Canada’s policy ecosystem is in need of major updates

Let’s agree that Canada is a well-governed country and generally makes well-considered policy decisions that are informed by evidence and benefit from dialogue with affected stakeholders. Canada’s model for Cabinet-level policy-making remains by-and-large the same over the past few decades. This model has served Canada well – so there is wisdom embedded in this status quo that should not be lightly tossed aside.

This having been said, many practitioners recognize that it is time for major upgrades in Canada’s policy ecosystem in order to respond effectively to the increasingly complex and dynamic environment confronting policy-makers. Hyper-globalization, pervasive social media and the data-driven economy are some prominent examples of the new foundational forces shaping Canada. There is a sense that not only are the applications of public policy changing, but also the underlying operating system of society and the economy. And such transformative change is happening at a faster and more unpredictable pace than ever before.

Military planners famously refer to this as the “VUCA” environment – short for “volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous”. In the world of military planning, this has led to the so-called revolution in military affairs that fundamentally shifts the paradigms of threat assessment, strategic posture and tactical response. A similar paradigm-shift is needed for policy-making.

Consider Canada’s most fundamental policy process -- Cabinet. Cabinet decision-making is a linear process that requires policy-makers to “get it right” up-front, then rely on a separate team for program design and implementation, and then wait years for the results of evaluations before fundamental changes are made. Such a linear, sequential process is not able to adapt to a shifting context or new information gleaned from operational experience. The system we have is like a cannon – the cannon is aimed and then fired – and sometime later the cannonball lands. The Cabinet system we need is more like a guided missile, where adjustments can be made in the air, to follow a moving target, to change targets, or even to self-destruct. In a VUCA world, Canada needs guided missiles, not cannons.

A glimpse into what the future of Cabinet decision-making should look like may be found in the Cabinet Committee for Agenda, Results and Communications created by the current Liberal Government and chaired by the Prime Minister. This committee regularly returns to the same set of issues, considers progress and makes decisions based on new evidence.

Of course, it is simply not practical to manage all the issues confronting the Government in this way. But progress can, and must, be made in four key areas:

First, Canada must eliminate the artificial gap between policy advice and implementation and make policy more agile.

Policy advisors need to understand how programs and services are designed and delivered. Program and service managers must continuously generate and effectively communicate data and policy insights from the delivery of their programs. Decision-makers need to be prepared to consider constant evolution of their policy directions and parameters in light of operational insights.

Eliminating the gap between policy and delivery requires policy-makers who are well-versed in public administration, and managers who are adept at strategic policy. This is a tall order, and requires different approaches to talent management, training and career mobility across departments and agencies. To begin with, the Government should establish clearer expectations for its policy practitioners, as other professions do. This should include mandatory courses in new and existing methods for policy analysis and collaboration. Tours of duty in program and service lines should be mandatory for policy practitioners, including site visits and study tours of “on the ground” program delivery with stakeholders. For their part, universities must erase the distinction between public policy and public administration to ensure that public policy is grounded in applied practice and not stuck in a conceptual ivory tower.

Another area where great progress needs to be made is in program evaluation. The Government regularly releases evaluations of programs’ performance, in accordance with the Policy on Results. However, all too often these evaluations are “too little”, “too late”. “Too little” because evaluations are pre-screened by management and are often reduced to be an explanation of management’s pre-existing strategies for program evolution, rather than an objective stock-taking based on robust standards of evidence. Evaluations are often siloed within a program area and within a single department, rather than reflecting the horizontal and collaborative nature of most programs. “Too late” because evaluation often follows years of implementation, rather than providing formative or ongoing insights. The Government needs to take a hard look at its evaluations and consider structural improvements, such as more third-party evaluations, clustering departments together, and strengthening the objectivity of the function.

Second, policy-makers need to keep pace with the evolution of policy instruments.

Recent years have seen more use of performance-based grants, micro-grants, X-prizes, and behavioural “nudges”. However such innovations can often be traced to the same small crew of public servants as they move around between departments. For example, performance-based grants and behavioural insights were gestated at the Public Health Agency of Canada and then migrated when a few key people moved to the Privy Council Office. Most public servants know very little about these new instruments and therefore aren’t able to include them when they are developing policy options.

The most critical policy instrument for Canada is the creation of modern program delivery platforms that respond to the rising service expectations of citizens. Service platforms have emerged in the private sector that offer user-friendly, secure, mobile, highly-automated, personalised and “ask-me once” services anywhere anytime. Policy-makers need to recognize that digital platforms will become the policy instrument of choice for most programs and services in the future. This is because such platforms will allow faster and more targeted service delivery, and will be able to better leverage data to generate further policy insights. But the Government of Canada has been slow to produce digital service-delivery platforms. In fact, Canada still lacks a secure identity-management system for citizens – a critical ingredient to any digital service platform.

Canada’s slow progress in introducing digital platforms hit home at the 2022 FWD50 Conference in Ottawa as participants showcased international progress in digital transformation while struggling to defend the Government of Canada’s reputation amid its dramatic fall from 3rd in 2010 to 28th in 2020 on the UN rankings for digital government. In Ukraine, for example, citizens receive services and pay taxes on a mobile-friendly and secure platform that integrates with the banking system. Moreover, citizens are no longer required to carry physical passports at all. When the country was invaded (again) by Russia in 2022, the Government was able to quickly support citizens who were dislocated by the conflict by delivering subsidies directly to them, and supporting domestic and cross-border migration, all through its digital platform. Citizens could also report enemy troop movements directly to military intelligence through the platform.

In Canada, concerted efforts to build digital platforms are underway. For example, Benefits Delivery Modernization continues its sluggish modernization of Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan. Most notably, the Canada Revenue Agency has made large gains in modernizing the delivery of tax services by integrating with private sector on-line banking. Many in-person services have been replaced by on-line options during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Government of Canada must move more quickly to create secure digital platforms that allow interoperability amongst the complex array of services to businesses and individuals, the delivery (and transparency) of regulatory licences for businesses and individuals, and grants and contributions for Non-Government Organisations and businesses. Easier said than done. All of these involve a large number of departments and agencies who cannot shoulder the burden themselves. For example, an attempt by the department of Canadian Heritage some years ago to create a grants and contributions platform collapsed under the weight of the many departments and agencies clamouring to join.

Success will require a collective effort and support from central agencies. The “digital ambition” recently announced by the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat maintains the Government’s commitment to this direction, but dramatically greater progress needs to be made if citizens’ rising expectations are to be met. The COVID-19 pandemic has injected fresh impetus into digital transformation and the Government needs to ensure it doesn’t backslide into old ways of doing business.

Third, Canada needs to strengthen its data infrastructure.

The Government has vast holdings of administrative data – the data that is produced in the delivery of programs and services. The private sector has long-realized the value of data for customer service and in generating strategic insights (famously being dubbed the “new oil” by some). However the public service has been slower to this game.

This Government’s slow progress has been driven, in part, by historical strategies to safeguard data integrity, quality and privacy. Public servants were instructed for years not to share data between programs or departments, because this could lead to breaches in privacy. While safeguarding privacy remains a critical concern, such outdated strategies are a thing of the past. New safeguards have been developed that ensure privacy and security while allowing relevant data to be reused and shared across the Government. For example, Statistics Canada is able to anonymously link administrative micro-data from any program with its vast data holdings on companies and individuals to produce policy insights without the need for old-fashioned statistical surveys (which are slower, less accurate and more expensive than data generated from existing sources). Such linking protects privacy and security, but allows the kind of statistical analyses that policy-makers need to be effective.

Policy-makers need to update their understanding of modern data analytics and artificial intelligence. A good example is natural language processing and natural language generation. These areas are now routinely used by the private sector to generate insights from written words. Existing, off-the-shelf natural language processing can be used to generate insights from the vast holdings of written words produced and captured by government programs, services and administration. The Canadian Energy Regulator is a leader in this area, turning its otherwise impenetrable holdings of regulatory submissions and conditions into an accessible body of data that can be used for policy analysis and transparency with stakeholders. A small group of experiments using natural language processing to analyze regulatory text undertaken by a group of departments with support from the Canada School of Public Service has also demonstrated the potential to leverage these technologies.

The need for a data culture in government runs deep. Currently, managers are identified by their spans of control in terms of employees and budget. The times call for them to add “data” to this list – both as a steward and for policy insights. This is a fundamental shift. Work is underway but progress in modernising the Government’s data systems has been sporadic – with world-leading examples in some areas but with little appreciable progress in the vast majority of programs and services.

In 2018 the Government of Canada released its Data Strategy Roadmap which stated that “Through the power of data, public servants can fundamentally transform governments by changing the way they operate, make decisions and deliver services.” Following the Roadmap, most departments and agencies have enacted their own strategies and appointed a Chief Data Officer. Their efforts need to be supported to bring greater coherence and effectiveness to data management within and across departments. Indeed, interoperable data standards can replace the need for large enterprise IT systems which have a poor track record of success. It is also worth noting that modernizing the Government’s data infrastructure will require the rollout of secure cloud infrastructure, which is still in its early stages.

Fourth, Canada needs to continue to ensure that a wide array of voices are incorporated into policy-making.

Gone are the days when episodic and tightly-constrained consultations sufficed to represent the diversity of views that make up Canadian society. Here the Government of Canada is doing better. Most recently, it has been seized with the Anti-Racism, Equity, and Inclusion agenda; implementation of the Accessible Canada Act; and, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. As part of these efforts, the Government has stood up ongoing advisory committees that go beyond a single-issue – hence avoiding the “one and done” approach to consultation. There has also been a proliferation of training on anti-black racism, unconscious bias, accessibility and colonization. These training sessions preach and embody the principle of “nothing for us without us” by featuring voices from minoritized groups and other affected stakeholders. In response to these voices, the government also authorized the collection of more micro-data and demanded more detailed analyses of potential policy impacts on disadvantaged groups. Intersectional analyses of policy options is being baked into the policy-making process.

Further progress can be made by leveraging digital platforms, releasing anonymized disaggregated data sets, and increasing deliberative dialogue with minoritized groups.

The Government can also take steps to further strengthen Canada’s public policy ecosystem – which is to say the discourse that happens in the public domain amongst think tanks, universities, NGOs, industry associations, businesses and citizens. After years of belt-tightening, departments and agencies are rekindling their policy research partnerships with some of these groups. A notable example is the proliferation of knowledge syntheses supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the resuscitation of the Public Servant in Residence Program by the Canada School of Public Service (from which the author is currently a participant). Further actions should be taken such as the public release of more government policy research, and engaging more academics in program evaluation and analyses of linked data-sets.

Moving Forward

Many policy practitioners advocate reforms along the lines of what I suggest. A fundamental step was made in 2017 with the creation of the Government of Canada’s policy community, an effort I co-championed for many years.

However, resistance will come in many forms. Government does not have the luxury of re-inventing itself the way a failed startup might. It has to contend with a huge legacy – of program design, systems, and leadership. The machinery of government is built vertically, and functions less naturally in areas that require horizontal approaches. Most departments are organized around the existing policy-making process. Most practitioners consider policy to be more “art” than “science”, and therefore do not recognize the need for professional standards. Models for human resources management and information-technologies are decades old and have embedded yesterday’s solutions to yesterday’s problems rather than the agility required for a modern organization in a “VUCA” policy environment.

Making progress on these four reforms will require changes by many players at all levels in Government. We can start by holding the Government to a higher, modern standard, when it enters new policy domains. For example, when the Government announces a new policy priority we should ask: what data will be generated from the new approach? is there agility baked-in to respond to new insights as they emerge? what alternative options were considered? is there digital delivery? what voices are incorporated into the development and delivery of the initiative?


About the Author

Neil Bouwer is a Professor of Practice at the Max Bell School and the former Vice-President of the Innovation and Skills Development Branch at the Canada School of Public Service. He has also served as an Assistant Deputy Minister at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Natural Resources Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and the Privy Council Office of Canada; and in executive positions at the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, Human Resources and Social Development Canada and the Business Development Bank of Canada. He has also worked at the Department of Finance and Western Economic Diversification Canada, and has Economics degrees from McGill University and St. Thomas University. For many years Neil actively supported the Government of Canada policy and data communities, the Advanced Policy Analyst Program and the Free Agent HR Program.

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