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Amanda Lang: 17 layers of bureaucracy explain the glacial pace of government

Commentary

The Hub is delighted to announce The Business of Government, a special series hosted by award-winning journalist and best-selling author Amanda Lang about how government works and, more importantly, why it sometimes doesn’t work. In this five-part series, Lang conducts in-depth interviews with experts and former policymakers and puts it all in perspective for the average Canadian. Listen to the accompanying interview with Lisa Raitt on your favourite podcast app or at The Hub.

When Lisa Raitt was minister of transport in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, she was struck by something on a memo that crossed her desk. “There were 17 signatures before mine. Seventeen layers of bureaucracy,” before it hit the minister’s office, “and that happens all the time.”

It was a policy issue, so the trail of sign-offs was in the transport department alone. For an issue like the procurement of products or services, multiple departments get involved and certainly multiple cabinet committees, so those 17 layers re-occur many times.

It laid bare for Raitt something that frustrates many, namely the glacial pace of government action.

It’s also the kind of process that earns government a bad name, and the impression held by many that it is full of redundancy, unnecessary red tape, and a general lack of efficiency. But is that fair assessment?

Whatever your perspective, judging how well it functions is important. Government is the most important service industry we have and, at every level, it delivers things that make an enormous difference in how our world functions. From basic rule of law to health care and education, with a million issues big and small in between shaped by our governments. It’s also a big sector of our economy and, through its policies, touches the vast majority of our lives.

Raitt is pragmatic about why the process works the way it does, especially in this era of constant scrutiny. The “scaffold of process” represented by those 17 signatures is there to insulate against criticism, from a future Auditor General’s report, or from partisan attack. And Raitt experienced first-hand that some issues can be fast-tracked. Introducing transport rules after the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster was one such issue, driven as it was by the urgent need to improve public safety. But in general, risk aversion rules the day and slows the process.

Early in Raitt’s tenure as minister of transport she saw what seemed like a lay-up: catch Canada up to other advanced countries when it came to using a cell phone on a plane.

“They were going to tell you to shut it off and put it away. That was silly and not backed by science.” Raitt asked her staff to alter the regulation. “Nine months later, we’re still trying to make the change. And I would hear ‘Oh minister, we’ve got to go through a regulatory process. Oh, minister, we have to have these reports…’ It was just incredible. On something that was implemented by the Europeans and the Americans already. It was just a form of inertia,” said Raitt.

One change recommended by Raitt would be to keep senior civil servants in their roles slightly longer because there is a lot of movement between departments at the level just below the deputy minister, which can leave knowledge gaps and learning curves that have a big impact on important files.

It would be hard to point to a better example of the seeming ineptitude of government than the Phoenix pay system. A scathing report by then-Auditor General Michael Ferguson said Phoenix was “an incomprehensible failure of project management and oversight.”

The brainchild of cost-saving efforts from Stephen Harper’s government in 2009, Phoenix was breathtakingly simple in concept: it would replace multiple pay systems across 101 federal departments for its then 300,000 employees with one central piece of software. The savings, up to $78 million a year, would come by reducing the huge number of payroll employees managing the clunky network of systems.

Instead of solving a problem, Phoenix quite simply never worked. From its actual implementation in 2015 to this day, it overpays, underpays, or simply does not pay thousands of civil servants. The cost to try to fix it has ballooned multiple times, and even worse, it takes more human handling today than the previous disjointed system. Raitt says that as her government was at the end of its tenure in 2015 Phoenix came up for approval at the cabinet level and was rejected. “It just wasn’t there yet,” she recalls. “And we thought, arrogantly perhaps, we’d be back. And we’d pick up the file, figure out what’s wrong and move on from there.” But it would be a Justin Trudeau-led government that picked up Phoenix and has been tasked ever since with trying to fix it.

Of course, Phoenix is a spectacularly notable case of a failure to implement something, but it’s not hard to find other examples, often involving big projects or high-priced procurement like defence. Think fighter jets or vaccines. Part of the issue is the extent to which big important projects become “weaponized” by political parties. That can lead to short-term thinking, as well as odd measures of success, like the number of jobs created, which may play well politically but can be a poor measure of efficiency. At the end of the day, a well-functioning government gets things done, big and small. And that instills confidence, including in those with money to invest in Canada.

Raitt remains optimistic: “We have a unique set of qualities and opportunities that no one else has. Ingenuity. Smart people, with the highest level of post-secondary education in the OECD. And everyone wants to roll up their sleeves and dig in and help. We just need to get out of our own way.”

Ginny Roth: In the minds of Canadians, the party with the most seats wins the election

Commentary

Andrew Coyne was right to recently point out in the Globe and Mail that there’s a good chance the next federal election (whenever it comes) could result in an outcome in which no party holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party won the popular vote in the last two elections and recent polling puts it in a position to increase its seat count—including a possible plurality of total seats. Coyne also rightly points out that this result could lead to something of a constitutional (or at least political) crisis.

The likelihood of a crisis (or at least a period of tumult) seems to me further exacerbated by the resulting commentary around Coyne’s column. On the one hand, Liberal-friendly commentators will ardently side with Coyne’s conclusion that the current prime minister ought to use his incumbency to take the first shot at passing a throne speech and commanding the confidence of the House.

On the other hand, detractors will speak up with as much conviction that the party that wins the most seats should obviously have the opportunity to try to govern, based on common sense and perhaps even supported by convention.

The self-confidence of each side means both will not spend much time between now and the election making their arguments, nor will the Liberals or Conservatives who will speak only of their respective intentions to win. So, it’s worth thinking through the likely outcomes of the next election to understand how the battle could play out.

The odds of the NDP winning the most seats seem slim and odds of another Liberal majority seem low. The Tories will play for a majority and while it’s not out of the realm of possibility, particularly if they gain serious momentum during the writ period, the nature of Conservative support makes it tricky. The Conservative vote is notoriously inefficient (meaning it tends to be high in some regions and low in others, so increased popular vote doesn’t always drive up seat count) so the party may not be able to convert increased support into a clear majority of seats won.

If the Conservatives under-perform similar to the past two elections, we could see another status quo election. If so, no crisis. If the Conservatives really over-perform and pull off a majority, also no crisis. But what if they win the most seats and yet come up short of a majority? This is where things get interesting. Much of what happens on election night and in the following days would be dictated by how Justin Trudeau and the Liberals respond to the results.

Given the duration of the prime minister’s tenure and speculation about the end of his time as leader, it’s fair to assume that if the Liberal seat count dropped significantly and the Conservatives won a strong plurality, Trudeau would concede the election. This is not a certainty, mind you. There would no doubt be advisors telling him he had a constitutional case to make that if he could get the support of a majority of MPs, he could opt not to resign and instead try to pass a throne speech. But the Liberals are savvy enough to understand that a technical argument will not suffice.

To hold onto power, Trudeau would need to make a compelling case to the public, which in turn would need to broadly support a deviation from post-election custom. It wasn’t so long ago that the Liberals over-estimated the public’s comfort with a coalition government made up of parties that didn’t win the most seats. The 2008 play for power rallied Canadians around the Conservatives. They rejected the coalition in part because the Liberals would have had to rely on support from the separatist Bloc Quebecois, but equally because it just didn’t feel right.

But what if the seat count is close? What if the Conservatives win only 10 more seats than the Liberals? What if it’s only a plurality of two or three seats? Such a result would give those advising Trudeau to make a play to hold onto power a lot more ammunition.

Under this scenario, the Laurentian elite’s comment machine would fire up, producing countless op-eds rehashing Coyne’s argument that the prime minister can and should aim to hold onto power. Progressive labour unions, NGOs, and think tanks fearing a Conservative government would similarly make a public case for a left-wing policy agenda supported by a majority of Canadians. But Trudeau, Poilievre and their advisors would know that only one thing really matters: legitimacy. And each would try to make the case for it.

Trudeau’s camp would point to the relationship the Liberals have with the NDP and the recent history of finding common policy ground. This case would be made easier with significant election platform overlap (not at all hard to imagine), and a compliant NDP membership. The public narrative is predictable: “A majority of Canadians voted for progressive MPs. We can deliver them a progressive government.” The details are harder, but not unmanageable. Would the NDP demand a formal coalition and seats at the cabinet table? Existing relationships nurtured by the supply and confidence agreement would make these discussions easier and it would seem based on recent history that Singh’s NDP is comfortable as junior progressive partner.

All of this deliberation, though, would take place as the Conservatives talk to voters. And in Poilievre, they have a leader who is not interested in deference or subtly. Their argument would be far clearer and more compelling than their opponent’s: “We won.” And beyond the core narrative, the unspoken factors are also compelling. The Conservatives will have gained seats while the Liberals will have been losing them, consistently over multiple elections. The trend is in the Tories’ favour.

Conservatives have a recent history of winning a plurality of seats, governing successfully, and converting that result into a majority in the next election. It is harder to imagine Singh’s NDP behaving the way a more pragmatic Jack Layton’s NDP did, but the Bloc Quebecois has drifted further away from separatism in the intervening years, making them a more viable dance partner. And, under this scenario, the Liberals would be weakened, and increasingly divided with recently quieted prospective leadership candidates getting loud again, some of them likely prefer to let the Conservatives govern briefly while they embark on a leadership campaign and topple the government when they’re ready to fight anew.

Most importantly, the Conservatives will have on their side the most compelling argument of all: common sense. When it comes to Parliament and constitutionality, convention has a technical definition and some will argue that convention is on the Conservative’s side in that sense. It may well be so.

Even more importantly, the technical definition of convention is connected to how the word is understood more colloquially. And that everyday understanding of convention, of common custom and norms, is what’s most powerful of all. People understand intuitively that our democracy must be founded in a practical understanding of representation. They are rightfully skeptical of arguments that begin with “but, technically…,” and for good reason. For them, the party with the most seats wins.

Canadians would intuitively view any attempt by Trudeau to cling to power as, as Sean Speer put it on Twitter in response to Coyne’s column, a “coalition of election losers.” Coyne didn’t like the turn of phrase, but how else to understand the scenario?

If the Conservatives win the most seats in the next election it will feel to people like they deserve the chance to government, and people, especially lately, are inclined to trust their instincts. The Conservatives can prepare for this. Plan A is and should be to win a majority government. But Plan B, a strategy for throne speech support and a public argument for legitimacy, should be in the works. And if you ask me, the argument won’t be hard to make.