Delivering on a policy agenda is no easy job for a government. Here’s a look at some guidelines for avoiding or overcoming the hurdles.

Last month, at the midpoint of its term in office, the Liberal government launched a website to help chronicle and report progress in keeping the promises it had laid out in various ministerial mandate letters. While the attempt at transparency was admirable, as was the public release of the mandate letters themselves, the tracker showed how modest the progress has been on meeting the government’s election platform commitments. Those commitments, of course, should form the core of any government’s policy agenda, and the Liberals made some 225 promises in a wide variety of issue areas. The excellent Trudeau Meter website, a nonpartisan citizen initiative, lists approximately one-quarter of those promises as implemented, with a significant number of others not yet started or discarded altogether.

Early in its mandate, the government also established a “deliverology,” or results and delivery, unit within the Privy Council Office to help fulfill its commitments. (I have previously outlined the problems with deliverology in the Canadian federal context.) To the government’s credit, it clearly realized that implementing its promises would be a serious task and should receive priority attention. There are good reasons for governments to deliver on the promises they make: if nothing else, public confidence in the political process and in our democratic system demands it. When mainstream politicians lose their credibility, it is inevitable that voters will be attracted to demagogues and anti-establishment candidates who can be expected to dismantle existing systems and norms.

However, it is no easy job to deliver on an agenda. As complicated as it is to develop a policy platform, implementing it once in government — with all the associated obstacles and hurdles that must be overcome — is much more difficult.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, in which I worked, kept an unusually high proportion of its promises, in part by setting the following high-level guidelines.

1) Don’t be unrealistically ambitious.

It cannot be reiterated often enough: a four-year majority mandate is a very short period of time and passes in the blink of an eye. A government that is too ambitious in its scope and has made too many promises will end up accomplishing nothing, to the likely detriment of its future political fortunes.

The reality is that it takes any newly elected government some time to settle in, particularly if it has not been in power for a long period of time. The current Liberal government spent many months simply staffing up its offices. And it is not just an excess of items on a government’s priority list that can pose implementation problems: initiatives that are contingent on negotiations with, or contributions from, other levels of government are inevitably more complicated and difficult to conclude. The current government’s insistence on acting in hot-button areas of provincial or shared jurisdiction (health care, marijuana legalization and carbon pricing, for instance) means that it must negotiate arrangements with governments that may have different objectives and priorities entirely or are operating on different political timelines.

This is not to say that an ambitious agenda is a bad thing, or that initiatives involving other levels of government should always be avoided. Spending on infrastructure, for example, will always require federal-provincial-municipal negotiations, but those are comparatively noncontentious and can be handled relatively easily with a clear decision-making process in place. However, a political leader’s ambition must be bounded by what is realistically achievable given operational, jurisdictional and time-related constraints. The most visionary platform in the world will be of no practical use or benefit if it is not accompanied by precise, detailed, concrete commitments that can be implemented within a reasonable period of time.

2) Discard priorities from the bureaucracy that don’t fit with the government’s agenda.

Any government, once elected, will be presented with a list of “must-do” items by the bureaucracy. Some of these items represent legitimate or even urgent business; many others have been gathering dust in the bowels of a department since the last government rejected them. It is essential for political actors to sort through these items to determine what really needs to be done, or what will simply be a distraction from the government’s real priorities.

Again, the bias should be in favour of keeping the priority list as tight and focused as possible. It is important to remember that civil service timelines do not align with political cycles, and that there will be no instinctive appreciation for the political importance — in fact, the imperative — of achieving implementation within a four-year window.

3) Be firm about cabinet timelines.

Executive decision-making in our system is generally accomplished by cabinet, with a few specific issues left to individual ministers or the exercise of prime ministerial prerogative (machinery of government matters, for example). Despite an increasing centralization of power in recent decades, cabinet committees are still a necessary and integral part of the decision-making process. Under Harper, who sought cabinet advice and input on nearly every initiative undertaken by the government, cabinet-related responsibilities consumed a significant portion of ministers’ time and attention.

The importance of cabinet’s role in the timely and effective implementation of a governing agenda requires that robust and well-developed options about decisions be placed before cabinet as quickly as possible. This is particularly true when items may require multiple trips to cabinet before final ratification of a decision. It is critical, then, that a government focused on delivery manage the cabinet calendar carefully, setting the agenda for committee meetings well ahead of time and enforcing submission deadlines for cabinet materials such as memoranda to cabinet. Otherwise, the development of options and drafting of cabinet documents can (and will) continue indefinitely. This does not mean, of course, that proper consultation shouldn’t occur — governments must talk to affected stakeholders, often many times, to the public and to their caucuses — but it does mean that work should proceed apace along an agreed timeline.

To accomplish this kind of efficiency around cabinet requires the coordinated efforts of staff and officials at the Privy Council Office, the Prime Minister’s Office and relevant ministers’ offices, particularly with respect to complicated files implicating multiple departments. The Privy Council Office’s power to convene meetings and gather information can be particularly helpful in resolving logjams and moving issues forward to cabinet. One source of delay can occur when there is a disagreement between departments or ministers on the recommended course of action. It is important to have a way to resolve it quickly, whether through a compromise solution developed with the assistance of PCO and PMO or through an agreement that ministers will advocate and debate different options at the cabinet table.

Another source of delay can occur when an initiative requires new or unanticipated funding that hasn’t been accounted for — a common problem with political promises that have not been carefully costed. Again, it is important to have a process for dealing with these, whether it be an outright prohibition on consideration of items with new price tags outside of the budget cycle; or an agreement that cabinet will consider the issue as a policy matter alone, with a later decision on funding left to the prime minister and the minister of finance in the context of budget making; or even an understanding that the prime minister and the minister of finance will approve “off-cycle” funding as required (which is a good way of allowing a government’s budget to spiral out of control).

Whatever the designated solution to any potential source of delay in the presentation of materials before cabinet, effective implementation of a government’s agenda requires a well-ordered and well-functioning cabinet apparatus, subject to close management and oversight from “the centre.”

4) Have a clear and recognized decision-making process that involves the prime minister/PMO.

On everything from when and how an item goes to cabinet and achieves final ratification to the substantive content of policy recommendations themselves, it is imperative that there be a process to obtain sign-off from the centre. For better or for worse — and there are pros and cons to a highly centralized system like ours — the prime minister wields a great deal of power and has the ability to pull the plug on any initiative that is perceived to be heading in an undesirable direction. Effective implementation, therefore, requires central buy-in at key stages, with ministers’ offices working closely together with their counterparts in the PMO.

Under Harper, regular file updates and decision requests were issued daily in written form by the Privy Council Office. Those notes, along with covering advice from political staff, were returned by Harper with his views and decisions appended, and they constituted a clear written record of the government’s direction. Other leaders may not wish to be involved in the details of policy to the same extent, of course, but the decision-making process when it comes to priority files must be equally clear. Furthermore, direction to the bureaucracy also needs to be clear and incontrovertible, particularly in a context where senior political staff may deliberately or inadvertently issue inconsistent statements.

Without clarity of direction and clarity of process, timely and effective implementation of a government’s agenda is impossible.

5) Be sure that the levers of government are attached to working parts.

The apparatus of government doesn’t always have the capacity or resources to do what a political leader wants it to do, and he or she may discover that gap only after promised action has failed to materialize. This is less of a problem at the federal level, with the federal government’s significantly larger fiscal and personnel resources, but it can be a serious one at the provincial or municipal level.

It is very difficult for a newly elected leader or government to know where these gaps exist, and this is the reason why implementation of an agenda must be done in close coordination with trusted senior officials who have the necessary institutional knowledge and experience with the workings of a particular government. Some work can be outsourced, as the Liberal government has done with its plethora of outside experts and external advisory committees, but the difficult work of implementation often requires in-house expertise and an established, well-oiled delivery channel.

It is important, then, for any new leader to realize that while a government may have the theoretical power to do something, that is very different from having the technical ability to do it. Where the nuts and bolts of delivery are missing, implementation of a desired direction will be a frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful effort.

6) Maintain some bandwidth for the unexpected.

One would think that the biggest impediment to the implementation of a government’s agenda would be its opposition in Parliament, or its critics in the media, or stakeholder groups who dislike a particular policy direction, or even uncooperative members of its own team. In fact, it is events — almost always unexpected.

The best example of that during Harper’s tenure was the 2008 global recession. As financial markets melted down in the fall of 2008, the Harper government set aside its planned agenda almost entirely to deal with the crisis at hand. In the short term, that included measures like buying up billions of dollars of insured mortgage pools to help sustain lending and borrowing, and (temporarily) bailing out Chrysler and GM to preserve thousands of Canadian auto sector jobs. In the medium term, it meant reworking the 2009 budget in a matter of weeks to roll out a deficit-financed stimulus package worth $47 billion, including a major infrastructure investment plan to help protect Canada’s economy from the worst effects of the financial crisis.

The Trudeau government’s major unexpected event was the election of Donald J. Trump. The Liberal government could hardly have expected to be spending a significant amount of its current mandate dealing with the fallout from the 2016 US election, including the very real possibility that NAFTA might be terminated. And while the attention and resources the government has devoted to the file have been commendable, it is much less clear that adequate attention is being paid to the other important priorities that the government has pledged to address.

It is critical, then, that governments maintain the necessary slack to deal with events they never anticipated, both major and minor. Economic crises, health crises, natural disasters, international political upheaval — all can transform the governing landscape in a flash, and they will almost always require a quick change of gears.

7) Don’t spend too much time talking about delivery.

One of the primary dangers of the Liberal government’s focus on deliverology, ironically, is that the time and effort spent talking about delivery becomes a diversion from actually delivering. Given the sheer number of varied interests and players involved, implementation of an agenda requires constant, unfailing attention and oversight. Without that, some priority files will stall indefinitely, some will head in the opposite direction from the one intended, and still others will get lost entirely.

For all the talk in Ottawa of implementation and delivery, certain fundamental basics of governing — making appointments, for example, or passing legislation — are simply not getting done. This is despite the fact that the federal bureaucracy in Canada is already oriented toward delivering on electoral promises and has the capacity to act quickly and effectively with the proper political support — one prime example being the rapid rollout of infrastructure stimulus funding in 2009-10.

While the Trudeau government is clearly good at the “vision thing,” it has not been as good at implementation. The government will need to make efficient use of the next two years if it hopes to accomplish significant parts of its planned agenda and fulfill its compact with the Canadian public. Implementation of a platform is always much more difficult than developing it in the first place, but the government must increase its success rate to date in converting promises to action. To do otherwise risks further cynicism and loss of faith in our political system.

Photos by Shutterstock


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