Gene Lang has written an interesting article with some important insights. While reading it, however, there were at least two places where I found myself wanting to comment.

I agree with Lang that a Liberal majority government would reengage the public service in policy-making, but I think officials’ role would be very different than it was in the past. I don’t think Lang does justice to this.

Traditional policy-making was based on a bilateral partnership between politicians and the public service, where officials could fairly claim the expertise needed to provide ministers with sound advice on the options. Today, things are different. Issues around, say, security, climate change, population health or food production are nested in ever-expanding networks of rules and organizations — often from different policy fields — that interact with one another in complex and often surprising ways. The range of policy issues and options multiplies along with the connections.

By way of an example, figure 1 shows how the food system now encompasses a very diverse collection of issues, as products move through the supply chain from producer to consumer. Only a few decades ago, most of these issues were barely discussed by policy-makers or consumers, yet today effective management of the supply chain must include all of them.


Figure 1. The Profound Impact of Rising Societal Expectations Across the Food System

Figure 1 provides a striking illustration of how multifaceted food production has become. A similar story could be told about many other topic areas. The lesson for policy-makers is that many issues are now too big and too interconnected to be researched in-house. Increasingly, solutions to big issues will require input from a wide range of stakeholders and citizens, who can bring their expertise and “lived experience” to bear on the issues.

The old bilateral “partnership” thus must give way to a three-way relationship, in which different cross-sections of the public participate regularly in policy-making, along with public servants and politicians. The traditional private discussions will become increasingly open and collaborative.

This is a very different picture of policy-making from the one Lang sketches. In this new environment, process and engagement skills are at least as important to officials as policy expertise. Lang never even mentions this. It is noteworthy that his analysis focuses mainly on finance and foreign affairs, two areas that still permit lots of top-down decision-making, precisely because they don’t require high levels of stakeholder support to make the decisions stick. Basically, policy can still be made in-house.

Lang may be right that we can expect a resurgence of traditional policy-making in these areas — I would add defence to the list — but such fields are increasingly the exception, rather than the rule. In a wide range of other policy areas a reengaged public service will need very different skills and will conduct their business very differently from the public service of the past.

Should Conservatives win a plurality of seats, Lang argues, Stephen Harper will continue to govern because the Liberals and the NDP will “have neither the guts nor the election war chests to defeat them quickly and force another election,” so we can expect “at least a year or two of running room for a [Conservative] agenda based on continuity.”

I find this comment baffling. Lang simply ignores the possibility that, before bringing down the government, Liberals and the NDP might agree to cooperate in ways that will avoid another election. In my view, this is the most likely outcome. Progressives are hugely disenchanted with the Harper government, and I believe both parties will feel great pressure from their supporters to bring down the Conservative government rather than allow Harper to govern.

Don Lenihan is a senior associate with Canada 2020.

Image: Leveraging Trade Agreements to Succeed in Global Markets, by John M. Weekes and Al Mussell. Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, 2014. (image embedded)

Don Lenihan
Don Lenihan is a senior associate with Canada 2020.

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