Public service

Ken Coates: Can the public service handle the huge expansion of the Liberal government?

Canada is now embarking on the fastest and most significant expansion of the role of the state since the 1960s

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The COVID-19 pandemic has tested governments in Canada. Like all major crises, the pandemic has laid bare the weaknesses and strengths of governments. Canadians are now wondering how much they can count on their governments to deliver services efficiently, reliably and responsibly.

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Early in the pandemic, Canadians saw governments rush to protect individuals and businesses from financial ruin, implement effective containment measures and institute travel restrictions. But we have also seen governments and private sector providers fail to protect residents of retirement homes. Overall, however, the nation had confidence in governments at all levels.

But over time, major cracks have emerged: inconsistent COVID-19 policies across the country, serious hospital management issues, contentious debates over vaccine mandates, quixotic border management, government by fiat instead of normal democratic processes. and massive deficit management, particularly by the federal government. In early 2022, with tensions heightened by the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa, public dissatisfaction with the handling of the pandemic and frustration with the government peaked.

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The launch of a national child care program and a limited national dental care program have raised questions about the ability of the federal government to deliver on its promises and commitments. And the Liberals continue to up the ante. They now want to lift Canada out of the climate crisis, primarily by dismantling the oil and gas industry and making a rapid transition to renewable energy. They promise a “just transition” for displaced energy workers.

Considering how Europe’s mishandling of this transition has caused intense hardship, Canadians have reason to be concerned about Ottawa’s ability to get it right.

Canada is well served by its public service. For decades, Canada has had one of the best public services in the world. The International Civil Service Effectiveness Index, produced by the University of Oxford, ranked Canada first in 2017 and third in 2019. That’s impressive.

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Jocelyn Bourgon, former Clerk of the Privy Council and founder and former director of the Canada School of Public Service, argued for a “new public administration” connected to today’s digital realities and contemporary complexities, saying that Major adaptations are needed to keep up with changing times.

According to Bourgon, the public service does not operate in a vacuum. He manages under legislative constraints, follows the directives of his political masters, respects an ever-changing body of Canadian law, responds to massive pressure from customers and the public, deals with complicated union regulations and works under the watchful eye of a watchful press. And, for the past two years, many officials have been operating from a distance and under unprecedented pressure.

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Yet, in the complex and high-pressure environment of the 21st century, there are signs of serious challenges within the public service.

Despite a two-year hiatus, the passport service is in disarray. Ottawa seems out of step with global standards when it comes to handling international travel. Our border remains porous, with people crossing to claim refugee status. Federal fisheries management on both coasts is not working well. The housing situation in major cities has long been out of control.

On a large scale, Canadian productivity lags significantly behind our competitors. Domestic investment in science and technology innovation is flowing out of the country. Ottawa failed to get Washington to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have proven invaluable in helping Canada meet the energy needs of North America and Europe during the current crisis.

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We botched the purchase of fighter jets. Our practical support for Ukraine lags behind our allies. We are still awaiting a decision regarding Huawei’s involvement in our 5G networks. Our main military allies have removed us from their inner circles.

On top of that, Canada is now embarking on the fastest and most significant expansion of the role of the state since the 1960s. These are colossal tasks: managing climate change, ensuring a realistic energy transition, accommodating 400,000 immigrants a year, establish a national child care system, launch dental and pharmacare programs, rearm a vulnerable nation, transform the Canadian medical system and ensure technological competitiveness. Is the government up to the task?

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Evidence from the past 20 years is not encouraging. Although Canadians are generally well served by the public service, it does not seem quite capable of coping with the speed and intensity of today’s world. And the federal government seems determined to add hundreds of billions of dollars in additional programs. It is fair to ask whether the public service is truly up to the challenge.

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Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and Canada Research Chair at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.

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