What we’ve learned so far

As our First Policy Response project moves into its third week, it is time to start summarizing what we’re learning about the ability of government to respond to this crisis, and what this means for economic and social policy in the coming year.

It is well-known in government circles that governments do a good job mobilizing and delivering in an emergency. Following each of these moments — resettlement of Syrian refugees, managing wildfires — public servants, politicians, and many members of the public look around and ask: “why can’t we be this responsive, this effective, during ordinary times?”

But it would be a mistake to look at what governments are doing now and imagine that they could — or should — do so always. You can’t ignore hierarchy, ordinary processes and bureaucratic governance every day. You can’t go up to 11 all the time. But some lessons are emerging that have broader implications for more effective policy making and program implementation in the coming months.

Governments can listen, learn and recalibrate in real time

With every new announcement comes simultaneous clarifications of previous announcements. In ordinary times, this would be portrayed as shambolic. Editorial writers would shake their fists at “flip flops.” But today, these actions are understood correctly as governments experimenting in real time and trying to improve programs based on feedback and new information. This is good, and there is no reason why this cannot take place in the coming year as well.

Governments are announcing programs that will cost tens of billions of dollars with “details to come.” This is not normal. Under normal circumstances, there would be narrowly-written decision minutes — Cabinet’s authorization of a proposed departmental decision — that lay out program parameters in minute detail, and commit the department to a “program review” five years later. If, one month later, those on the ground identified a problem or a better way of doing things, it would be next to impossible to adjust quickly. Today, we are asking for real time improvements to on-the-ground feedback.

We cannot design programs like this under normal circumstances. But we can internalize the lesson that making adjustments to programs in real-time based on new information should be easier; that front-line staff and stakeholders will understand how programs are being experienced on the ground; and that acknowledging that something can be improved once it has been launched should not be interpreted as a catastrophic failure. At the end of the day, every program should be designed to achieve a clearly defined outcome. If evidence accumulates that programs are coming up short, processes must be designed to allow for recalibration. And that is exactly what governments are doing.

Governments’ approach to risk must be adjusted

Widespread consensus emerged early in response to COVID-19 that the risk of doing too little too slowly was much bigger than the risk of doing too much too quickly. Policy professionals, political leaders, and members of the public from across the spectrum recognized that there was a risk that some people would get benefits who probably shouldn’t. They realized that some funds would be spent inefficiently. But most of us concluded that the risk of leaving people unprotected was larger. People embraced the right risk.

We are in the process of turning the ordinary policy process on its head. Normally, dozens of public servants poke and prod at every line and every number in a policy proposal, asking questions that are impossible to answer, with the goal of eliminating any risk that the program will be inefficient. What usually emerges is a watered-down program, with easy to achieve but meaningless metrics and accountability driven by conformity to process. Under ordinary circumstances, processes are designed to eliminate perceived risk of any new initiative to near-zero.

What we are seeing is the exact opposite. Governments know there are huge risks inherent to the programs that are being offered, but are willing to take them. In ordinary times, any one of the risks that are currently accepted would be enough to kill a new program. That’s why it is generally so difficult to get innovative, risky new programs launched.

Again, governments can’t just switch from risk-aversion to risk-seeking. But there are lessons to internalize: the risk of doing nothing is often greater than the risk of change, yet government systems are designed to kick the stuffing out of any new proposal, without probing deeply the risks of the status quo.

The Canadian public service can deliver on behalf of Canadians

The delivery capacity of governments in Canada over the past month has been truly astonishing.

Our provincial health care systems have mobilized in full. Our independent, professional, expert public service is truly a national asset that is helping Canadians today.

Announcing new benefit programs on an almost daily basis was remarkable. Even more remarkable was the ability of the federal public service to implement all that was announced. Millions of Employment Insurance (EI) and Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) applications were processed in days.

At the federal level over the last five years, the government has invested significantly in data, digital capacity and delivery expertise. Each of these investments, along with changes in governance, has paid off over the past months. The federal departments that were leading the way in recent years in hiring skilled Chief Data Officers, Chief Digital Officers and Chief Results & Delivery Officers, and were most accomplished at developing user-centred design approaches to delivering programs — like the Canada Revenue Agency, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada — are today on the front lines of implementing complex new initiatives.

The federal government has experience of quickly delivering complex programs across jurisdictions in times of high urgency, like the resettlement of Syrian refugees and the implementation of a legalized and regulated cannabis regime. The cross-jurisdictional and issue-focused governance that emerged on such issues has built important learnings, relationships, and processes for government. And this has helped the federal government adapt to the most complex economic crisis of our lifetimes.

Governments have imperfect data. They have aging IT infrastructure. They have outdated, process-heavy, compliance-based decision-making processes. They value policy and communications over implementation and impact assessment. But they are getting better. And the design, execution and assessment of programs will be better because of the investments that the federal government made over the past four years. The lives of Canadians will be better.

Crises open windows of opportunity that allow changes to happen on things that were resisted for decades

Everyone has heard that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” But too many people interpret this in the most cynical way possible: how can I take advantage of the current situation to push forward an agenda that I’ve been pushing without success for years?

But a less cynical set of eyes would look at that question not from the perspective of an agenda, but from the perspective of people — people who have been too often left behind by public policy. And then we might conclude that the gaps in existing policy architecture have indeed needed redress for a long time — but have lacked a precipitating event to reveal the full nature of shortcomings. The current economic crisis is revealing the systemic risks that many Canadians live with every day but have been ignored.

For example, many of us have argued for decades for an emergency income support benefit for those outside EI. Many have us have argued for years that more health care services should be provided virtually. Both have been resisted by a variety of interests, with governments consistently signally a desire to change and then backing off. At the Mowat Centre, we sketched out the rationale for both the  income support and the health care reforms.

In a matter of weeks, the federal government introduced the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit, and provincial health care systems and local providers moved the delivery of more services online. This is obviously not an ideal model for policy-making, but it is a useful lesson to all policy entrepreneurs to keep making the case for good ideas and strengthening the social contract. Moments will arise that reveal the need for solutions that are ready and waiting on your shelves.

Our political culture is relatively healthy

Crises like this one can reveal the essence of a society’s political culture. Across the political spectrum, with a small number of notable exceptions, political leaders have focused on the public interest and mobilized in a good faith effort to get things done on behalf of all Canadians.

This is the least we should expect of our institutions and our leaders, but we should acknowledge it.

Legitimate differences remain that should be political — around ideology, around how ready governments were to deal with the crisis, around whether the new emergency programs are the right ones, and around the neglect of the long-term care sector in particular. These differences will become more prominent as the months unfold. But they do not need to descend into questioning our shared citizenship or embracing authoritarian populism. The shambles befalling other countries is not yet here, and we should be grateful for it and continue to nurture it in our relationships and dialogue.

COVID-19 is a health and economic crisis. It is killing Canadians and having devastating economic impacts on millions of Canadians. But so far, it has not produced a social, public administration, democratic or governance crisis. The next few months will be equally challenging and it is important that we learn from the past month. But so far, our democratic structures, institutions and processes have been strong, resilient and adaptable. We will need to continue to invest in stewarding them as this crisis unfolds.

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Matthew Mendelsohn is Visiting Professor at Ryerson University and a co-creator, with the Ryerson Leadership Lab and the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, of First Policy Response.