Making Government Work – Better

Margaret Cappa

I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few months about how to make government work better.

We talk about the silos that stone-wall or inhibit collaborative policy efforts, we hear about information asymmetries across ministries, and we see the disagreements that occur publicly between the federal and provincial (and provincial and municipal) governments regarding transfers and financing.

Amidst these issues, we know that we now live in a perpetually globalizing, inter-connected, and multi-polar world. The global village McLuhan predicted is indeed operating in full force. Furthermore, as University of Toronto Professor Dr. Irvin Studin noted, one of the cardinal tautologies of this century is that the Canadian state has become very complex (Studin 2008, 43).

“This complexity means that there is nary a policy issue that fails to straddle the discrete constitutional responsibilities assigned to the federal and provincial governments,” he noted. This includes energy, immigration, strategic infrastructure, Aboriginal questions, the environment, and health care.

However, First Ministers’ Meetings are now rare. Moreover, they have come to be marred by media frenzies that focus on the clashing of provincial interests and premiers’ highly elastic asks. The centrifugal stress on the Prime Minister is immense, and the federation’s functionality appears weakened to the electorate. Steps should be taken to make First Ministers’ Meetings more policy focused so that pan-Canadian challenges can be tackled in a meaningful way without the omnipresent debate over transfers and finances.

It is important to note that some efforts have been effective in breaking down silos in government. The Service Ontario model is a great example of government streamlining services in a way that makes sense, is effective, and illustrates how meaningful collaboration can occur.

But after I attended a Mar. 30, 2012 lecture given by a former Head of the Ontario Public Service, it became apparent from their speech that some silos remain within our government, and they are difficult to break down. Silos exist for different reasons. For instance, some ministries are simply unaware of the work others are doing on similar policy portfolios, and some large ministries have intra-silo challenges due to their great size. They are probably impossible to overcome altogether; thus, the impetus for change should be to make silos more networked, rather than abandoning them altogether.

In summation, if there truly is “nary a policy” that fails to cross inter-jurisdictional lines and inter-ministerial lines, we must find a way of better collaborating.

Recommendations

  1. The federal government should create a National Grants Commission (NGC) to recommend the transfer amount and allocation formula for federal-provincial financing and transfers.

While tensions over such fiscal allocations will likely always exist, there is much opportunity to better mitigate these tensions in pursuit of more collaborative, inter-governmental policymaking between Canada’s First Ministers. I recommend modeling the NGC after the Australian Commonwealth Grants Commission (CGC). The CGC experts propose strictly non-partisan recommendations to the Australian government for resource allocation to the Australian territories.

According to a recent Mowat Centre report on the topic, the “CGC’s recommendations are generally adopted because they come with a seal of neutral fiscal expertise,” and the result has been very few conflicts over federal-territorial financing and transfers since the CGC was implemented in 1933 (Beland and Lecours 2012, 3). Furthermore, Australia’s CGC has been used as the model for the creation of both South Africa’s and India’s non-partisan grants commission. Given the fact that Australia and Canada are both constitutional monarchies, using Australia’s CGC is a viable example for Canada.

Finally, although thousands of intergovernmental meetings are held between public servants in Canada each year on a myriad of topics, it ultimately takes “political oxygen” (Studin 2008, 44) from elected officials to give intergovernmental policies their impetus.

  1. To break down more barriers between ministries and departments, inter-ministerial/inter-departmental projects and policymaking should be incorporated into Employee Performance and Development Plans. Those employees who undertake meaningful efforts to diminish information asymmetries between ministries/departments and engage in collaborative inter-ministerial policymaking should be rewarded by way of their merit pay increase.

Working to diminish information asymmetries across departments and ministries could be part of policymakers’ annual work plan they devise with their supervisor. Moreover, tying merit pay directly to this objective could further incentivize such undertakings, whilst helping to either break down or better connect silos.

One area where this could be particularly useful is in policymaking related to mental health and mental illness. During a Nov. 2012 presentation from a policy expert working on the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario (jointly being lead by Munir Sheikh and Francis Lankin), it was illustrated that at least 15 different Ontario ministries or departments were undertaking policies related to mental health and mental illness. These efforts were largely  uncoordinated.

If policymakers’ work plans stipulated they undertake inter-ministerial dialogue when identifying and researching the opportunities and risks of a list of policy options, and modest merit pay could be awarded upon effective fulfillment of this expectation, perhaps silos could be better connected and information asymmetries lessened within a government.

Parting thoughts:

I’d like to further explore these two recommendations in a more thorough manner; evaluating and weighing the risks associated with them, as well as the feasibility of their respective implementation. For instance, would a National Grants Commission actually lessen disputes over transfers and help facilitate more policy-focused First Ministers’ Meetings? Next, how would policymakers’ inter-ministerial endeavours to diminish information asymmetries and better network silos actually be measured and evaluated?

However, what I do know is that I’ve given this topic some thought.
And if I ever share an elevator ride with a Minister who asks little old me for two policy options on the topic, I have them ready.

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Margaret Cappa is Co-Editor of the Public Policy and Governance Review. She is in the second year of the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and received a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University. Margaret has worked as a journalist both in Canada and abroad, with publications in The Globe and Mail, The Associated Press, The Rwanda News Agency, and The Barents Observer. Her research interests include immigration, intergovernmental affairs, the Arctic, and questions of sovereignty and intervention.  

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Work Cited:

Beland, Daniel and Andre Lecours. 2012. “Equalization at Arm’s Length.” The Mowat Centre.

Studin, Irvin. 2008. “Process Before Product: A New Federal-Provincial Logic for a New Century.” Policy Options, September Issue pg. 43 – 46.

 

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