OTTAWA – Canada’s top bureaucrat has assembled a dozen teams of deputy ministers to shake conventional thinking on policymaking and develop fresh perspectives on key issues the country will face over the next decade.

Privy council clerk John Hannaford assembled the teams, which have been meeting over the fall, on topics that include health and aging, confidence in institutions, reconciliation, artificial intelligence, productivity and economic growth, foreign affairs, combatting disinformation and misinformation, Canada and the US, and the future of the public service.

The policy exercise is said to be one of the broadest and most forward-looking in years. It is aimed at cross-pollinating ideas by involving all 80 deputy ministers and associate deputy ministers. They will be working in small groups on topics, often  outside their usual expertise and departmental portfolios.

Each group is headed by an associate deputy minister who is free to organize discussions with no formal work plan from the Privy Council Office.

They have been meeting with the goal of delivering preliminary reports to the clerk in December which will feed into an agenda for a deputy ministers’ retreat in January.

Avoid rounding up the usual suspects

In a statement, PCO said “a premium has been placed on engaging experts with diverse perspectives – not the ‘usual suspects.’” The teams are exploring multiple sides of the issues, including social, economic and global security implications, which form “our increasingly complex policy landscape.”

They will “assess gaps, blind spots, what are we missing” as well as possible opportunities for efficiency and innovation.

This policy exercise is separate from the deputy minister task team that Hannaford put together to lead a government-wide “dialogue” about values and ethics.

One associate deputy minister said daily issues, an ever-shortening news cycle, the pressure of delivering on the government’s platform promises means policymakers don’t get a chance to think enough about medium and long-term policy planning.

“Every day, it’s always a shiny new object to manage that becomes a challenge,” he said.

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The exercise is a recognition that policymakers live in an age of upheaval with global, economic, social or environmental crises looming around every corner.

It also comes as departments begin transition planning for whatever government wins the next election and as the parties are putting together election platforms.

In an era of such uncertainty, “adaptive policymaking” are the new buzzwords for designing policies that respond to changing conditions. Policymakers are used to make decisions based on current realities – such as today’s demographics or GDP.

Daniel Quan-Watson, who spent nearly 15 years as a deputy minister until retiring last month, said that doesn’t work anymore. “It’s critical not to take as a given that the world will play out as it always has,” said Quan-Watson.

“This is about asking questions. What are we missing here? Are we seeing things the right way? Are we as equipped as we should be to engage with the things coming at us in the future?” he said.

The global polycrisis

Hannaford told a recent conference of policymakers he expects crises coming at governments, one after another, and at the same time, will continue in the coming decade. He predicts more geopolitical uncertainty, major technological change and climate disasters.

“How do we manage against a backdrop where there are multiple demands on us and each demand is really, really important. How do you figure out what needs to be at the top of the pile,” Hannaford said.

He said policymakers need to be flexible, adjust to problems as they arise and “not be thrown off if things do not follow precisely the plan that we thought.”

“We won’t solve things if we are rigid and simply approach things precisely the way we have always done,” said Hannaford.

The last time the public service took on a review of values and ethics was nearly thirty years ago. That’s when then clerk Jocelyne Bourgon created nine deputy minister task forces to look at big issues for the public service in the aftermath of Chrétien government’s sweeping program review to slay the deficit, which downsized the size of government and re-defined its role.

The task force on values and ethics produced the Tait report, the foundation of today’s code governing public service behaviour.

Bourgon also had a task force on the future of the public service and another on “Strengthening Our Policy Capacity,” which led to the creation of the Policy Research Initiative, a think-tank for medium-term research. It later became Policy Horizons Canada.

Diverse public service, diverse views

The latest exercise includes up to 80 deputy ministers and associate deputy ministers. Watson, the first deputy minister of Chinese-Canadian descent, said the leaders are among the most diverse in the bureaucracy’s history. They should deliver more insight than a group of deputies from the same background sitting at the table.

But some senior officials are frustrated and anxious to get on with tackling issues.

“We know the issues. I think we need to be really bold and get very good at execution. We know what to do, we just have to get on with it.”

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A deputy’s job is to deliver the government’s decisions and offer advice to help the government make those decisions. Figuring out what issues could come at you out of the blue will help in offering that advice,” said one deputy minister.

But the public service is hard-wired to work in certain ways when it comes to hiring and purchasing and a host of other issues. These ways of doing things don’t always work in a rapidly changing world.

Alasdair Roberts, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts has written a book, The Adaptable Country, to be published next year.

Roberts said he commends Hannaford for trying to think forward and be flexible but “there are limits on what the public service can do if the political class isn’t thinking the same way.”

Roberts said Canada used to spend a lot of time thinking ahead and making strategy. It called royal commissions to study national challenges and had advisory councils to watch long-term trends, which were disbanded by the early 2000s.

Over the decades, the public service underwent a build-up of rules and faced a growing posse of watchdogs to police their work, which stifled innovation and risk-taking. On top of that, public servants face a new layer of political control with the growth of political and ministerial staff.

“We invested in controls at the same time as disinvesting in future thinking,” said Roberts.

Roberts said parties are now playing a bigger role in policymaking with party platforms loaded with promises to deliver in a single election cycle. The old forward thinking was replaced by “platform governance,” which is all about “short-termism” and crafting platforms to win elections.

“It’s great the public service is thinking about these questions but there are limits to what it can do,” said Roberts.

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May is the Accenture Fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years writing about the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. The winner of a National Newspaper Award, she has also researched and written about public service issues for the federal government and research institutes. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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