal departments have a built-in incentive to keep their failures hidden with data blackouts. But maybe, just maybe, the problem has even deeper cultural roots. Maybe we’re just not curious enough about what goes on within our borders – blissful in our ignorance. Maybe, these people suggest, the problem comes down to Canadian complacency.

Tellingly, Canada’s Copyright Act, signed in 1921, gave the Crown the rights, for a full 50 years, to any work produced by any government department – a stark contrast with our southern neighbour, which banned government copyright in the 19th century. “The U.S., in its early history, made legislation that said, ‘We shall make this information available to the people,’ ” says Mark Leggott, executive director of Research Data Canada, a non-profit that helps researchers use public data. “In Canada, we made it so that the information was the property of the Queen.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Liberals’ 2015 election platform promised to “embrace open data” and stated that a Liberal government would “make government data available digitally, so that Canadians can easily access and use it.”

And, to be fair, the Trudeau government has certainly made some progress over the past three years. Most famously, it reinstated the mandatory long-form census, which Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had axed in 2010.

A spokesperson for Jane Philpott, the minister of digital government, a portfolio recently created and tacked on to the Treasury Board, also noted that 81,909 data sets are available through the federal open-government portal (though many of those were published by previous governments). Anyone can now open their laptop and look up everything from Canada’s sulphur-oxide emissions, over time, to the country’s “spatial density of oats cultivation.”

Like the governments of every industrialized country, Canada posts far more data online than anyone would have thought possible 30 years ago. It actually tied for first with Britain in a recent “open-data barometer” created by the World Wide Web Foundation (though it’s worth noting that the ranking awards points for fairly basic achievements, like publishing government budgets and election results, and that Canada scored poorly on national environmental statistics).

Statistics Canada would like you to know that it is making progress, too. Anil Arora, the agency’s chief statistician, points to new technologies and techniques that are changing the way it collects public data. Last year, for instance, the agency crowdsourced black-market cannabis prices by asking the public to use an app called StatsCannabis. More than 20,000 people responded. Statscan is also experimenting with “virtual data research centres” that will make microdata more easily accessible by computer, although their inauguration is likely years away.

Notwithstanding the backlash to Statscan’s banking-information scheme – and anxiety in some quarters about giving government more power to gather the personal information of citizens – the public has also shown signs of embracing the value of government data in recent years. The cancellation of the 2011 mandatory long-form census had the unexpected consequence of raising the census’s profile, and maybe even its popularity. The 2016 response rate was the highest ever, at 98.4 per cent, suggesting that Canadians see taking part in data collection as their civic duty, provided their confidentiality is protected and they feel it’s for the public good.

To be sure, a problem as vast and diffuse as a country’s ignorance about itself can hardly be laid neatly at one government’s door, much less one ministry’s. Still, given the Liberals’ enthusiasm for evidence and openness, their reluctance to frankly admit that Canada has a data deficit and to propose concrete solutions is notable.

When asked to comment for this story, the Prime Minister’s Office deferred to the minister of digital government, whose spokesperson’s answers focused on the government’s achievements, especially relative to the Harper Conservatives, and who spoke in general terms about plans for more data openness in the future. For example, in response to a question about the dozens of data gaps identified by The Globe, the spokesperson replied, “We have reinstated the long-form census, unmuzzled government scientists, and made ministerial mandate letters public while tracking progress on those commitments to Canadians. We know there is always more work to do.”

The leaders of Statscan were also reluctant to take ownership of Canada’s data-gap problem. In an interview last year, Mr. Arora pointed a finger at academic researchers who are unable to ferret out the numbers they need. “I would argue that there’s still a lot of data that we have that either researchers don’t even know about or underutilize,” he said. “They find the vetting steps, the confidentiality component, to be a little too much for them.”

In the meantime, Canadian public data remains full of lapses, hesitations and holes – for things as basic as average wait times for mental-health services and the number of homeless people who die on our streets. And the data we have is often so hard to access, it might as well be hidden. Even Mr. Arora knows the dangers of asking the country to fly blind this way: “There could come a day when the population says, ‘You had access to all of these data stores and you could have reasonably used it to prevent something nasty from happening. Why didn’t you?’ ”

Mr. Arora posed his question as a hypothetical – but didn’t need to. Every day, Canadian governments have the chance to prevent nasty things from happening, by putting stark numbers in front of Canadians, so that the public can demand change where it’s needed and build on what the country is doing right. And every day, governments pass up the opportunity to do so. On maternal health, on Indigenous education, on environmental action, on the safety of drugs and the integrity of the doctors who prescribe them, on matters as seemingly mundane as how far Canadians drive and as patently urgent as the rate at which whole demographic groups are dying, governments deprive Canadians of the data needed to make good decisions. Every day, they leave Canadians in the dark.

Source: The cost of Canada’s data deficit When it comes to basic data about its own citizens – from divorce rates to driving patterns to labour trends – Canada simply doesn’t have the answers. If information is power, this country has a big problem.