Even before COVID-19 emerged as the defining problem of the decade, these were challenging times for Canadian governments. Since 2000, governments have faced increasing demands and pressures to address the intersecting forces of economic, demographic, and technological change. A growing opinion among scholars and practitioners is that these complex and multi-dimensional problems require a civil service with new and different skills and competencies.

Given this, it is interesting to note that Canada is one of the few countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to not have a nationally recognized graduate program to educate future civil servants and train those already within its ranks. Canada should establish a national graduate education program in public administration and public policy (PAP) to serve the needs of all levels of government in Canada.

Why a national Master’s in Public Administration and Public Policy?

For the past three years, I have been researching the content of Canadian PAP programs and speaking with academics and practitioners about how the curriculum addresses the current and future needs of civil services. Though not the focus of this research, several interviewees and sources raised the idea of a national PAP program.

The benefits underlying my proposal are well-known in universities and the public sector, and they echo the rationales for working across organizational siloes and levels of government:

  • fostering interjurisdictional professional networks at a time when the problems span boundaries;
  • maximizing resources to develop the skills and competencies that are needed to innovate and respond to new and emerging challenges faced by governments;
  • developing institutional nodes where practitioners and academics could meet and collaborate in curriculum design and delivery and research, extending the reach of existing expertise across the country;
  • creating a focal point from which Canada’s experience in public administration and policy could be shared with countries around the globe.

Looking over the existing Canadian landscape, there is no one institution capable – and resourced – to deliver on all of these missions.

Working horizontally: a national consortium of academic programs in public administration and policy

To be clear, though it has certain undeniable advantages, the proposal set forth below is not to create a Canadian version of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). Instead of a top-down exercise in institution-building, I propose a horizontal approach premised on bringing together existing resources to deliver a unique academic program tailored to meet the current and future skill and competency requirements of civil services across all levels of government.

The journey to the establishment of a national MPA begins with a collaboration agreement among a core group of PAP schools and departments based on program compatibility and complementarity. As a first step, schools could agree on mutual recognition of credits and facilitating registration across institutions.  Agreements of this type are a common feature of many Canadian university programs.

Building upon this first step, the next stage would see the establishment of a formal consortium of PAP programs, which would take this level of collaboration further with institutions agreeing to federate their programs, meaning agreeing not just on credit recognition, but agreement on curriculum, admission requirements, and how to distribute revenues and expenses. With regard to curriculum, the program could build upon the existing program accreditation process of the Canadian Association of Programs in Public Administration (CAPPA). Additionally, the consortium could serve as a focal point to encourage engagement with governments in curriculum development, practitioner exchanges, work-integrated learning, and post-graduation recruitment.

The consortium model presents advantages for both students and staff. For students, the consortium provides a single-window admission process, a comprehensive curriculum aligned with national public sector needs and priorities, and access to Canada’s leading experts in practice and academia. Though not designed as an elite program, in its early days the program would have a limited enrolment with admissions geared toward students demonstrating high academic and professional potential. Students currently employed in the public sector would be encouraged to apply and possibly granted advanced standing in recognition of this experience.

Because this program would be distinguished by its national focus, students would be required to take a set number of credits in participating schools. Though in-person learning would be the principal means of delivery whenever possible, student participation in courses across the program member schools could be facilitated using online technologies or hybrid means.

Closing out the program would be a residential portion, held at one of the participating schools, and consisting of short duration courses, centred around an in-person capstone seminar. The focus of the capstone seminar would be preparation of a final comprehensive or systhesis research paper. This approach would ensure students benefit from interaction with peers, scholars and practitioners as they seek to integrate program content into their final paper.

At program end, students would receive their joint MPA. Distinguishing this national MPA from programs currently in existence could be its national focus and academic involvement of institutions across Canada.

For staff, the principal benefit of this model is the ability to work with only the most motivated and qualified students from across Canada. At the same time, the consortium could serve as the platform for institutional and individual research collaborations and increased awareness of scholarly research among practitioners.

Models for inspiration

What would a national MPA look like? Small-scale versions of the consortium I envisage already exist in Canada, such as the Joint MPA offered by the University of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg. Another model to consider is that of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees (EMJMD).

The EMJMD model most resembles my proposal as it combines inter-institutional agreements to offer joint degrees and a scholarship scheme to enable students to participate in the program. Though it is EU-funded, non-European institutions may participate in the EMJMD (Guelph University and l’Université Laval are EMJMD partner institutions, though not in public policy and administration). Organized by disciplinary field, each EMJMD consortia is composed of a lead and partner institutions who jointly agree on the academic and other requirements for the programs. Upon program completion, students have the option of receiving their degree from either the lead institution or jointly from the consortium.

The horizontal scenario has several advantages: it leverages existing foundations, thus facilitating implementation and limiting administrative costs; it builds upon existing networks of schools and scholars, such as CAPPA; and it creates a focal point for greater government and academic collaboration, from senior public officials on loan to schools through executive in residence programs  through to discussions about current and future skill and competency requirements. Most importantly, it can achieve all of the advantages of an ANZSOG without the bricks and mortar.

In a 2017 report, the OECD observed the distinct advantage for governments to play leading roles in the training and education of civil servants. This is especially important given the rapid and far reaching economic and social transformations that are occurring.  In step with these transformations – which include globalization, technological change, and demographic change – civil services need to recruit new staff or train existing staff with new skills and competencies in fields that support the design and delivery of public policies and program that enable government to address these transformations.

I recognize that there are many obstacles in the way of establishing a national MPA built around a consortium of schools. However, the opportunity costs of not doing are also significant. COVID-19 has highlighted importance of civil services to Canada’s economic and social well-being.

My proposal does not preclude universities from continuing with existing programs, especially when they address specific requirements or institutional missions, such as postgraduate programs aimed at the not-for-profit sector. What I do propose is the need to supplement current postgraduate programs with one that takes a national outlook on the skills and competency requirements in public administration and policy of civil services in Canada now and into the future.

It’s time for scholars and practitioners to dream big dreams and seize the moment to build the world-class, skilled and innovative civil service Canadians need.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by Sergey Nivens

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Michaël A. O’Neill
Michaël A. O’Neill teaches public administration and policy at the School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa. He is the lead author of the OECD’s 2017 report National Schools of Government: Building Civil Service Capacity.

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