Opinion: Public sector needs transformation, not return to "good old days"

Published: November 30, 2015
Many Canadians are optimistic the new federal administration will liven up our democracy. But what we need is a transformation of our public institutions, not merely a restoration.
Shifting power from political staffers to elected cabinet ministers and re-engaging with the expertise of the public service will not be enough. Nor will a cabinet of manageable size, where real conversation can happen; the election of parliamentary committee chairs by secret ballot; and civility and real debate within Parliament.
We need a public sector that shifts from a mode of elite expertise to one that actively seeks the talents of the many — a government that is more nimble, more humble and more engaged with Canadians. Something as basic as crowdsourcing — inviting Canadians to provide data and ideas relevant to the issues of the day — is rich, untapped territory for a reimagined public sector.
The Public Policy Forum recently gathered five eminent Canadians, led by Jim Dinning, to examine public-sector governance. Their report, Time for a Reboot: 9 Ways to Restore Trust in Canada’s Public Institutions, is worth reading.
They lay out four core strategies: strengthening parliamentary committees, restoring cabinet government, letting the public service fulfil its role and making political staffers more accountable. The new government has committed to key actions supporting all of these pillars.
Essentially, this is a call for a “back-to-basics” approach. No doubt such a restorative approach would be an improvement over the trend in Canada for the public sector to respond to modernity by centralizing communications and seeking desperately to control its brand and message.
We now live in a world where “gotcha politics” — focusing on mistakes — is king. Taking words out of context is pretty much all we do since no one seems to have time for complexity. Greater transparency and problem-sharing by government require a willingness on the part of the opposition, the media and citizens to trust and be fair-minded with government actors. It’s certainly not easy.
The strategy of returning our institutions to their original design makes some sense when faced with this challenge. In particular, exposing more of the rich policy debate and evidence may well incline Canadians to be more patient and understanding of the difficulties faced by government. As well, such a process is more likely to produce good public policy. After all, policy created in secrecy is far more likely to be based on incorrect or limited information.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to try to recreate the old regime of strong ministers advised by elite experts. In the “good old days,” this model also encouraged siloed thinking, public-sector arrogance and mistakes. We can do much better by considering how to involve more people in the process.
For example, Canadians do not want just to end climate change or just to restore our flagging economy. They want both. This involves diverse expertise, including perspectives not available within the ranks of the existing public service. We increasingly need public actors who engage across and beyond ministry boundaries.
This kind of modern public service will only happen with both support and challenge from politicians. A government that “gets out more” will need more money for travel. Yes, much can be done with modern technologies but since this whole conversation is fundamentally about trust, personal relationships still matter.
The key will be blending leadership with vulnerability. Leadership is how governments can survive tough files — like decisions about pipelines, for example — because taking a stand can at least mobilize support, rather than leaving everyone hating you. Vulnerability, on the other hand, is how a modern government can ask for help, ask citizens to acknowledge complexity and build trust.
Much can be learned from reflecting on how our institutions were designed in the first place, such as was done so well in the recent Public Policy Forum report. Yet reflecting on the weaknesses of the old structures is also valuable because ultimately, transforming government will be as much about humility as it will be about hope.
Dylan Jones is president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, a think-tank devoted to issues of particular concern to Western Canada
Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal.