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Scott Taymun: How to strengthen Canada’s state capacity


Much has been written over the past few months on the state of the country and the sense amongst many that “everything is broken,” including the federal government itself.  From the ArriveCan mess to evidence of foreign interference in our elections to the astonishment of Canadians witnessing 30 percent mark-ups to manage “supply contracts” under our procurement system to the immigration-housing trainwreck, the calls for an “overhaul” of the system are growing louder by the day.  

As former mandarins Mel Cappe, Kevin Lynch, and Jim Mitchell recently wrote for The Hub: “an overhaul is needed for reasons manifold and obvious to most Canadians. ” The issue, in other words, “is not whether the government of Canada needs to do things differently, but how to structure the change.”

Before we debate what and how needs to be fixed, however, I would argue we need to be more precise on what is and is not working.  

Let’s start with the positive. The vast majority of the federal government is not broken and is working quite well. While many would argue the federal government has become too big, that does not take away from the fact that there are several hundred thousand dedicated public servants doing their jobs, every day, across the country and internationally, very well. As a former CBSA executive, I remain very proud of the work my colleagues at the agency do every day to keep our border running. And, the story of effective delivery of government services on the ground extends to just about every facet of government operations—from the work our intelligence service does to food inspection to policing.

So, what is not working?  

Unfortunately for those in the “Ottawa Bubble,” it is the “machine” inside the bubble itself that appears most dysfunctional. Recent policy failures, operational failures, and management failures all appear to be rooted in Ottawa not working well. In particular, results rarely match commitments and we repeatedly see issues associated with an inability—or poor ability—to design, develop, and deliver policy, program, and operational solutions to the challenges of the day in a timely, effective manner. Whether it is the failure to properly assess and plan for the downstream impact of immigration on housing or the inability to deliver just about any major project on time, in scope, and on budget, it is important to recognize that it’s not the front-line public servant that tends to over-commit and under-deliver. 

This ability to bring together the expert resources of the federal government in support of ministers to address public policy challenges is the job of our central agencies and senior civil service. If we are facing institutional, system-level challenges in the federal government’s ability to “get things done,” both the root of the problems as well as the design and implementation of solutions must necessarily implicate our central agencies.  

Within this context, the Hub’s Sean Speer and Andrew Evans recently prompted quite the debate on how to reform the federal government to improve its capacity to deliver, making the case for a “Do Tank” attached to the Prime Minister’s Office that would involve

the establishment of a National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council comprised of relevant cabinet ministers, public servants, political staff, and possibly non-elected appointees, and supported by a dedicated PMO staff, with the mandate to strengthen policy capacity and implementation oversight on behalf of the prime minister.

Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell critiqued the idea, noting that “it would contribute to a further centralization of the federal government and in turn undermine the principles of cabinet government and ministerial responsibility.” They further argue that if we want more effective government, the federal government needs to address five key issues:

  • Political short-termism
  • Excessive centralization in the PMO
  • Improving Government operations
  • Fixing procurement
  • Strengthening policy capacity

In reviewing this list, I found it hard to disagree with most of the various arguments and observations put forward. I also found myself asking, could the system operationalize the advice put forward, and, to the extent it tried, would it fix the core of the problems hindering effective development and delivery of key initiatives? On both of these latter questions, I remain sceptical because I am not convinced these “fixes” address the core driver of what’s not working. 

PSAC workers and supporters walk a picket line in Halifax on Monday, April 24, 2023. Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press.

As Speer notes, “A major impediment to progress on these ideas and various others is the inherent structure of the federal government and the challenge of centralized coordination on multi-departmental initiatives”. That, there, is the crux of the core problem and a longstanding issue. I recall Jocelyn Bourgon talking to middle managers in the 1990s, noting “We are all vertically accountable and horizontally challenged.”

Yet my own experience managing big, tough files is that Ottawa does not do horizontal integration well, neither across government departments, nor agencies within the same portfolio, or even, quite frankly, across different branches of the same department. It is an inherent weakness inside the “Ottawa Bubble.” 

A related yet separate problem is that Ottawa does not prioritize well. It is rare to see a government or department focused on a discrete set of clearly defined “must-do” priorities. The net result is that the “siloes” focus on their slice of the agenda and the system as a whole gets bottlenecked, particularly within central agencies (managing cabinet, decision-making, Treasury Board authorities) as well as in enabling areas such as staffing, procurement, and IT.  

Which brings me back to the idea of a “Do Tank.” Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell argue that (1) “under the model proposed by Speer and Evans, ministers would be sidelined, while the PM’s political staff would be enormously empowered and yet entirely unaccountable,” and (2) “strikingly absent from their desired model is almost any reference to ministers or the public service”. Another approach, which Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell advocate, is “going back to Westminster basics and having a cabinet of strong and empowered ministers.”

I personally do not see the two lines of thinking as mutually exclusive. It is perfectly conceivable to build a “Do Tank” in the PMO (or PCO for that matter) to help catalyze integrated policy development, planning, and prioritization across the broader system, working with PCO, Treasury Board, and others within the federal government to help “focus” the system on effective development and delivery of a discrete set of government priorities.  

The work of such a “Do Tank” would be to force the “system” to work in a more integrated, timely manner to address big problems and deliver. This could include, but not be limited to:

  • Bringing internal and external stakeholders together to do initial front-end policy and planning work on options, authorities, and delivery mechanisms;
  • working with the PMO and PCO to designate lead ministers and supporting machinery;
  • working with PCO to catalyze due diligence assessments within central agencies and across supporting departments, including work on cabinet authorities, legislative authorities, costing, timing, and implementation planning; and
  • maintaining line of sight and oversight of progress against plans and intended results.

Within government, the Do Tank concept and lead ministers could further be supported by the development of SWAT teams, by priority, built on an interdepartmental basis. The intent would be to ensure that the right civil servant players were assigned to the priority to facilitate effective coordination and delivery across and within supporting departments.

In short, we need to be precise on what needs fixing and find executable ways to implement the proposed solutions. Neither “Do Tanks” in the absence of supporting machinery on the civil service side of the equation, nor a return to an era of strong cabinet ministers is likely to do the trick. What is required is to fundamentally improve the system’s ability to effectively design, develop, and implement integrated solutions to complex public policy challenges within reasonable time frames.  

Wouldn’t it be great to see a four-year initiative designed, developed, and delivered in…four years?

Sean Speer: What is Canadian conservatism?


On April 26, The Hub’s editor at large, Sean Speer, participated in a panel discussion at the Civitas conference on basic ideas of the Canadian conservative tradition. Below is a reproduced version of his opening statement. 

I’ve chosen to interpret our panel topic as defining Canadian conservatism. Defining conservatism—especially in a handful of minutes—is a rather presumptuous task. 

It’s a bit apocryphal but apparently William F. Buckley Jr., who I’d argue is the most important conservative public intellectual in the twentieth century, started on a book to define conservatism but never finished it. 

He used to speak regularly on college campuses and whenever he was pestered to provide a succinct definition of conservatism, he would define it as “a paradigm of essences toward which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation.” That usually shut down the exchange with an overconfident student or faculty member. 

As a young person, I was consumed by the search for what one might describe as an indigenous Canadian conservatism distinct from American conservatism. The search was inspired in large part by Samuel Huntington’s famous observation that conservatism isn’t a universal ideology. It’s contingent and particularistic. It’s committed to conserving a set of ideas, institutions, and values that are unique to a particular jurisdiction or group. A Saudi Arabian conservative is different from a French conservative because he or she is aiming to conserve something different. It stood to reason therefore that there must be something that made Canadian conservatism inherently distinctive. 

I must say that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less motivated by the search for a unique Canadian conservatism. That’s because I’ve come to the view that English Canadian conservatism is essentially part of a North American project—its purpose, by and large, is to conserve a liberal (by which I mean classically liberal) inheritance. It follows therefore that, at least in broad terms, we’re trying to conserve the same ideas and values—if not the same institutions—as U.S. conservatives. 

I see the centre of gravity of English Canadian conservatism as “ordered liberty” or what modern American conservatives call “fusionism.” It represents a basic synthesis of Burkean traditionalism and new world dynamism. It involves a conception of liberty, personal freedom, and individual autonomy that’s rooted in an understanding of institutions, traditions, and norms that impose non-coercive yet powerful constraints on base human instincts and channels them in constructive directions. 

As Stephen Harper said to this conference in 2003: “The truth is that strong economic and social conservatives are more often the same people—and with reason. Except at the extremes…the philosophical fusion is deep and widespread.”

The more interesting question for me, then, is less about what’s distinct about Canadian conservatism per se and more about the differences between English Canadian conservatism and Quebec conservatism. 

But if I may leave that question aside perhaps for our discussion, I thought that I’d spend my remaining minutes reflecting on my own intellectual journey and how I’ve ended up here to the extent that it resonates with others. 

My personal worldview has become somewhat dichotomous. It reminds me of Jonah Goldberg’s frequent point that conservatism might be best defined as “comfort with contradiction.”

As a father, I’ve become more conservative in my life and outlook. Yet, as a matter of government and politics, I’ve become more libertarian or liberal. 

There are two main reasons for these developments. First, I’ve become so highly skeptical of state action in the face of such a string of government failures that I have to be careful at times not to succumb to anarchistic thinking. Second, reaching mid-life, which invariably comes with the reflection of one’s mistakes, wrong choices, and inherent fallibility, has caused me to be a bit humbler about politics. 

It’s an interesting consequence of hard-earned wisdom. At the precise moment that I’ve become confident in my own views about virtue and the good life, a reckoning with my own failings makes me skeptical of imposing them on others. My conservatism, in other words, is increasingly rooted in a crooked timber view of humanity. 

A statue of former Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald is pictured on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

In this sense, I think of Canadian conservatism (and indeed North American conservatism) as fundamentally pluralistic. It’s about preserving a large swath of space for as many of us as possible to seek virtue, live out our conception of the good life, and pursue individual prosperity and stability as members of a liberal democratic polity. 

But I’m not quite a Buftonian libertarian. I’m happy to make some accommodations within this framework that nod to normative judgements about the common good including: 

  • A broadly liberal political economy ought to have limits concerning trade and commerce with hostile states. 
  • A broadly liberal view of personal autonomy ought to accommodate constraints on individual freedom like age verification for online pornography, the criminalization of illicit drugs, or other instances where prudence causes us to intervene on behalf of children and the vulnerable. 
  • We ought to push back against the growing non-neutrality of public institutions as we’ve seen play out on university and college campuses across the country. 
  • A pluralistic public square doesn’t necessarily mean a relativistic one—there’s plenty of scope to argue that certain ideas are better than others and in some cases, this may even require legislating against illiberal actions or cultural practices. 
  • And, of course, I don’t believe that private institutions themselves need to be pluralistic. 

Ultimately, though, my conservatism—and I believe Canadian conservatism (or at least English Canadian conservatism)—is about conserving the principles of the country’s founding ideas and institutions which were liberal and pluralistic. 

We shouldn’t be disappointed by such a heritage. It’s one that had served us rather well for more than 150 years.