Ivison: Liberals’ passport redesign latest attempt to reshape Canada’s symbols

Valid critique: “But the criticism remains the same for the Liberals as it was for the Conservatives — it should not be the sole preserve of political parties to present their own vision of the country as a fait accompli, without consultation or debate with its citizens,” even if some of the proposed changes have merit (while some do not):
The Liberals are engaged in a “radical” redesign of the Canadian passport that is likely to leave it looking very different, including replacing the Royal Coat of Arms on the cover and substituting pictures of the Fathers of Confederation, the National Vimy Memorial, the RCMP and the Stanley Cup with images “more reflective of what Canada is today,” sources say.
The changes will be announced in the coming weeks and be introduced in July, according to one official.The government is obliged to update security features every five years to embed new anti-counterfeit measures, but the Liberals have not modernized the passport since coming to power. The current passport contains a hidden chip to prevent forgeries and officials say the new technology being employed is “world-renowned and state of the art.”

According to a senior government official: “The new passport will feature state-of-the-art security measures that are critical in protecting the integrity of our passport system and in line with best practices and international standards.”

As with past governments, the Liberals are using the security overhaul to feature images that more closely reflect their values, including more prominent representation of women and Indigenous Canadians.

The Trudeau government is even said to have investigated the concept of changing the dark blue passport to Liberal red — an idea that has apparently been put on hold, subject to quality testing.It is the latest example of the Trudeau government making a calculated effort to reshape Canada’s symbols to reflect its own values.

The National Post reported earlier this week that Ottawa is set to unveil a new design for the Canadian Crown that sits atop the Royal Coat of Arms in time for the Coronation of King Charles this weekend. The so-called “Trudeau Crown” removes all religious imagery — crosses and Fleur-de-lis — and replaces them with maple leafs and snowflakes, sources said.

Nothing is new in politics and governments of all stripes have tried to redefine what it means to be Canadian by introducing symbols that more closely reflect their agenda.In late 2009, then Immigration minister Jason Kenney, unveiled a new Canadian Citizenship Guide that he said focused on the history, values and institutions of Canada. The booklet provided detailed accounts of Canada’s wars and emphasized the obligations that come with citizenship.

Kenney was heavily criticized at the time when it emerged he had taken steps to nix references to gay rights and same sex marriage.

The Conservatives also ordered all foreign embassies and consulates to display portraits of the Queen, reinstated the word “Royal” in the titles of the air force and navy, and bankrolled the commemoration of the War of 1812 (while ignoring the anniversary of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms).

Critics at the time accused the Conservatives of politicizing history and adopting a “Victorian” view that highlighted militarism, monarchism and imperialism. Defenders of the new symbols pointed out that Canada has long struggled with the idea of what it means to be Canadian and the Conservatives’ more “muscular” image was intended to articulate a national identity.

We have not yet seen the Liberal passport or even the redesigned Canadian Crown, so judgment must necessarily be reserved.

But if the Harper government was intent on erasing all symbols introduced by Trudeau senior, it is fair to suggest the Liberals’ co-ordinated campaign is aimed at wiping away all vestiges of the Harper years.

It all smacks a bit of Seinfeld’s George Constanza choosing to do the opposite of his natural inclination — if the Conservatives leaned heavily on the military and the monarchy, the opposite would have to be right.

But the criticism remains the same for the Liberals as it was for the Conservatives — it should not be the sole preserve of political parties to present their own vision of the country as a fait accompli, without consultation or debate with its citizens.

Source: Liberals’ passport redesign latest attempt to reshape Canada’s symbols

This company adopted AI. Here’s what happened to its human workers

This is a really interesting study. Given that it involved call centres and customer support, IRCC, ESDC, CRA and others should be studying this example of how to improve productivity and citizen service:

Lately, it’s felt like technological change has entered warp speed. Companies like OpenAI and Google have unveiled new Artificial Intelligence systems with incredible capabilities, making what once seemed like science fiction an everyday reality. It’s an era that is posing big, existential questions for us all, about everything from literally the future of human existence to — more to the focus of Planet Money — the future of human work.

“Things are changing so fast,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, a leading, technology-focused economist based at Stanford University.

Back in 2017, Brynjolfsson published a paper in one of the top academic journals, Science, which outlined the kind of work that he believed AI was capable of doing. It was called “What Can Machine Learning Do? Workforce Implications.” Now, Brynjolfsson says, “I have to update that paper dramatically given what’s happened in the past year or two.”

Sure, the current pace of change can feel dizzying and kinda scary. But Brynjolfsson is not catastrophizing. In fact, quite the opposite. He’s earned a reputation as a “techno-optimist.” And, recently at least, he has a real reason to be optimistic about what AI could mean for the economy.

Last week, Brynjolfsson, together with MIT economists Danielle Li and Lindsey R. Raymond, released what is, to the best of our knowledge, the first empirical study of the real-world economic effects of new AI systems. They looked at what happened to a company and its workers after it incorporated a version of ChatGPT, a popular interactive AI chatbot, into workflows.

What the economists found offers potentially great news for the economy, at least in one dimension that is crucial to improving our living standards: AI caused a group of workers to become much more productive. Backed by AI, these workers were able to accomplish much more in less time, with greater customer satisfaction to boot. At the same time, however, the study also shines a spotlight on just how powerful AI is, how disruptive it might be, and suggests that this new, astonishing technology could have economic effects that change the shape of income inequality going forward.

The Rise Of Cyborg Customer Service Reps

The story of this study starts a few years ago, when an unnamed Fortune 500 company — Brynjolfsson and his colleagues have not gotten permission to disclose its identity — decided to adopt an earlier version of OpenAI’s ChatGPT. This AI system is an example of what computer scientists call “generative AI” and also a “Large Language Model,” systems that have crunched a ton of data — especially text — and learned word patterns that enable them to do things like answer questions and write instructions.

This company provides other companies with administrative software. Think like programs that help businesses do accounting and logistics. A big part of this company’s job is helping its customers, mostly small businesses, with technical support.

The company’s customer support agents are based primarily in the Philippines, but also the United States and other countries. And they spend their days helping small businesses tackle various kinds of technical problems with their software. Think like, “Why am I getting this error message?” or like, “Help! I can’t log in!”

Instead of talking to their customers on the phone, these customer service agents mostly communicate with them through online chat windows. These troubleshooting sessions can be quite long. The average conversation between the agents and customers lasts about 40 minutes. Agents need to know the ins and outs of their company’s software, how to solve problems, and how to deal with sometimes irate customers. It’s a stressful job, and there’s high turnover. In the broader customer service industry, up to 60 percent of reps quit each year.

Facing such high turnover rates, this software company was spending a lot of time and money training new staffers. And so, in late 2020, it decided to begin using an AI system to help its constantly churning customer support staff get better at their jobs faster. The company’s goal was to improve the performance of their workers, not replace them.

Now, when the agents look at their computer screens, they don’t only see a chat window with their customers. They also see another chat window with an AI chatbot, which is there to help them more effectively assist customers in real time. It advises them on what to potentially write to customers and also provides them with links to internal company information to help them more quickly find solutions to their customers’ technical problems.

This interactive chatbot was trained by reading through a ton of previous conversations between reps and customers. It has recognized word patterns in these conversations, identifying key phrases and common problems facing customers and how to solve them. Because the company tracks which conversations leave its customers satisfied, the AI chatbot also knows formulas that often lead to success. Think, like, interactions that customers give a 5 star rating. “I’m so sorry you’re frustrated with error message 504. All you have to do is restart your computer and then press CTRL-ALT-SHIFT. Have a blessed day!”

Equipped with this new AI system, the company’s customer support representatives are now basically part human, part intelligent machine. Cyborg customer reps, if you will.

Lucky for Brynjolfsson, his colleagues, and econ nerds like us at Planet Money, this software company gave the economists inside access to rigorously evaluate what happened when customer service agents were given assistance from intelligent machines. The economists examine the performance of over 5,000 agents, comparing the outcomes of old-school customer reps without AI against new, AI-enhanced cyborg customer reps.

What Happened When This Company Adopts AI

The economists’ big finding: after the software company adopted AI, the average customer support representative became, on average, 14 percent more productive. They were able to resolve more customer issues per hour. That’s huge. The company’s workforce is now much faster and more effective. They’re also, apparently, happier. Turnover has gone down, especially among new hires.

Not only that, the company’s customers are more satisfied. They give higher ratings to support staff. They also generally seem to be nicer in their conversations and are less likely to ask to speak to an agent’s supervisor.

So, yeah, AI seems to really help improve the work of the company’s employees. But what’s even more interesting is that not all employees gained equally from using AI. It turns out that the company’s more experienced, highly skilled customer support agents saw little or no benefit from using it. It was mainly the less experienced, lower-skilled customer service reps who saw big gains in their job performance.

“And what this system did was it took people with just two months of experience and had them performing at the level of people with six months of experience,” Brynjolfsson says. “So it got them up the learning curve a lot faster — and that led to very positive benefits for the company.”

Brynjolfsson says these improvements make a lot of sense when you think about how the AI system works. The system has analyzed company records and learned from highly rated conversations between agents and customers. In effect, the AI chatbot is basically mimicking the company’s top performers, who have experience on the job. And it’s pushing newbies and low performers to act more like them. The machine has essentially figured out the recipe for the magic sauce that makes top performers so good at their jobs, and it’s offering that recipe for the workers who are less good at their jobs.

That’s great news for the company and its customers, as well as the company’s low performers, who are now better at their jobs. But, Brynjolfsson says, it also raises the question: should the company’s top performers be getting paid even more? After all, they’re now not only helping the customers they directly interact with. They’re now also, indirectly, helping all the company’s customers, by modeling what good interactions look like and providing vital source material for the AI.

“It used to be that high-skilled workers would come up with a good answer and that would only help them and their customer,” Brynjolfsson says. “Now that good answer gets amplified and used by people throughout the organization.”

The Big Picture

While Brynjolfsson is cautious, noting that this is one company in one study, he also says one of his big takeaways is that AI could make our economy much more productive in the near future. And that’s important. Productivity gains — doing more in less time — are a crucial component for rising living standards. After years of being disappointed by lackluster productivity growth, Brynjolfsson is excited by this possibility. Not only does AI seem to be delivering productivity gains, it seems to deliver them pretty fast.

“And the fact that we’re getting some really significant benefits suggests that we could have some big benefits over the next few years or decades as these systems are more widely used,” Brynjolfsson says. When machines take over more work and boost our productivity, Brynjolfsson says, that’s generally a great thing. It means that society is getting richer, that the economic pie is getting larger.

At the same time, Brynjolfsson says, there are no guarantees about how this pie will be distributed. Even when the pie gets bigger, there are people who could see their slice get smaller or even disappear. “It’s very clear that it’s not automatic that the bigger pie is evenly shared by everybody,” Brynjolfsson says. “We have to put in place policies, whether it’s in tax policy or the strategy of companies like this one, which make sure the gains are more widely shared.”

Higher productivity is a really important finding. But what’s probably most fascinating about this study is that it adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests that AI could have a much different effect on the labor market than previous waves of technological change.

For the last few decades, we’ve seen a pattern that economists have called “skill-biased technological change.” The basic idea is that so-called “high-skill” office workers have disproportionately benefited from the use of computers and the internet. Things like Microsoft Word and Excel, Google, and so on have made office workers and other high-paid professionals much better at their jobs.

Meanwhile, however, so-called “low-skill” workers, who often work in the service industry, have not benefited as much from new technology. Even worse, this body of research finds, new technology killed many “middle-skill” jobs that once offered non-college-educated workers a shot at upward mobility and a comfortable living in the middle class. In this previous technological era, the jobs that were automated away were those that focused on doing repetitive, “routine” tasks. Tasks that you could provide a machine with explicit, step-by-step instructions how to do. It turned out that, even before AI, computer software was capable of doing a lot of secretarial work, data entry, bookkeeping, and other clerical tasks. And robots, meanwhile, were able to do many tasks in factories. This killed lots of middle class jobs.

The MIT economist David Autor has long studied this phenomenon. He calls it “job polarization” and a “hollowing out” of the middle class. Basically, the data suggests that the last few decades of technological change was a major contributor to increasing inequality. Technology has mostly boosted the incomes of college-educated and skilled workers while doing little for — and perhaps even hurting — the incomes of non-college-educated and low-skilled workers.

Upside Downside

But, what’s interesting is, as Brynjolfsson notes, this new wave of technological change looks like it could be pretty different. You can see it in his new study. Instead of experienced and skilled workers benefiting mostly from AI technology, it’s the opposite. It’s the less experienced and less skilled workers who benefit the most. In this customer support center, AI improved the know-how and intelligence of those who were new at the job and those who were lower performers. It suggests that AI could benefit those who were left behind in the previous technological era.

“And that might be helpful in terms of closing some of the inequality that previous technologies actually helped amplify,” Brynjolfsson says. So one benefit of intelligence machines is — maybe — they will improve the know-how and smarts of low performers, thereby reducing inequality.

But — and Brynjolfsson seemed a bit skeptical about this — it’s also possible that AI could lower the premium on being experienced, smart, or knowledgeable. If anybody off the street can now come in and — augmented by a machine — start doing work at a higher level, maybe the specialized skills and intelligence of people who were previously in the upper echelon become less valuable. So, yeah, AI could reduce inequality by bringing the bottom up. But it could also reduce inequality by bringing the top and middle down, essentially de-skilling a whole range of occupations, making them easier for anyone to do and thus lowering their wage premium.

Of course, it’s also possible that AI could end up increasing inequality even more. For one, it could make the Big AI companies, which own these powerful new systems, wildly rich. It could also empower business owners to replace more and more workers with intelligent machines. And it could kill jobs for all but the best of the best in various industries, who keep their jobs because maybe they’re superstars or because maybe they have seniority. Then, with AI, these workers could become much more productive, and so their industries might need fewer of these types of jobs than before.

The effects of AI, of course, are still very much being studied — and these systems are evolving fast — so this is all just speculation. But it does look like AI may have different effects than previous technologies, especially because machines are now more capable of doing “non-routine” tasks. Previously, as stated, it was only “routine” tasks that proved to be automatable. But, now, with AI, you don’t have to program machines with specific instructions. They are much more capable of figuring out things on the fly. And this machine intelligence could upend much of the previous thinking on which kinds of jobs will be affected by automation.

Source: This company adopted AI. Here’s what happened to its human workers

Time is right to scrap requirement to swear oath to the King, MPs and Senators say

Easy to agree, virtually impossible to implement and a distraction from more fundamental issues. However, the citizenship oath could be changed as former immigration minister Marchi tried to do in the 90s:

As King Charles prepares for his coronation at Westminster Abbey on Saturday, some senators and Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois MPs want to abolish the federal requirement that parliamentarians pledge loyalty to the monarch. Instead, they say, office-holders should have the option of swearing an oath to Canada, or the Canadian people.

MPs and senators have to swear or affirm an oath to “be faithful and bear true allegiance” to the British monarch before taking their seats in Parliament after an election. They can’t sit if they refuse. The obligation dates back to the Constitution Act of 1867.

The oath is also taken by people with official positions across Canada, including judges, RCMP officers and members of the armed forces. New Canadians likewise pledge loyalty to the Crown at their citizenship ceremonies. The oath used to be sworn to Queen Elizabeth, until her death last year. It is now sworn to the new King.

Quebec Liberal MP Joel Lightbound said he has sworn an oath to the monarch three times since first being elected. “Having an alternative to swearing allegiance to the British Crown would have made me very happy,” he said.

“In my opinion federal elected officials should have the choice to swear or not swear allegiance to the Crown in future.”

Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus said he was “personally astounded” when he first found out he had to swear allegiance to the British monarch as a requirement of taking his seat in Parliament. He said he imagined his late Scottish grandmother, an avowed republican, striking him with lightning for doing so.

He said it is “simply not credible” that the only obligation in the oath is to the Crown, not Canadians.

Reviewing the oath is a “very legitimate conversation” to have as the new King is crowned, he said.

Ontario NDP MP Matthew Green agreed. “An oath to an overseas monarch in perpetuity is increasingly outdated,” he said.

He added that he and many other Canadians “would be more comfortable with an oath that reflects the allegiance to the Constitution and the people of Canada.”

“While tradition is an important part of our culture and identity, from time to time it’s healthy to review these traditions and determine whether or not they still reflect our current values,” he said.

Senator Tony Dean, a former head of the Ontario Public Service, also said an oath to the monarch “seems dated” today.

“Of course the oath could be refreshed or replaced,” he said. But he noted that, because the oath is entrenched in the Constitution, changing it could require a constitutional amendment.

Michael Wernick, a former head of the federal public service and a former a senior official in constitutional affairs, said revisiting the oath with 220 parliamentary sitting days left until the next election would be “a huge waste of energy.”

“There’s more important things to focus on,” he said.

But New Brunswick Liberal MP René Arseneault, who is of Acadian heritage, said creating an alternative to the oath for MPs and senators who don’t want to swear allegiance to the Crown is “doable.”

Mr. Arseneault successfully challenged a requirement to swear an oath to the Queen when he joined the bar in New Brunswick. He was the first lawyer in the province not to do so.

“In 2023, there must be a way to modify this,” he said. “For me the best solution is a choice.”

Bloc Quebecois MPs want Parliament to follow the lead of the Quebec National Assembly, which in December unanimously passed a law scrapping the oath requirement for its elected members. Three members of the Parti Quebecois had refused to swear the oath after the October provincial election, and had been barred from sitting as a result.

Bloc House Leader Alain Therrien said Canada is “becoming more and more anti-monarchist,” in part because Canadians don’t feel the same attachment to the King as they did to the Queen. He said there should be a debate about Canada’s ties to the monarchy, including the oath.

“We are against having to swear this oath,” he said. “The monarchy is an institution that is out of date.”

Quebec Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne also questioned the need for the oath. “The time has come to at least have a choice … to swear to the monarch or to Canada,” she said.

“I would prefer to swear to the people of Canada.”

Source: Time is right to scrap requirement to swear oath to the King, MPs and Senators say

Proudfoot: The Trudeau government was supposed to be ‘open by default.’ Open at all, ever, would be a nice start

Hard not to agree:

In its youth, the Trudeau government was very good at branding and grand mission statements. It was a skill that was slightly hypnotizing for its novelty at the time. If the Harper government’s instinct was to turn the hose on any kids it found playing on its lawn, then the Trudeau government promised to fling open the front door and offer a rap session over a nice cool glass of lemonade.

In an open letter to Canadians on the day his first cabinet was sworn in, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to “set a higher bar for openness and transparency” in Ottawa. “Government and its information must be open by default,” he wrote. “Simply put, it is time to shine more light on government to make sure it remains focused on the people it was created to serve – you.”

You could practically hear the “Open by default” banners fluttering nobly atop the Peace Tower.

The problem with having a flair for gleaming manifestoes is that they tend to stick in the mind. And then they follow you around like a hapless tuba soundtrack, reminding everyone of what you once proudly advertised, what you now are and the distance between the two.

At this point, the Liberals’ open-by-default declarations register as cruel farce. They didn’t start the practice of iron-fisted information control in government, but they sure haven’t ended it. And they’re the ones who made that a central feature of who they would be.

There are big-picture obfuscations that deserve correspondingly large derision, like refusing to say how much public money they spent wooing Volkswagen to make car batteries in Canada (a lot, as it turns out) or the government’s obstinance on Beijing poking its fingers into Canadian life.

But it’s the smaller, daily roadblocks that are perhaps more insulting and corrosive, because they seem so unnecessary and because they send the constant message that public information is meted out on a need-to-know basis, and the public needs to know a lot less than it thinks it does.

If journalists, being annoying and nosy on behalf of citizens, have a question for a federal government department, talking to a live human being who knows things about the thing you want to know is an adorable fantasy most of the time. This will usually be conveyed by the delicate euphemism that an interview request “cannot be accommodated.” This sounds like parenting books that advise you to tell a recalcitrant toddler “It’s time to get ready for bed now” because it’s harder to argue with something decreed by the universe than with a person who tells you they’ve made a decision.

Once the absurd idea of an interview is waved off, you are asked to submit questions for response by e-mail, and to state your deadline. This is where the whole thing devolves into play acting.

If you get responses by deadline, they will generally be “answers” to what you asked only in the geographical sense that they will be located below each of your questions. They will otherwise bear, at best, a one-night-stand relationship to the original queries or to anything resembling a clear thought or fact. They will be so obviously, transparently workshopped to death by an unseen army of staffers and bureaucrats that you will practically be able to see the sweaty, nervous fingerprints still steaming on them.

But sometimes – seemingly increasingly – you will not get even an overcooked pablum of words by the stated deadline. At least one federal department now responds to deadline requests by asserting that it has “a two-day service standard,” which is as good as refusing to answer. Others have taken to blowing through a deadline, then asking that a story that has already been published be “updated” or reprinted to include their day-late-and-a-dollar-short response. (No, but that is an impressive level of chutzpah you have there.)

It’s important to note that not every department or minister’s office does this. It’s also important to acknowledge that in terms of populations whining about their working conditions, journalists rank somewhere between scary birthday clowns and subway rats on most people’s scale of who’s worth tuning up the tiny violin for.

But the real problem that underlies all of this is the concept of who owns the information. It’s not the government’s to hoard, or for bureaucratic bouncers to jealously guard. It doesn’t even belong to the journalists asking a bunch of rude questions. The information is owned by the Canadian public, and owed to them as the ones who foot the bill and who will conduct the job interview next time there’s an election call.

That’s the principled argument, but if that’s too sanctimonious for you, there’s a much more mercenary one to be made for the government explaining itself on the regular: it’s self-defeatingly dumb not to.

The logic of withholding public information might be risk aversion or issues management or the peevish certainty that everything is torqued to death and no one gives a fair benefit of the doubt. None of those problems is improved by a refusal to explain yourself, and pretty much all of them are exacerbated by refusing to do so.

When you write an exam, sometimes you arrive at the wrong answer to the big question at the end of the paper. But everyone knows you only get partial credit for trying if you show your work.

Source: The Trudeau government was supposed to be ‘open by default.’ Open at all, ever, would be a nice start

Jones: Politicians are right about the ‘decline of the west’ – but so wrong about the causes

Pessimistic view but not without merit. But social shifts have also been important, with considerable progress in terms of diversity:

If there is such a thing as an onward march of human progress,it has not just halted, but screeched into reverse. Last autumn, a little-discussed report issued by the United Nations noted that human development had declined in 90% of countries for two years in a row, a fall without precedent for more than three decades. The pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine played their role, but so too did “sweeping social and economic shifts, dangerous planetary changes, and massive increases in political and social polarisation”.

You may well be familiar with chatter about “the decline of the west”: it has tended to be the preserve of the reactionary right, who blame, variously, moral decay, multiculturalism and a reassessment of European history for our downfall. But it is not minority rights, diversity or acknowledgment of western crimes to blame. The turnaround in our collective fortunes has been dramatic. But it is driven by an economic system that promised personal freedom but instead delivered insecurity on a mass scale, and which has has hurt us in every conceivable way, from our emotional and physical wellbeing to our material circumstances.

Take one basic measure: life and death. The UK government has been forced to delay lifting the state pension age after a fall in life expectancy without precedent since the war. Although certainly worsened by the pandemic, life expectancy was already declining in many English communities years before Covid arrived on our shores. In the US, life expectancy declined from nearly 79 in 2019 to 76 two years later, the biggest fall for a century.

And the morbid symptoms of a crisis in wellbeing are everywhere. Across the Atlantic, the suicide rate soared by 30% in the first 20 years of the 21st century. As the “war on drugs” has escalated, so have deaths from substance abuse: in the US, they have grown exponentially since the 1970s, helping to drive the fall in life expectancy, while in the UK they have reached their highest level since records began. Karl Marx once described religion as the “sigh of the oppressed creature”: today this is more of an apt description of drug addiction, driven by the self-medication of those afflicted by trauma and misery. Indeed, it is difficult to disentangle from a global leap in depression, which increased by almost a fifth between 2005 and 2015, and has also surged among US teenagers.

Peering at the rubble left by humanity’s bloodiest war the best part of a century ago, a western European citizen in 1945 would have been pleasantly surprised to discover that the most prosperous years in history awaited them. Such was the unprecedented rise in living standards in the west in the three decades after the war that it became christened the “Golden Age”; for the French it was the “30 glorious years”. But while the UK suffered a particularly pronounced fall in wages in the 2010s, they have stagnated across the western world. Before the pandemic hit, the purchasing power of US workers had barely shifted for four decades.

It’s easy to be lulled into the illusion that dramatic progress is still happening. Computer chips get ever-smaller; computer processors ever-faster; mobile phones ever-more dynamic. But technological advancement does not automatically translate into improvements in the human condition. Across much of the west, stagnation and decline has become the defining feature of our age. If you want to understand why politics became angrier and more polarised, don’t look for facile explanations such as argumentative behaviour fostered by social media. A grand experiment has been under way for more than a generation: what if you cut off optimism from rich societies that previously took ever-rising living standards for granted?

UK renters can’t afford their mouldy, exorbitant homes – now they can’t afford to complain either

The rise of the “free market”, we were promised, would unleash endless prosperity. But while the much-demonised age of strong trade unions, nationalisation and expansive welfare states delivered the greatest improvement in living standards in history, our current economic model is decomposing all around us: the stench is becoming harder to ignore. On both sides of the Atlantic, economic growth has fallen since the frontiers of the state were rolled back, and that more limited growth is more likely to be sucked into the bank accounts of the gilded rich.

How does that explain, say, falling life expectancy driven by rising opiate use in the US? We know that the disappearance of secure, well-paid jobs has bred the conditions of misery in which addiction thrives. Growing inequality has helped spur on deteriorating mental health: rates of depression correlate with low income, for example. From the generational collapse in public housebuilding to the decimation of social care, the security that underpins a comfortable human existence has been peeled away.

And yet how little this halt in human progress is mentioned, let alone debated. With our civilisation facing multiplying existential challenges, how quickly stagnation and decline could become a freefall. You don’t need an overactive imagination to ponder the brutal possible consequences, especially if progressive politicians fail to offer compelling answers. Our lives are shortening, our wellbeing is falling, our security being dismantled. These are the conditions of despair, and a bitter harvest beckons.

  • Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

Source: Politicians are right about the ‘decline of the west’ – but so wrong about the causes

Internal documents reveal how much consultants shaped the National Gallery

While most of the attention has been on McKinsey, reminder that other organizations are involved.

Given all the management and staff upheavals, hard to see the value for money in these consulting contracts. One also has the impression that Sasha Suda, the director who launched them, was “just visiting” until she got a more important gig in the USA, leaving the mess behind:

Consulting companies had profound influence on the National Gallery of Canada’s reimagining over the past few years, with senior management relying on hired guns to help craft the new identity of the country’s premier visual arts institution, documents released through access-to-information requests reveal.

The documents paint a picture of the extent to which two consulting companies – one headquartered in Vancouver and focused on diversity and inclusion, the other a California-based change management firm – shaped the gallery’s new focus, operations and culture.

The contracts began in the spring of 2020, shortly after Sasha Suda became director of the gallery (she left last summer to run the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Under Ms. Suda’s leadership, and under current interim director Angela Cassie, the gallery embarked on a reinvention intended to make the institution, its collection and its staff more diverse and inclusive.

Management viewed this as an overdue step toward restoring the gallery’s relevance and correcting its blinkered past. Current and former staff members and donors have criticized the project as well-intentioned but poorly executed, and they have said it left the institution in disarray.

In May, 2020, the gallery signed a contract with NOBL Collective, a change management consultancy based in California, for strategic planning work, at an initial cost of $95,000. As the scope of its work expanded, NOBL would eventually bill the gallery $632,500 over two-and-a-half years, making it the single biggest line item among the museum’s outside contractors during that time.

The documents, which were obtained by researcher Ken Rubin and shared with The Globe and Mail, include an initial proposal in which NOBL wrote that the gallery was “in the midst of a sea change” that represented “a moment of uncertainty but also of rebirth.”

“You have many of the right ingredients: a dedicated team, hungry for direction and empowerment; a rich history and story; a world-class collection; a new Director willing to do what it takes,” NOBL wrote. “We would be honoured to help your team make it happen.”

The documents detail a program of one-on-one interviews with senior management and other team members, as well as surveys and strategic planning sessions focused on topics such as “Sensing, Vision and Bet Making.”

Eventually, the scope of NOBL’s work became all-encompassing. The consultancy laid out plans and timelines for defining the museum’s values and crafting its “change narrative.” It said it would create working groups and synthesize for the gallery what it heard from them; communicate with the board of trustees, department heads and team leads; align blue-sky strategic ideas with budgets and staffing; even design and help to deliver the all-staff meetings in which the new vision would be shared.

The result was a strategic plan titled Transform Together. Unveiled in 2021, it is the spine on which the museum’s new direction rests.

“The Gallery’s strategic transformation is about how we can better develop, preserve and present our collection for the learning and enjoyment of generations to come,” said Douglas Chow, the gallery’s director of communications. NOBL “did not have the expertise required” to incorporate a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) approach, so NOBL recommended Elevate Inclusion Strategies as a subcontractor to its own work, he said, and the two jointly helped to craft the strategic plan.

Getting some specialized help with strategic development is fine, said Richard Powers, who teaches governance at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, but it should always be an institution’s own management that does the heavy lifting.

“It appears that management has handed off all the work to the consultants: tell us what we should do,” he said of the gallery. “Any consultant will never know as much as management – that is why management must be intimately involved in the development of the strategic plan.”

In August, 2020, Ms. Suda wrote a confidential memo explaining the gallery’s reasons for embarking on this work, and why it required sole-sourced contracts rather than the usual competitive bid process. When the pandemic struck, the gallery was forced to close and most employees shifted to working remotely, she wrote, and at the same time the gallery was affected by “various social movements that catapulted the necessity of diversity and inclusion review and reconciliation with BIPOC groups.”

The unusual pandemic circumstances and the “extremely sensitive nature of the subject matter” justified an exception to the standard procurement processes, Ms. Suda concluded. The following month, she wrote a virtually identical memo laying out the need to sole-source work from Elevate, which is based in Vancouver.

One year later, in September, 2021, Ms. Cassie – then vice-president of strategic transformation and inclusion at the gallery – wrote a more detailed confidential memo explaining the reasoning for an additional sole-sourced contract with Elevate.

Elevate had conducted an assessment of the gallery’s inclusion environment, and “significant differences in the level of knowledge and understanding amongst the team” became apparent, Ms. Cassie wrote. Among the key recommendations from Elevate was that the gallery remedy this. Because Elevate staff had already built a relationship with gallery employees, Ms. Cassie wrote, the company was “well positioned to create a safe and positive environment” for the ongoing work.

Mr. Powers said this process – with Elevate conducting an assessment of the gallery, then producing a report that effectively recommended further services provided by Elevate – appears odd.

“They are in a clear conflict of interest and the National Gallery should have gone to a competitive bid to avoid the conflict or the perception of a conflict,” he said. “Elevate may be the best company to do this type of work – and a competitive bid could have come to that conclusion.”

Asked for additional context on the sole-sourced contracts, Mr. Chow replied with sections of the internal memos on that topic. He added that the board was aware of the contracts. “The Elevate team had built that trust using a trauma informed approach and had the knowledge and expertise to carry on the next phases of work without requiring employees to retell stories of their trauma and racism experienced within the workplace to new people,” he said.

The gallery subsequently signed a contract with Elevate for $352,200. That fee included a retainer of $10,000 per month from September to February, 2022, for services including the development of a “JEDI working group,” meeting with gallery leadership or other consultants as needed, attending staff meetings and assisting with the onboarding of new staff. The hourly cost and hours of work covered by the retainer are redacted in the documents, because access-to-information laws permit public bodies to withhold those details about their private contractors.

Elevate’s contract also included a coaching program described as “a deep dive for senior leadership and management who wish to develop and practice critical inclusive leadership skills,” and the development and delivery of a suite of inclusive workplace training modules.

In June, 2021, the gallery again turned to NOBL, this time for a more targeted project that hinted at tensions behind the scenes. There had been near-total turnover among the gallery’s senior leadership since Ms. Suda’s arrival.

In its proposal, NOBL wrote that the gallery had evolved a great deal over the previous year, and now, with its new team members in place, it was time to focus on “engaging in productive, courageous conversations.”

“While conflict is a necessary part of our day to day existence on a team, both emotions and assumptions take the lead when we’re not paying attention,” NOBL wrote. “You’d like the team to improve their ability to separate the people from the problem and create space for learning for all involved.”

To that end, NOBL would design and deliver a four-hour team-building workshop for the seven members of the gallery’s senior management committee, at a cost of $15,000. The topics included conflict style, giving and receiving feedback and empathy perspective.

“Even though the session will be half a day, we’d request that SMC members clear their full day calendars to allow time to process conversations and bring their full presence to the session,” NOBL wrote to the gallery. “Development experiences should feel like an opportunity to slow down and set yourself up for success.”

Source: Internal documents reveal how much consultants shaped the National Gallery

Hicks: The radical improvement of data will transform public sector reform

The comparatively easier issue is developing and accessing more reliable and granular data (evidence-based policy development). The harder issue is the extent to which whether governments will use the data to inform policies and programs, compared to political and short-term considerations (policy-based evidence development).

I am less optimistic than Hicks:

Recent Policy Options articles have reflected on the need for public sector reform to deal with “wicked problems” related to decentralization, outsourcing, lack of public trust, lack of openness and the politicization of policy advice. Donald Savoieargues that the public service, with its obsolete policies and processes, has come so irreparably off its moorings that only an independent royal commission can fix it. Others, including Daniel Caron, Evert Lindquist and Robert Shepherd, call for internal reform processes.

An obvious question is why experiences over the past 50 or so years with both royal commissions and internal reforms have had such poor results. One factor has been the lack of the kind of reliable, granular evidence that would be needed to assess and learn from past initiatives that would also be needed to ensure that new directions can be managed in a transparent, accountable manner. As Caron, Lindquist and Shepherd say, institutional learning must be based on ongoing evidence and much of that needed evidence has, until now, not existed.

However, that is changing. As I demonstrate in a recent article, a radical improvement in evidence has become possible as a result of the availability of rich sources of new information, new ways of combining data from multiple sources in ways that protect privacy and the development of new predictive analytic tools based on big data. Much of this new evidence will be based on calculations using detailed administrative files. Ground-breaking information from other sources are on the horizon. For example, the use of data from personal monitoring devices from volunteers (with guaranteed anonymity) will be possible in the near future.

Another factor contributing to the failure of past reforms has been a tendency to examine the way in which services are administered separately from the actual content of those services. Many issues of public trust, morale, transparency, efficiency and service quality can only be addressed though deep changes in outdated policies and programs. They cannot be addressed by changes in the way programs are administered by the public service.

A third factor is that most reforms have taken place within existing programming and jurisdictional silos. This has made things worse by reinforcing overly fragmented programming, especially in the social policy area. Social policy in Canada is too often characterized by confusing sets of income supports and tax measures administered by both orders of government as well as overlapping but uncoordinated services provided by health care, educational and community organizations.

If the goal is to help people improve the quality of their lives and to increase trust between individuals and their governments, reforms need to be based on accountable partnerships that provide integrated services and supports based on an individual’s needs and aspirations. In practice, that hasn’t happened, largely because there’s been no source of routine evidence about which mixes of intervention are likely to work best for people with diverse characteristics in different circumstances.

However, that could change soon. Formerly wicked problems will be much easier to solve. Progress will soon make it possible to produce the kind of evidence that will allow us to learn from past experience and will support the accountability regimes needed to sustain reform efforts. That same evidence will also support major reform in the way policies are formulated, and the way in which programs are designed and delivered.

The new evidence will allow powerful new kinds of causal analysis. For example, it will become possible to make comparisons of the previous and subsequent characteristics and experiences of the participants in particular programs with those of non-participants with similar characteristics and in similar situations. This information would allow analysis of which programs (and combinations of programs) are working best, for whom and in what circumstances.

Using predictive analytic techniques, information on “what is likely to work best” will be available instantly – at the time when decisions are being made on choices of interventions. It will allow programs to continually improve and evolve based on automatic feedback loops showing what has been working best for people, including those who now feel alienated by standard, often fragmented programs that do not reflect their individual circumstances.

Over time, the new information is likely to reshape the way in which people are matched with programs. It would support the growth of an independent case management function where individuals with the greatest needs are referred to the service most likely to be effective (or, often, a combination of services and income supports) by counsellors who have access to evidence on what is likely to work best, regardless of who offers the service. The same information would allow other individuals, acting on their own, to learn what services exist and which are likely to work best for them given their needs and interests.

Development has reached a point where Statistics Canada is considering plans to use these new techniques to radically improve its social statistics. It is the only agency with the mandate and technical capacity to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of the source data and to ensure the quality of the resulting statistics.

The next logical step would be for it to gradually and cautiously enter into partnership arrangements with agencies in different jurisdictions and in different policy domains. Those agencies who wish to be early reformers can experiment with ways of using the anonymous “what works” evidence using the big data that is securely held within Statistics Canada.

It will take time to develop a fully mature system based on the new analytics. Progress will be slow and uneven across different policy domains. Issues related to public acceptability will be paramount. However, much of the needed background development work has already taken place. If the demand is there, significant progress is possible in many areas within five to 10 years.

To be successful, a public sector reform initiative should have a broad mandate that will result in the creation of the inter-agency partnerships needed to test out the new “what is likely to work best” evidence in practical program and policy applications. It should also propose ways of systematically applying lessons learned to mainstream programming.

Source: Hicks: The radical improvement of data will transform public sector reform

Ottawa can’t show how feminist assistance policy has helped improve gender equality globally, audit says

Not surprising, unfortunately. But measuring “softer” social and development outcomes is difficult:

The federal government has not done enough to track whether a policy intended to direct the country’s billions of dollars in annual development aid toward improving gender equality abroad has actually helped women and girls, a report from Auditor-General Karen Hogan says.

Ms. Hogan’s report, tabled Monday, says Global Affairs Canada could not demonstrate how the roughly $3.5-billion in bilateral development aid it provides each year to low- and middle-income countries had delivered on its commitments under the federal Feminist International Assistance Policy.

The Auditor-General took aim at GAC’s information practices, which she said it had not set up to monitor long-term results.

“These weaknesses make it impossible for Global Affairs Canada to accurately track and report on the outcomes of funded projects against the goals set out in Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy,” she said at a news conference in Ottawa.

The federal government unveiled the policy in 2017. Since then, Canada has been commended by international development organizations for putting women and girls at the forefront of its programs.

Ms. Hogan’s office examined whether GAC’s implementation of the policy had resulted in funding for projects that supported gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. The audit also sought evidence that the projects were generating the expected outcomes.

Ms. Hogan told reporters the weaknesses highlighted in her report had already been flagged in an internal department audit in 2021.

Her report says that although GAC took steps to monitor the policy’s progress, 24 of the 26 indicators the department tracked did not measure outcomes.

The report says the Auditor-General’s office assessed 60 projects to determine whether GAC had demonstrated that it had tracked policy indicators associated with them. The audit found that the department had used only 35 of those projects to report on policy goals.

Ms. Hogan said her office looked at a project that used government funding in an attempt to make schools more welcoming for girls by building washrooms and handwashing stations. She said that while the government could say how many washrooms had been built, it couldn’t say whether or not girls’ school attendance had increased.

“It is imperative that Global Affairs Canada immediately act to improve its information management practices and reporting on results to show parliamentarians and Canadians the value of Canada’s bilateral international assistance to support women and girls in low- and middle-income countries,” she said.

International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan told reporters he accepts the findings of the report, and that improvements to project management and reporting are already under way.

He also said he has seen the results of the Feminist International Assistance Policy firsthand. He recalled a trip to Bangladesh, where he said he visited a slum and learned about how Canadian funding is supporting menstrual health education.

When asked by a reporter if he feels personally responsible for his department not knowing if the feminist policy is working, Mr. Sajjan reiterated that he has visited many projects and spoken with organizations delivering programs.

“What we need to do is be able to aggregate and get that information. … That’s what the Auditor-General has noted,” he said.

The report also said that GAC did not meet two of its three spending commitments under the policy. It fell short on funding projects that directly support the empowerment of women and girls, and on funding projects located in sub-Saharan Africa.

The audit also found that departmental spending from the 2020-21 and 2021-22 fiscal years was affected by the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“During this time, the department reallocated money to respond to needs emerging from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine; these reallocations had an impact on the department’s ability to meet spending targets,” the report says.

Mr. Sajjan said Ottawa had not reallocated money away from international aid.

“We looked at the denominator changes, because we had to put more funding into Ukraine, and also because of COVID. However, our funding into Africa also actually increased,” he said.

Garnett Genuis, the Conservative critic for international development, called the Auditor-General’s findings “very disturbing.”

“We hear the government talk all the time about gender when they talk about international development. But the Auditor-General’s report reveals today they haven’t even been bothered to measure the results of their work,” he told reporters on Parliament Hill.

Source: Ottawa can’t show how feminist assistance policy has helped improve gender equality globally, audit says

How to create an adaptive culture in the public service

Perhaps I am getting too removed from the day-to-day realities of the public service but I find the various calls for reform are all too similar without any realistic means of implementation, whether by sophisticated academics or equally sophisticated former clerks and other senior officials.

In the case of the latter, a more reflective examination of how they tried to effect change and the roadblocks they faced would be more useful and practical than calls for change in specific areas:

Public service institutions have long been challenged to deliver a wide array of programs for governments and the public, and they continue to deliver programs and services as technology and public expectations evolve. However, what is driving change and creating anxiety in public services is the frequency and complexity of emerging new policy issues, as well as structural concerns such as competency gaps and the ability to address future issues.

This is not news to those in public management: cabinets and ministers are attuned to the policy agenda and drive policy as best they can with available resources. Climate change and environmental sustainability, working digitally, migration and immigration and an aging population are issues that have risen to the fore of an already heavy public service agenda.

For the public service to cope with these demands requires change in activities, new decision processes and institutional arrangements, and, most fundamentally, adapting its culture. By this we mean improving leadership, responsiveness and innovative capacity in working horizontally such as through a willingness to share information and responsibilities. This will be essential for consistent and productive transformation.

Multiple perspectives highlight the shifts in the way public services will have to adapt which will have implications on technology, approaches to employment and the characteristics of jobs and how public organizations maintain coherence. Four points must be stressed about the role of public services.

1. The changes in the environment will result in structural shifts in how public organizations work. Public service leaders must be skilled at anticipating shifts and conceptualizing innovative institutional arrangements, including adopting new technology, and managing the transition. Structural changes driven by technology also need capable people who can adapt and learn alongside new technology in order to be effective. This also includes rethinking several outdated administrative policies that do not reflect the evolving work environment.

2. A key driver to effective public services is a motivated and capable workforce. This means that sustainable change cannot take hold without engaged, passionate public servants who look beyond the daily grind of tending files and communicating with other public servants. Being engaged not only means contributing to the strategic direction of government and better public policymaking, but also creating and re-creating organizations to meet new needs of their policy environments. It also means attracting, developing and leading the right talent for new challenges.

3. Relying on large consulting houses to carry out policy and organizational change signals a lack of trust in the public service. One explanation could be that decision makers do not believe the public service can think innovatively. The effect is a decline in internal capability and leadership competence due to years of neglect in effective internal recruitment strategies and training. Focusing on improving service rather than perpetuating a transactional culture would go a long way to repair current dysfunctions.

4. There is always a constituency for systematic change in public institutions and we believe that is true of the Canadian public service. Public servants at all levels want to be more responsive to governments and public needs but are frustrated by the lack of support and recognition from senior leaders on ways to innovate and to improve systems and processes. On the other hand, senior leaders want to build an engaged public service, but may be focusing on the wrong things such as compliance and oversight measures.

The pandemic brought about creative ways of generating ideas and delivering public services but there are questions about leaders embracing these changes for the future. The question is how to understand change, generate reform, produce a sustainable and adaptive culture and to prepare for the future.

Lost opportunities, new possibilities

Governments have initiated high-level periodic institution-wide review efforts focused on diverse areas of public sector management. This included human resources in 2019, ongoing changes to procurement practices, changes to government accountability with the Gomery Commission in 2006 or public service operational practices and results delivery beginning in 2007. These reviews were carried out internally or independently, but rarely convinced decision-makers to institute recommended changes. In addition, the reviews did not take the other reviews and functions into account, often recommending changes that were contradictory.

Embedded regularized spending reviews could be used to drive public service reform, but these were abandoned in 2012 in Canada. The United Kingdom, Australia and Netherlands conduct regular reviews of fixed elements of spending focusing on making room for policy priorities while improving efficiencies in existing program areas. It is apparent that the federal government has initiated spending reviews but it is unclear if and how these will be linked in a coherent way to public service reform efforts. Other countries are beginning to think about linking spending reviews and reform to ensure policy and spending coherence.

Reform is multi-level and multi-faceted          

Embracing change requires adopting a dynamic approach. Multi-level reform means accepting that the public service is highly decentralized and operates in diverse areas of responsibility. Organizational structures and operating environments vary widely, and departments and agencies will know best how to respond to them. What gets in the way of relevant reforms are highly centralized systems and a lack of management autonomy to achieve expected results.

The public service depends on several important systems to work properly. Human resources involve recruitment, skills development and competency training and retention. Information and technology management is driven by digitalization, worker’s autonomy and mobility, data storage and sharing. Policy development and advice must acknowledge and balance strategic, administrative and operational elements. There needs to be effective procurement of goods and services along with sound financial management, oversight and monitoring.

Finally, there is the machinery of government and performance indicators that track results and assesses risks for their achievement. All of these must be simultaneously considered in any transformation.

Previous reform attempts, however, have tended to focus on defined problems associated with one or two of these systems. They did not recognize the complexity of how public organizations work, how these systems intersect with others, or the unique operational challenges of departments and agencies.

Reform cannot be a one-size-fits all solution. Significant discretion, in exchange for regular reporting, must be given to deputy ministers and their management teams to support administrative and management reform. As highlighted long ago in the Glassco Commission (1963) and Lambert Commission (1979), “letting the managers manage” involves providing space to public servants to improve services and implement policy without creating unnecessary administrative burden and excessive control by central agencies.

Leaders must be given room to imagine and propose changes to various systems that can be considered by the center of government in a timely way. This does not suggest a patchwork of changes without coherence, but rather a dialogue that gauges how these changes could be adapted to support the achievement of outcomes, and seriously monitors what sort of progress is being made in a tailored way.

This means looking at what has worked elsewhere and innovating with other executives in the public service to find support when there appears to be no workable solution. The central agencies must be willing to ensure tailored coherence for departments rather than uniformity and perpetuating a compliance culture.

Collaboration and coordination are critical

For change to work in such a multi-level embedded system to work effectively, additional conditions must be met. First, there must be engagement and support between ministers and the public service leadership. There also has to be a greater emphasis placed on learning, rather than managing, from the center of government. Central agenciesshould take on the role of enablers and coordinators rather than assuming primary leadership over such change.

There should be clear roles and responsibilities for executives so they can use their discretion to implement appropriate systems and processes in concert with others to ensure coherence. Administrative tools such as the Management Accountability FrameworkPolicy on ResultsDirective on Performance Management and Policy on Service and Digital should provide stronger forward-looking emphasis and support on organizational learning in a coordinated way. Reporting on these must also be joined up to demonstrate outcomes.

These changes require a shift in sensibilities, capabilities, readiness to contribute, senior management commitment and the motivation to drive organizational change. It also needs external input from academics, think tanks and other communities – and not high-priced secretive and ungrounded consulting contracts – to work in partnership. The public service no longer has the luxury to operate as an island.

An adaptive public service for the 21st century

Other countries are using the pandemic as an opportunity to advance reforms. A key criticism of public services is their lack of nimbleness. They are comprised of organizations operating not only in silos but also as rule-bound sub-systems working within centralized, homogenous processes. Although rules and hierarchy are essential for ensuring some level of administrative and management coherence, particularly for democratic governance, they must be balanced with the need for innovation and creativity when change is rapid and often unpredictable.

Our systems must accept that change is constant, and that reform will be ongoing rather than periodic. It also means learning from past mistakes. The public service needs scope to learn and manage, connecting responsibilities more directly to their authorities and resources, joining up otherwise independent reporting, and better monitoring progress. Better monitoring and reporting would ensure that departments are better held to account for their valuable work.

Source: How to create an adaptive culture in the public service

May: The time and place for consultants

Good discussion and commentary on the issues which reflect some longstanding management failures at both political and bureaucratic levels as well as the overall complexity of government and accountabilities:

Canada’s budget watchdog says it’s time for a “deep dive” into the workings of the public service to unravel why departments are spending billions of dollars on consultants while also hiring a record number of employees.

Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) Yves Giroux said the recent spotlight on the government’s growing dependency on contracting for professional services — for everything from policy advice to running programs — raises fundamental questions about the role of the public service.

“Do we have the public service that we need right now?” he said in an interview. “Is it well equipped to deal with the challenges and the expectations that Canadians have of the public service — especially in light of its growth in recent years and the extensive use of outside advice and services?

“I think it’s time to do a real deep dive.”

Giroux is joining a growing chorus of experts who argue it’s time to fix the public service. Former clerks of the Privy Council Office, senior bureaucrats and academics are weighing in with views on what’s wrong and possible ways to fix it.

Giroux’s call comes with the release of his latest report on the government’s spending plans. They showed the cost of outsourcing will hit a record $21.4 billion this year. Spending on contracting has increased by more than a third since 2017-18.

He said the growth of consultants during the COVID-19 crisis was expected, but it hasn’t stopped. Rather than slow down to pre-pandemic levels, contracting which shot up 20 per cent in 2021-22, is still growing at a rate of more than 10 per cent this year.

The bigger question is why departments are adding thousands of employees to the federal payroll at the same time. The number of new hires has grown in lockstep with more consultants.

“If you increase the size of the public service, it’s because you feel there are needs that need to be met. That should reduce the use of consultants, but it’s not happening. They’re both growing in line,” said Giroux.

Personnel costs are the biggest single operating cost in government. The PBO estimates the seven-year hiring boom under the Trudeau government is expected to push the size of the workforce to about 409,000 jobs within five years. 

The PBO said spending on personnel grew an average of 6.7 per cent a year – from $39.6 billion to $60.7 billion since 2015. That’s about a four-per-cent increase in compensation for each full-time employee.

Giroux said it might make sense if services were improving, but the bureaucracy is taking a beating for backlogs and delays in passports, immigration, access to information and privacy (ATIP) requests, veteran services and employment insurance.

It also doesn’t add up because the government and unions claim public servants are as productive, if not more, since the pandemic and the recent shift to hybrid work.

“Services are not improving significantly. In fact, some would say they are improving not at all… So, I wonder what’s going on? It’s a real mystery,” said Giroux.

The House of Commons government operations committee is juggling three separate probes into federal contracting. The most politically charged is the $116 million the Trudeau government spent on scandal-plagued consultants McKinsey & Company. Canada’s auditor general Karen Hogan announced she will conduct a review into the McKinsey contracts.

The committee is also widening its study to contracts of other big consulting firms — Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), KPMG, Ernst and Young (EY) and Accenture.

Many worry the committee hearings are so focused on the political blowback of tarnished McKinsey and its possible ties to the Liberals, that getting at what’s behind the growth of consultants and employees is getting lost.

Consultants, who are hired for their expertise and new ideas, never seem to leave. Once in, they get a lock on work and prevent the public service from developing its own in-house expertise.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for departments to follow on what work is best done by public servants or contractors. Many expect such guidance will be one of the recommendations out of these studies.

Treasury Board argues both are growing simply because there is so much more work. An activist government, the Liberals have fingers in many pies and ministers have mandate letters with long to-do lists. Treasury Board President Mona Fortier has saidthe cost of professional services as a percentage of federal spending has largely remained the same since 2011.

Dominic Barton, McKinsey’s former global managing director, told MPs that McKinsey doesn’t provide policy advice. Rather, it “executes” what government wants to do, be it streamlining its pay or passport processes or digitization, moving paper-based operations to electronic.

But Barton also said the public service operates in the “stone age” and the government needs to up its game with more training and new technology.

“There’s a technology transformation that’s needed in this government and in all governments. I don’t want to be harsh about it, but we’re in the Stone Age. We have to spend the money. That will need a lot to be able to do it, but it will enable the organization to do more if we do it.”

The government is heavily reliant on IT consulting. Thirty per cent of its IT jobs are vacant and the experts they need are often not interested in becoming public servants. All this scrutiny will make public servants skittish about using them which could be a problem because “government can’t run without them,” said one senior bureaucrat.

The government contracts for all kinds of services. For cleaning, security, building maintenance, translation, temporary help and IT services. A Carleton University research team studying federal contracts took a run at breaking down the kind of services consultants offered departments.

Management consulting, which is typically for advice, is a small portion of government’s contracting bill for professional services. It has grown the most since in recent years and hit about $800 million in 2021-22.

But it’s the public service’s job is to provide frank and “fearless” advice to government – advice that puts the public interest first.

The growth in consulting raises questions whether public servants have lost its capacity to provide policy advice or their advice isn’t sought or trusted. Maybe they lack inhouse expertise or savvy to be good shoppers and buyers? Or are risk-averse public servants so cowed by years of bashing and criticism they opt for the safer course of running ideas by consultants or hiring those who provide the answer they think their political masters want to hear?

A common concern among those calling for reform of the public service is the centralization of power in the prime minister’s office and the frayed trust between politicians and bureaucrats. That relationship underpins Canada’s Westminster-style democracy.

Giroux, a long-time public servant before becoming an agent of Parliament, believes the public service has the capacity to provide advice if there’s an appetite for it.

“Is it because ministers don’t trust the advice they’re getting from the public service, which would be a big issue,” he said. “I think it leads to the need for a deep dive a thorough look at the state of the public service. Is it still the public service that politicians the executive, parliamentarians and Canadians expect.”

Giroux said the public service needs a top-to-bottom review of how the public service is structured, organized and equipped to deliver the kind of services Canadians expect today. In a 24/7 world, the public service has to rethink how it works, hires, pays, manage its workers, including where they work and hours of work.

Michael Wernick, a former clerk and Jarislowsky chair at the University of Ottawa agrees structural issues are key. He says the “core software” of government – its mountain of rules, job classifications, human resources regime and technology, are outdated.

“There’s very little attention to how it works. Its internal governance and processes and structures – basically the software on which it runs is like Windows 95,” he said

Donald Savoie, one of Canada’s leading experts on public administration, has argued for a royal commission. He said the “alarm bells about the public service have been ringing for a long time” and it’s time for a debate. Savoie says he was an “academic in the wilderness” when he warned about eroding trust and the concentration of power in the 1999 book, Governing form the Centre. Now, it’s a premise that’s widely accepted.

But Savoie said any efforts to reform the public service won’t get off the ground without the support of the prime minister.

Giroux said the state of the public service has been on his mind for a while. The pandemic dramatically changed the nature and how public servants work so the timing is ideal.

He recently mused at a Senate’s committee about a nonchalance pervading the public service, a ‘broken system” and the need to “crack the whip” in some departments. He lamented the lack of a “challenge function” for public servants. They set their own targets for the programs they run, often setting the bar “not too high so that it doesn’t look too easy but neither too low.”

“There are pockets of excellence, but there are also pockets of, I would say, nonchalance in the public service. They’re overwhelmed or something is not right. Not being inside the public service, unfortunately, I cannot pinpoint what is in need of fixing,” he said.

Source: The time and place for consultants