I don’t believe in the golden era, that myth about a previous moment in time when all was easy, carefree and simple. The policy problems we face today are likely no more complex or interrelated now than they were in the 1950s when my parents were born. That said, the speed of evolution of the problems faced by my generation of policy-makers is far more dizzying, and our capacity to see these changes in all of their intricacy and assess their impact has only grown, aided by greater information sharing and the emergence of new tools to view and analyze data.
In today’s policy world, there seem to be no discrete problems that are bounded and within the scope of a single actor to resolve. The challenges our country faces do not rest within the mandate of a single government department or level of government. Nearly every issue comes with an international dimension. The evidence that can help guide policy-makers toward a solution is multifaceted and often conflicting.
Add to this two further extremely complicating factors: speed and platforms. The digital revolution has meant the space and time between issues management and policy development have shrunk dramatically. On the latter, increasingly open and networked data, combined with a plethora of new platforms for sharing and communication, have exponentially increased sources of opinion, analysis, citizen engagement and policy discourse. This expanding policy conversation, including increasing inputs directly from citizens, has significant implications for the functioning of the public service. Not only do ministers have new leagues of advisers, but the public service must work harder to keep up with the changing nature of an issue and to distinguish fire from light.
Three attributes strike me as critical to the public service in remaining relevant in this peripatetic, distracted and accelerated world. The first is developing an extreme capacity for synthesis. With so much information, so many considerations and so many data points available, the institutions of the public service will never be the lone whisperer in a minister’s ear to shape the decision-making process. Where the public service can add value is in collating, synthesizing and analyzing relevant sources to provide as complete and considered an analysis as possible. Television’s fashion reality shows have taught me the mantra of “Edit, edit, edit:” that is, that more is not always better. This knack for curation, for collapsing multiple viewpoints into a cogent perspective, is a currency the public service can trade in to ensure relevancy in its relationship with decision-makers.
The second key to relevancy for the public service is collaboration—perhaps better framed as networks. With the volume of information available, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that one division, department or even level of government has the capacity to interpret it all. This will require new forms of teamwork, not only within and across government institutions but outside them. Departmental or organizational silos are unacceptable, both because nearly all issues are multifactoral and because providing solid evidence to decision-makers necessitates making these connections.
This approach can and should be stretched to see the linkages necessary between federal, provincial, territorial and First Nations governments. Similarly, the world outside the bureaucracy continues to grow in its capacity to develop, analyze and share evidence, and it can be a powerful ally, given the fire hose of information now available. While these partnerships need to mitigate and manage risk to ensure that the nonpartisan and expert nature of the public service is not compromised, there is increasing scope to work together, build open data portals and cover greater territory.
A final ingredient of success for a public service facing modern realities is innovation. As I have learned in my positions across the bureaucracy, innovation means different things depending on who you ask and varies enormously in its ambition, scope and content. Not all innovations are created equal, and there is rightful caution in not succumbing too quickly to the flavour of the week before its utility is proven. That said, to ensure continued relevancy, it is critical that the public service allow for responsible risk-taking, that there be space for identifying, validating and then propagating new tools and approaches, and that we continue to develop beyond tried-and-true methods to outline new best practices, whether they come from other sectors or other governments or are home grown within the bureaucracy.
The public service does not need to look back to a golden era that did not exist. Nor should it expect to create a new one now. If we can better understand the complexity and interconnectedness of problems, while learning to be agile, innovative and cooperative with partners both inside and outside government, we have a fair chance at delivering to Canadians the policy outcomes they need and deserve.