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Amanda Lang: Long-term thinking in government can easily fall victim to politics

Commentary

The following is the latest installment of The Hub’s new series The Business of Government, 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 Michael Wernick, a former clerk of the privy council, on your favourite podcast app or at The Hub.

It’s easy to bring a glass-half-empty kind of nostalgia to Canada’s public service, recalling a time when a deputy minister was afforded the greatest respect, paid like a CEO, and considered an invaluable asset to government. The notion that somehow the quality of personnel has deteriorated over time is a widely held one. But is it true?

One answer to that question is purely empirical, according to a former Clerk of the Privy Council: “In a more and more demanding environment the public sector, federal, provincial, and municipal, continues to deliver for Canadians.”

As the most senior unelected official in the land, Michael Wernick quite literally wrote the book on how government can function best. In charge of the civil service, but also the liaison to elected officials as cabinet secretary, Wernick also had a front-row seat to how politics can run roughshod over public servants. But measuring the quality of our government at the most basic level is pretty straightforward: “It’s about keeping us safe and secure, generating economic growth and prosperity,” he says. “And by a long list of measures Canada is a successful country.”

That’s not to say our civil service doesn’t occupy itself with improvement. Wernick says some of the infrastructure of government is a “vast feedback loop” designed to audit performance and do better. “There is this continuous checking in and looking back on what could have been done differently.”

But he also cautions against speaking of government as though it’s one entity. The federal government is more like 300 different organizations, with seven or eight different occupational groups, all doing different things. Like the private sector, the functions are diverse enough that they represent totally different sectors. But unlike the private sector, the management and leadership of them is made more complex because it is done in the context of politics, and also of a larger budget mandate. To analyze how government is doing, Wernick says, has to involve a look at individual organizations.

“There are pockets of excellence and innovation, and there are organizations that run into trouble.” For all the attention the trouble gets, Wernick argues there are plenty of success stories that don’t get told.

Wernick notes that public-facing services get the most attention—so you can now renew your driver’s licence online in minutes, and file your taxes entirely electronically. But internal processes of government are often the ones that get neglected—the services like finance, human resources, information management, material management, buildings, tools—“these are the kinds of things that make everything else possible. Not only do they tend to get neglected until there’s a crisis, but when you have one of these waves of spending reviews and cuts, they tend to be the things that are cut, because any group of politicians will go out and say, ‘No, no, we’re protecting service to Canadians, we’re going to find efficiencies within government.’”

One place Wernick says should not be neglected is leadership and training development, which benefits every department, but falls victim to cutbacks. It’s something he has argued for over time, including before Parliamentary Committee.

When it comes to size, Wernick is keen that the right problem be solved: even with its recent increase in size, the bureaucracy isn’t the line item that will make or break the federal budget. Of course “it’s worth trying to make the operations of government leaner, but you’re not going to balance the budget on that,” Wernick says. In fact, cutting the federal civil service in half might save you $20 billion dollars, out of a $400 billion dollar budget. “It’s worth doing because it might create better outcomes and better services and better policies. But it’s not going to be the key to fiscal balance.”

As for how departments function, Wernick says there is a balance to be struck between creating deep specialists—by leaving people in place longer—and those who have experience in multiple roles. He’s upbeat about the quality of talent the federal civil service can attract, including from the private sector. “I’m an advocate of more interchange, it’s a good idea to have people crossing from the private public and not-for-profit sectors for a period of time and learning about what it’s like on the other side,” he says. Rather than the dozen or so a year, he would like to see up to 200 interchanges, seeding more awareness on both sides of how the other functions.

It’s important not to forget that government isn’t separate or apart from the private sector, Wernick notes. “When you have a strong public sector, you get a strong private sector, and vice versa. And it’s something that Canada does better than many other countries.”

One hot political question has been the use of outside consultants in government, and Wernick takes a characteristically measured view. The pace of change in things like technology makes outside consultants necessary, and he argues that another perspective should be welcome. If there is too much reliance on consultants—and he is not saying there is—it only bolsters the argument for more robust internal training. What he calls the “learning software” of government includes developing in-house potential.

Wernick argues that the “spend money to save money” mentality is harder to achieve in the public sector. The reality is that longer-term investments in systems or staff development can more easily fall victim to day-to-day politics.

As someone who spent four decades working in various parts of government, Wernick isn’t blind to its shortcomings. “I don’t want to be misunderstood. There are lots of things to attend to.” Information management inside government is “a shambles,” he says, and there are areas of service that need to be corrected. He’s also passionate about improving training and development so that the most organizations can build on their talent.

But the evidence for how Canada’s public service functions is in the output, he says. “Things get done. This is a successful country that ranks very highly in all the governance measurements around the world.”

It’s a kind of optimism about government employees that feels refreshing. Glass-half-full, as it were. And maybe from this vantage making positive change is an easier prospect.

“I’m not making the argument that government is perfect. I’m making the argument that it learns and adapts and moves forward and the more attention paid to how it works, especially how it works internally is a very, very welcome.”

Howard Anglin: It’s time to face it: Canada is internationally irrelevant

Commentary

The saintly editors here at The Hub have agreed to my request to produce one of my two monthly articles for the site as a monthly transatlantic diary. For those readers not familiar with the format, which is more common in British journalism, the diary is a grab bag of short items, sometimes on a common theme, but often not. In my case, what they have in common is that they are either too inconsequential to merit a full article or I can’t be bothered to come up with more than a knee-jerk reaction or a flip comment. This is July.

Nothing flutters Canadian hearts like foreign praise, and nothing flusters Canadian minds like foreign criticism. There isn’t a ranking of “best places to live” too tendentious that Canadian media won’t breathlessly report it and Canadians won’t shamelessly retweet it. But the flip side is that we have crepe-paper-thin skin when it comes to criticism, especially from our neighbours to the south. This national sensitivity was triggered this month when the Wall Street Journal had the temerity to repeat what Canadian commentators have been saying for more than a decade: we are global free riders on national defence. 

Reacting on behalf of a bruised national ego, our infamously thin-skinned United Nations Ambassador Bob Rae tweeted

Canada is not a free rider in Latvia, Ukraine, the Middle East, Haiti, NORAD, NATO, the Asia Pacific, or anywhere. From Korea to Afghanistan we have been there. And we pay our dues to the UN, on time, including peacekeeping and the International Criminal Court. Like everyone else, we need to do more, and we are doing just that.

For those keeping score at home: 

  • we have 800 CAF personnel in Latvia (a tiny fraction of the troops we had stationed in Europe during the Cold War); 
  • we’ve given less to Ukraine than Japan and only a little more than the Netherlands;
  • we have almost no presence or relevance in the Middle East; 
  • we (wisely) declined a larger role in Haiti when the United States asked us to step up;
  • we are very much second-fiddle in NORAD;
  • we don’t come close to meeting NATO’s 2 percent spending commitment; and 
  • we have been left out of our allies’ two major Asia-Pacific initiatives. 

We did pull our weight and more in Afghanistan, but that ended a few years ago, and Korea ended 70 years ago. We were passed over for a UN Security Council seat in favour of Ireland and Norway the last time we applied, and we haven’t been a real peacekeeping nation in more than a generation. Rae might as well have appealed to the CAF’s gallantry at Passchendaele and Cambrai or the Boer War. It is hard to explain to Canadians who don’t spend a lot of time abroad how irrelevant we are internationally these days, but Rae did a good job making the Wall Street Journal’s point at least as effectively as the original article.

* * *

Still, I’m glad to be back in Canada, although judging from the crowds at the airport departure gates when I landed, I am going against the flow of seasonal migration. Post-Covid wanderlust and TikTok travel influencers are luring Canadians to Europe in record numbers this summer, and as far as I’m concerned, they are welcome to it. I’ve never understood why anyone would leave Canada during the most beautiful months of the year here to visit Europe at its worst. Unless you make the extra effort to seek out places as yet undiscovered by Instagram or have friends with cool retreats in the hard-to-reach countryside, you couldn’t pay me to venture onto the continent after April. Expect heatwaves, crowds, and queues—all at twice the price of the regular months. 

European cities in the summer are basically Disneyland without air-conditioning or crowd control. Contrast that with September to March, when you can get a decent reservation without booking two months out and actually breathe in the galleries and museums. I once spent 25 minutes alone in the Sistine Chapel early on a January morning, just me, a dozing guard, and my guide from the Patrons of the Vatican Museums, who graciously stepped out so I could enjoy the silence and solitude. I am very glad not to be heading back until well after the crowds have left to enjoy the slow serenity of autumn.

* * *

Anyway, it has been good to be back in Western Canada, starting with the Calgary Stampede. It’s easy to mock the faux-Western pretensions of the Stampede, but it’s a genuine tradition and it provides more of a sense of regional identity than anything else you’ll find west of Quebec. And at the heart of the Stampede is a real rodeo, one of the best in North America. If you skip the corporate and political events and build your time around the afternoon rodeo—bareback, saddle bronc, bull riding, roping, barrel racing, and steer wrestling—and the evening chuckwagons and Indian Relay races, it’s impossible not to have a great time. 

Stampede has always been a strongly integrative experience. For more than a century it has brought Calgarians together, wherever they’ve come from, and local First Nations have been at the core of the vent from the beginning. The first saddle bronc champion was Tom Three Persons, from the Kainai (Blood) Nation, a local cowboy and eventually a successful rancher. There was a Chinese-Canadian Stampede Queen, Jenny Chow back in 1958 (candidates were put forward by local civil society organisations, and Miss Chow was sponsored by the Calgary Fire Department), and four years before that, there was, Evelyn Eagle Speaker, an Indigenous Stampede Queen (the first and still only—there is a separate First Nations Princess who acts as-co Stampede royalty).

Now that Canada, having given up without even trying on boosting our birth rate, plans to grow rapidly and almost exclusively through immigration, events like Stampede are more important than ever. During Stampede, most businesses, neighbourhoods, as well as religious and ethnic communities, host pancake breakfasts, and you can see families who just arrived in Canada wearing the same Western outfits as enthusiastically and unconvincingly as any native-born Calgarian. I often wonder what a newcomer to Southern Ontario does to signal that they want to be an active part of their new community—call into The Fan to complain about the Leafs’ management, I assume. Canada has too few truly communal festivals—events that bring us together as part of a shared culture in a place with a proud history and a distinct identity—to afford to be cynical about Stampede.

* * *

From Calgary to Victoria, where I grew up and my parents still live. Most of the city, including my old neighbourhood, is still as idyllic as ever and at least superficially unchanged, but the downtown has visibly degenerated in the last decade so that several downtown blocks resemble the grittier parts of Vancouver. At the same time, developers have busted through the city’s old notional height restrictions to erect shiny new condo towers with harbour views. Give it another decade and the skyline will be a miniature copy of Vancouver or Toronto, my metwands for banal urbanity. 

Toronto’s physical unloveliness is now internationally proverbial. At recent a architecture lecture I attended in Oxford, a speaker damned London’s current development—an invading army of skyscrapers in the internationalist style—by comparing it to Dubai…and Toronto. Vancouver’s ugliness is less commonly noted, but that’s because the repetitive glass towers are overshadowed by such an extraordinary natural setting. When people say Vancouver is a beautiful city, what they mean is it’s a city in a beautiful place. The built city, at least the parts built after 1970, ranges from dull to dire. I love Vancouver, but there aren’t six buildings you would be excited to show off to a visitor. And with wealthy residents isolated in mirrored boxes high above the squalid alleys and spreading encampments, it is increasingly grotesque, aesthetically and morally. 

Still, as I said, it is good to be back in the West, where Canada still feels vital and confident, even if the wider country is sliding into irrelevance.