However this year’s federal election campaign plays out, and the issues and ideas that dominate it, the marker for policy renewal will be what happens inside the public service.
Although the public debate of ideas is important, governments are defined as much by what they come to office pledging to do, as how they handle issues that come at them. (Anyone who needs convincing ought to read Paul Wells’ The Longer I’m Prime Minister.) As the machinery which puts government priorities into action, it is vitally important to our democracy that the public service take the opportunity of 2015 and re-imagine, with new perspective, some of the major issues facing Canadian society.
Part of this renewal will occur automatically as the public service prepares for and helps carry out the natural transition in government. Regardless of the government’s eventual stripe"Conservative, New Democrat, or Liberal"there are briefing binders to fill, org structures to reconsider, and policy landscapes to be reviewed. While some of this will flow from the priorities of the party chosen to form government, the prepatory process departments will go through will provide a sober and substantive assessment of where the country is headed on a number of fronts.
Done right, the process should be more than just one of surveying the current environment. It is critical that public servants also challenge themselves: to take a hard look at policy files and critically examine where the country can do better, what blindspots the government has been missing, and why we do things the way we do.
I am not suggesting that public servants become advocates for their own ideas. They must always balance their role of ”œspeaking truth to power” with an appreciation for the mandates and priorities as articulated by the government of the day. But we should also recognize the opportunity of each new Parliament as one for a reset of thinking within the public service, in which the natural set of external and internal constraints are relaxed somewhat. This is one of those few chances every three, four or five years to look out across the long horizon, think about how society is changing and bring to the table a series of new ideas.
The challenge for ”œnew” thinking is indeed a daunting one for governments today. Thanks to a culture of incrementalism that has crept into governments throughout the western world, we have a policy-making process that is too often driven by fixes within the confines of the status quo. Much as there are prominent examples of creative policy reform happening in different countries"witness, the adoption of behavioural science throughout the U.K. government, and the development of new healthcare marketplaces in the U.S."Canada is arguably a laggard. Our insatiable preference for solving every new issue with a boutique tax credit suggests that we have lost some of our policy creativity in recent years.
If governments are going to effectively handle the kind of challenges coming at them over the next number of years, driven by ongoing technological change, increasing globalization and major demographic transitions, then we need more innovative thinking.
- What should EI look like in several years as we put in place a new financing mechanism?
- How can the tax system both enhance competitiveness and better deal with income inequality?
- What kind of new governance arrangements can we imagine to better deal with a host of major national issues now before us?
- What does trade and commerce policy look like after we have signed trade agreements with most of the developed and developing economies of the world?
These are just some of the many opportunities where new imagination and inquiry are required.
Over the course of the next year a number of different actors will be clamouring to provoke new conversations and new thinking to fill this void. Political parties, stakeholders and experts will each be much involved in their own appropriate way. But, not to be lost in this process is the critical, and largely hidden, role that public servants will need to play. Now, more than ever, is the time for them to bring forward the best and most ambitious thinking. Whoever wins, the next government depends on it.