The Absent Image of Government: Creative Problem Solver

The world is changing fast and profoundly. Globalization is in full force. The days of self-contained economic crises are over. The gale of creative destruction destroys seemingly effective business models before they reach their full potential.

But, you already knew all that.

So perhaps the greatest issue at hand is that this rapidly changing world brings about great societal and economic demands, which our government is ill suited to respond to effectively.

“Governments are blunt instruments and the real, fast and effective innovations we need require scalpel-like intervention,” said Michael Sabia.

“They’re about management, and management isn’t leadership. At the end of the day, our governments are about incremental movements and not step-function changes.”

Mr. Sabia gave a presentation about Leadership in Public Policy to the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto, Oct. 22, 2010. This blog post is a response and reflection his address.

In his presentation, Mr. Sabia said the mismatch between creative solutions to societal and economic needs and our institutions’ ability to meet them is only widening. Government is increasingly seen as the process administrator and crisis manager, not the creative problem solver and creator of step-function public policy.

“Government ought to be a whole lot more than that,” he said.

So, what he’s saying is that when we think about this machine called government, we think it’s the body that makes sure things happen, and the body that saves us when things go wrong. Hmm.

To be frank, that perception may not be entirely off base. Perhaps government is not seen as a creative and dynamic problem solver. What’s more, perhaps government as the “blunt instrument” can’t be the dynamic problem solver we need.

Is this why some people say leadership is moving away from government?

The increasing involvement of philanthropy as well as growing partnerships between political leaders and social or civic entrepreneurs for the purpose of responding to societal needs may point to his notion.

Large-scale philanthropy initiatives believe their mandate is to do what government used to do, or do what government simply isn’t doing.

Take for instance Habitat for Humanity, a multi-national organization that helps provide affordable housing to poverty-stricken individuals. They require no monetary down payment and offer interest-free mortgages.

Now, how long have you been reading about the lack of affordable housing in Canada? How many times has the issue been an election platform pawn, especially in municipal elections?

But besides large philanthropic initiatives taking public policy leadership into their own hands, there’s political leaders going outside the administrative walls to solve problems.

“Many individuals who want to find a fertile field, because they find the public administration is a fallow field, go outside the system,” said Sabia.

For instance, take former Prime Minister Paul Martin and his dedication to improving the education, employment, and living conditions of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. During his tenure, his government put forward the Kelowna Accord – an historic consensus between Canada’s provinces, territories, First Nations, Métis and Inuit people to close the gap on quality-of-life disparities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. But as you probably know, the project failed to make the cut as a priority in Harper’s Conservative government after Martin lost power. What’s more, Martin was then paralyzed in pushing it through as a private members’ bill since such bills can’t contain expenditure of public funds.

So what did Martin do? He started his own organization in the fertile field of the outside world.

The Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative works in schools across the nation with high Aboriginal populations and low graduation rates to help students reach post-secondary study or set up sustainable businesses.

Now, the big question – why can’t government do this?

Is it because of an inert, risk-averse public service lacking leadership? Is it because the instruments at hand are too blunt and cumbersome? Is it because governments can’t break the mold of administrator and crisis manager? Does our government even have the capacity to solve such social welfare problems as lacking affordable housing and improving the quality of life of our Aboriginal neighbours?

Well, whatever the answers are to the preceding questions, I am after all a student of public policy. Thus, I hope that creative solutions can come from my colleagues and myself. I understand it won’t be easy to challenge norms and I understand it will be hard at time to embody leadership, so I fully agree with Mr. Sabia when he says,

“If you want to promote change from within the public service, you’ve adopted a courageous path. You have to make change and leadership a personal commitment; an unshakeable commitment to challenging the status quo.”

– by Margaret Cappa

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4 responses to “The Absent Image of Government: Creative Problem Solver

  1. Well said Margaret! I worry that the increasing desire to look beyond government for solutions is systematically undermining both the accountability and capacity of our elected officials. If our government is deemed incapable of solving major problems, and decisions are being outsourced, what are the accountability structures in place? Actors outside the government like think-tanks, consultants and philanthropists are not held accountable to the electorate. And if public officials are not given the opportunity to engage in creative meaningful problem solving, that skill will never be developed within the public service. I worry about this especially in parts of the developing world. Due to the lack of government capacity, vital services that I believe should be provided by government (ex. Health care, education etc.) are being provided by NGOs. In theory, this is an interim measure and these duties will be transferred to government once the capacity exists. In practice however, NGOs are being more and more institutionalized and entrenched. A permanent parallel structure is emerging.

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