Letter from Ottawa: a little perspective on public service problems

By on 18/07/2022 | Updated on 18/07/2022
A woman sleeps on a bench at an airport.
Passport issuance and airport delays and other service delivery challenges have prompted the Canadian government to set up the Task Force of Ministers on Government Service Delivery. Photo by Anthony Pujol via Flickr

Passport processing delays have prompted debate about service delivery in Canada. Michael Wernick, the country’s former cabinet secretary, warns against catastrophising – and says old ways of talking about the public service stand in the way of progress

The third summer of the pandemic is here and as in many countries, restrictions have eased and Canadians who have been cooped up for much of the past two years are eager to travel. A surge of applications for passports and traffic through airports has pushed the infrastructure that supports travel to breaking point, fuelling a spate of media stories and chatter about hellish experiences with service counter lines, cancellations, missed flights and more.

The specific problems around the passport issuance system have been conjoined with other queue management and service delivery challenges, the pressure eventually poking the government into striking a Task Force of Ministers on Government Service Delivery. It isn’t entirely clear what it is supposed to produce, or when, and may well be cross threaded with another government initiative, announced in the spring Budget. A Strategic Policy Review is supposed to “identify resources to save and reallocate resources to adapt government programmes and operations to a new post-pandemic reality” and reduce federal spending by C$3bn (US$2.3bn) a year. Since improving services is likely to require investment in staffing levels, training, and technology, the savings will have to be achieved by cutting elsewhere. It will be up to the minister of finance to square the circle and she is conspicuously absent from the task force on better services.

Public sector management is having a moment in Canada. Unfortunately, it is manifesting as catastrophising, fuelled by a small group of journalists drawing on a small set of sources. If you read the commentariat you would think Canada is careening toward a failed state and dysfunctional government. The passport office has morphed into general decline and erosion of the state and its public service, and for some the end days of the current government.

Taking the good with the bad: listen to GGF’s latest Leading Questions podcast with Canada’s former cabinet secretary, Michael Wernick

While it is tempting to join the fray on today’s specific issues or try to point out counter examples, which abound, it may be better to pause on how we tend to think and talk about the public sector. I am worried that if we rush to a quick and easy diagnosis, we will get the remedies wrong and may make things worse. Indeed, we open the public sector to quackery and malpractice – what a Google search told me the health system calls ‘latrogenic illness’.

Over the years we have seen recurrent patterns in the way we talk about the public sector that get in the way of moving forward. Some that come to mind are:

  • Loss of perspective. Focusing on the immediate and the present with amnesia about progress made and what things were really like not that long ago
  • Media spotlighting of compelling and very personal outlier cases without reporting the baseline volumes of transactions and the baseline rate of success and error – thereby encouraging sweeping generalisations
  • Using old recurrent tropes about the public sector despite evidence they are out of date
  • Pushing forward solutions to things that really aren’t a problem. Academics are notorious for this
  • Oversimplifying – failure to anticipate that any remedy to today’s issue won’t bring complete closure but will inevitably generate new issues and trade-offs
  • Tunnel vision – generalising from the issue that is currently in the news without awareness or curiosity about what else may be happening

Old tropes about the public sector live on like unkillable zombies, thrown into the discourse regardless of evidence – and it is often to suit someone’s personal or political agenda. Perhaps to no avail one could try to trace the arc of how federal, provincial and local governments of various political hues have achieved tremendous improvements in the accuracy, timeliness and accessibility of government services or how they have made more information available to citizens than ever before. But then one would be immediately attacked as complacent or making excuses, or being an apologist for the politicians of the day.

It is a never-ending eternal challenge to attract attention to issues of slow rust out and deterioration in the public sector until something breaks and it becomes a political problem. There is a tendency of politicians and some public service leaders to push away uncomfortable choices and play for time. Public sector reformers and innovators are undermined in their work by glib generalisations. What the public sector needs is persistent diligent attention, well-placed investments in people and in the tools they are given, and the political will to tackle uncomfortable structural issues.

At times like these it has always been worth asking why things went badly and drawing out lessons and corrective actions that make things better. The public sector should be built for feedback and continuous learning. However, getting the diagnosis right is essential to getting to the right remedies. The coming months will tell if we in Canada follow the maxim not to waste a crisis and turn this moment into solid implementable actions or let the moment pass.

Read more: Letter from Ottawa: After a winter of shocks, Canada’s Budget is the latest sign of stability

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About Michael Wernick

Michael Wernick’s distinguished 38-year career as one of the key leaders of Canada’s world-class federal public service culminated in serving from 2016 to 2019 as the 23rd clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to Cabinet. With 28 years as an executive in the federal public service, including 17 years in the community of deputy ministers, and three as clerk, Wernick is one of Canada’s most experienced and influential public sector leaders. He appeared frequently at parliamentary committees, participated in dozens of intergovernmental and international meetings, and spoke at many conferences. Wernick worked closely with three prime ministers and seven ministers and attended close to 300 meetings of Cabinet and its committees. He was the key public servant at the Privy Council Office during three changes of prime minister. In October 2021, UBC Press released Wernick’s book Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics and Wernick undertook an extensive series of media interviews, podcasts and webinars to discuss this well-received practical handbook for Canada’s political leaders and those who aspire to understand them. As a senior strategic advisor to MNP Inc and the Jarislowsky Chair at University of Ottawa, Wernick now provides advisory services and mentorship to emerging leaders and to new generations of students.

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