On November 8, 2010, one of Canada’s most notable public servants died. Since A.W. (Al) Johnson devoted most of his life to understanding public policy, it seems only appropriate to try and grasp the lessons his life offers to those of us who consider ourselves practitioners or students of public policy.

The first lesson is the extent to which idealism is an essential part of a life devoted to the public interest. The phrase “public policy” is really shorthand for the process of searching out better societal solutions, and any public policy practitioner worth his or her salt is an individual who feels we can do much better than the status quo. In contrast, pure pragmatists simply adapt to the way things are, or worse, take advantage of any dysfunctions produced by an established set of institutions, rules, and behaviours, for personal gain. These folk have little interest in public policy, though they will occasionally feign an interest to gain or keep political power.

This idealism is also an act of the imagination, to see a better world than the one we live in, and it provides the motivation necessary to surmount the many obstacles that stand in the way of change. When recruiting new personnel, Johnson would readily discern whether an individual possessed the idealism necessary for a life of public service. He also recognized it in political leaders he worked for or advised ― Tommy Douglas, Lester B. Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, and Nelson Mandela ― though they may have differed in their visions of what a better society should look like. He also enjoyed the company of fellow public servants and policy advisers who were motivated by this kind of idealism, including his old Saskatchewan mates Tommy Shoyama and Don Tansley, and his close ally in Ottawa, Tom Kent, to name only a few.

As Johnson often pointed out, idealism without the knowledge, skills, and the means to implement policy change is fruitless. It can also be damaging, because ineffective implementation may actually leave society worse off than the status quo. Therefore, the second lesson is that imagining positive change is not enough. You must also know how to implement, manage and finance change. In Al’s mind, this meant that we should not treat public management and public policy as two separate worlds. A good public policy practitioner must know as much about budgeting, organizational means, laws, regulation and staffing as about the policy objective itself. I often heard Johnson criticize federal government policy shops that were almost entirely made up of individuals without experience in implementing, managing and financing programs, a luxury thankfully (in his view) not available to smaller provincial governments.

Policy change invariably requires the expenditure of public money in the short term, even if the change will save money in the long run. Johnson always insisted on knowing exactly what these costs were, and how the additional cost would be financed and managed in the context of other meritorious demands on the public purse. As deputy provincial treasurer in Saskatchewan from 1952 until 1964, Johnson was responsible for ensuring the fiscal capacity of the government. Later he would play a similar role in the federal government. He had little time for those who refused to accept this fiscal imperative of budget constraint. At the same time, he was a major proponent of long-term fiscal planning in order to phase in major new programs that would be game changers in terms of social policy ― medicare being the most obvious example. This was a skill he shared with many members of the “Saskatchewan mafia” of civil servants who were recruited in Ottawa for their management skills as much as their policy knowledge.

The third lesson is the extent to which comparative evaluation, as well as critical reflection and self-questioning, are essential parts of developing good public policy. This means actively seeking out better solutions by looking beyond one’s own direct experiences. It also means being able to gather and use evidence as honestly and objectively as possible. In many respects, these are technical skills that anyone can gain with proper guidance and training, supplemented by formal education. However, what ultimately counts is the extent to which you are truly prepared to go beyond your own assumptions and your own comfort zone in examining policy options.

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This requires a degree of critical inquiry and rigorous reflection that is best achieved through written analysis published in a public forum and therefore subject to the review and criticism of policy analysts and scholars beyond the inner circle of government. Johnson understood this more fully than did any other public policy practitioner I have known. He stole time in the evenings and weekends to research and write on the policy puzzles and conundrums he faced, in order to come up with new solutions. Over time, he published so many of these pieces that he became the most widely published civil servant in Canada. He exemplified what I would call the scholar-practitioner, in his constant quest to find new answers as well as question his own assumptions and beliefs. As Johnson knew, rigorous examination and painful introspection, followed by constructive criticism and public dialogue, could produce real policy innovation.

The fourth lesson is the importance of perpetuating policy innovation and creativity. According to Johnson, the most important job of any public leader is to attract and develop “precious” individuals, those who stand out because of their talent, devotion, and hard work. Johnson’s emphasis on the quality of individual civil servants and policy thinkers was based on his belief that the most important input for any policy organization was people. In his view, creativity was the product of creative minds, not of structures or committees, manuals of instruction or university degrees. He always asked himself what environment was necessary in order to unleash and enhance the creativity of the human mind. In one of his articles, he asked a series of questions of all of us who have held positions as public executives: 1) How much time do we actually devote to searching out new talent? 2) How much time do we spend giving seminars in universities on the nature of public policy and the exciting nature of a career devoted to public service? 3) To what extent do we ensure that the most promising individuals in our organizations get the right mixture of education, training, and experience? Because he devoted an extraordinary amount of his time to recruiting, training and mentoring public servants in Saskatchewan, his department’s Budget Bureau became a magnet that attracted the best and the brightest from across Canada.

As for Al Johnson’s view of Canada, although he saw many areas for improvement, he always believed that this was the best country in the world. The key to making it work so well is our ability to work constructively with the inherent tensions that are part of a constitutional federation. For Johnson, Canadian federalism is by definition “compromise between the conflicting elements of unity and diversity within a single state.” He saw it the same way when he became a champion for greater regional programming and creative direction in the CBC. This contradicts the perception that he was a hardline and rigid centralist. In fact, it was Johnson who in the mid-1960s came up with a new approach to national medical care insurance that was acceptable to Quebec, one that replaced the explicit conditions of hospitalization in the 1950s and consequent tight monitoring of the provinces by the federal government. I think his reputation as a centralist endured because he drew a hard line on one point. He strongly believed that the federal government was the national government of Canada, and that Parliament represented the will of Canadians as a national society. Thus, the federal government would always have an important mission not only in reflecting this national will but in continuing to build a national identity and therefore some sense of unity through its social and economic policies, agreements with the provinces, and judicious use of the spending power.

For a time in the late 1960s, Johnson was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s economic adviser on the Constitution. He took the opportunity to write a piece ― published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science ― where he spelled out the country’s options, including associate state status for Quebec. Of course, Johnson wanted the country he knew to survive, but he felt that it would be more honest to negotiate the conditions of associate state status with Quebec than to negotiate separate arrangements with it in every federal-provincial domain. In his view, this has led to separation by stealth in the case of Quebec and to drift in the rest of Canada.

Decades later, Johnson felt both hurt and angry that this had come to pass. In his view, the federal government no longer acted as if (or even believed) it was the national government of Canada. This was a result of weaker leadership as well as the decline of a parliament in which members dedicated to the breakup of Canada were allowed to advance their agendas in Ottawa. He wished it were otherwise, but remained optimistic that a new generation of Canadian leaders would emerge with the courage and political skills to allow the public’s national voice to be heard again.

Gregory P. Marchildon
Gregory P. Marchildon is Ontario Research Chair in Health Policy and System Design at the Institute of Health, Policy and Evaluation at the University of Toronto and founding director of the North American Observatory on Health Systems and Policies.

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