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This winter, COVID-19 is circulating and contributing to the cocktail of respiratory diseases filling emergency rooms across Canada, but governments have shifted the bulk of their attention to dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic.

With the trauma and upheaval of the most disruptive pandemic restrictions behind us, the focus has turned to the affordability crisis and a health-care system about to crack.

But where are the lessons-learned reports from governments?

Academics and civil society have issued papers and reports reviewing the government’s performance, most notably, a series on Accountability for Canada’s COVID-19 Response by the BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal.

The Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation at the IRPP has released its own report in partnership with the Institute on Governance on Resilient Institutions: Lessons Learned from Canada’s COVID-19 Response.

Reports like ours can set the groundwork, but they’re not a replacement for reports from governments themselves, which have largely been in short supply. We have neither the resources nor access required for the kind of lessons-learned study this country deserves.

But governments need to understand how they can co-ordinate to respond better to future crises.

Few internal reports have been made public by provinces

Why the lack of reports? It could be that governments simply haven’t gotten around to it yet. The federal government recently tasked a panel of experts with a report reviewing the federal approach to pandemic science advice and research coordination. It is set to be published in March.

Alberta released a report in November reviewing legislation impacting its response to COVID-19. But many other governments have not released plans to conduct any reviews at all.

As part of the Resilient Institutions research, we conducted a scan of publicly available reports on COVID-19 issued or commissioned by government.

We took a particular interest in those issued by ministries or departments given their internal perspective of what happened during the pandemic. We reached out to the provincial and territorial clerks to confirm whether reports have been published. We were surprised to find that six provinces haven’t made public any ministerial or departmental reports.

For one of the most devastating public policy crises of this century, half of the governments in this country have not published any sort of internal reflection (figure 1). It’s a very low bar, and yet, almost half of provinces and territories in the country have not met it.

Of the 61 reports we identified, 38 of the public COVID-19 reports were written by auditors general. Auditors general have an important role in government accountability but they’re limited in their mandate, which is to conduct performance and financial audits. They can’t, for example, question whether a decision should have been implemented. They can measure whether the program hit performance targets or stayed on budget, but not whether the government should have implemented the program in the first place.

External expert groups commissioned by governments were responsible for five reports. Expert groups can be helpful in providing an independent assessment of the government’s performance. Of course, the merits of this source of reports are dependent on the mandate and composition of these expert panels and what experience they have navigating the complexities of the public service.

But internal reports from governments themselves have advantages. Governments are best placed to understand the processes and structures that went into one of the most challenging policy responses in this century. No one has a better understanding of the government’s response to the pandemic than the governments themselves.

None of the 61 reports is a comparative, pan-Canadian pandemic lessons-learned study. Not one has been attempted or even announced. A pan-Canadian study is an inherently difficult task because of the input it needs from each order of government. That’s why such an initiative should be initiated by the federal government.

Co-ordination must improve

Better co-ordination is necessary to avoid causing harm, especially to underserved communities. Last June, we held the Resilient Institutions conference, where senior officials, academics, and civil society gathered to discuss lessons learned from the pandemic. During the conference, many of the 35 panelists talked about jurisdictional confusion and how treating responsibilities like a game of hot potato led to poor outcomes.

One of the most egregious examples was when provincial border closures prevented students in Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation from getting to school. The community is on the Quebec side of the border with New Brunswick, and their high school is on the N.B. side.

How the provinces compare in their COVID-19 responses

What was different about Ontario’s COVID-19 response

COVID-19 responses were always going to be inequitable

Another example was how some municipal governments were left with few resources or co-ordination. Kennedy Stewart, former mayor of Vancouver, lamented that he was only able to secure one brief person-to-person call with John Horgan, then-B.C. premier, throughout the entire pandemic.

Without a review to delve into understanding the necessary structures, processes, and relationships needed to prepare for cross-jurisdictional disasters, Canada is in a vulnerable position. Viruses and natural disasters don’t respect borders, so governments are all going to have to figure out how to work with each other.

Examine the federation’s robustness

Secondly, governments need to examine the Canadian federation’s robustness, and how flexible and responsive its responses can be. Our institutions largely worked well to implement the government’s COVID-19 strategy, but executive federalism, where the prime minister and premiers drive much of the institutional response, was the foundation of the government’s approach.

Governments need to figure out a way to work together that doesn’t depend on weekly first ministers’ meetings. This is not a sustainable strategy in the medium or long term. As a first step, they must identify the processes and structures that worked best in a far-reaching and vital process only they can launch.

This could be done with a thorough operational review of the committees and working groups that were a part of the federal, provincial, and territorial response to the pandemic. This could happen as part of a pan-Canadian pandemic lessons-learned study.

Avoiding a “snap-back” to old habits

The pandemic was the first big test this decade of a crisis that required cross-jurisdictional collaboration. Governments need to get a feel for what avenues of communication work. They need to capitalize on the information exchange that occurred and create opportunities for those relationships to continue after the pandemic.

One panellist during the Resilient Institutions conference remarked that after the pandemic started to subside, colleagues from other provinces stopped reaching out, and so did those in the panelist’s office. This is just one example of the “snap-back” governments should want to avoid. The federation is better off when governments talk to each other.

How federalism failed Canadian cities during COVID-19

Stress testing Canadian governance

Canadians were asked to accept far-reaching restrictions like border closures and curfews, often with little explanation and on short notice. They need assurances that the government acknowledges these costs and are working to ensure that these measures are proportionate and limited in the future. How the government handles itself after the pandemic sets the tone for future crises.

Learning how to learn from mistakes is something governments grapple with. The pandemic is a huge opportunity to do so. The Resilient Institutions report is a start, but it’s up to governments to build on the work in it.

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Ji Yoon Han
Ji Yoon Han is a research associate with the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Previously, she held research positions at the C.D. Howe Institute, the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, and the G20 Research Group. She holds a master of public policy degree from the Hertie School in Berlin.

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