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February 24, 2016

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Prime Minister Trudeau is off on one of the most intense first 100 days of any Canadian prime minister. Appointing his Cabinet and senior staff, leading four international government delegations abroad, meeting Parliament for the first time, chairing his first Cabinet meeting, responding to the refugee crisis, and hosting press conferences were just some of the new prime minister’s activities before the year-end break. All of this was accomplished without the benefit of previous managerial or Cabinet experiences.

By any measure, Trudeau has laid out an ambitious array of short and long term aspirations for himself and his government. During the 78-day election campaign, his team made more than 300 electoral promises in their platform document, ‘Better Service for Canadians’. The promises cover a wide range of policy areas, some of which are targeted to addressing particular policy areas while others are designed to change the basic governance structure of the country such as Senate and electoral reform. All of them will require careful planning and flawless implementation if they are going to succeed, particularly within the normal electoral four-year cycle.

At the heart of the plan to implement its wide ranging policy agenda is the prime minister’s decision to create the Cabinet Committee on Agenda and Results. Prime Minister Trudeau will chair this crucial committee of eleven members, and he has stocked it with the most critical ministers: Finance, International Trade, Leader in the House of Commons, Public Safety. Its principle purpose is: to ‘set the government’s forward agenda and track progress on priorities’. In other words, it is designed to make sure that the government delivers on its promises and also to assess the effectiveness of existing programs in order to move underperforming program spending to areas of high priority.

The Trudeau team has been quietly signalling to Canadians that they are determined to achieve policy results and want to be held accountable for their actions. Their messaging was very consistent in their election platform, the speech from the Throne and the mandate letters, all of which has signaled the commitment to transforming government into a far more effective and efficient organization. As an example, the mandate letters for President of the Treasury Board, Scott Brison, and Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, directs them to, ‘establish new performance standards…and set up a mechanism to conduct rigorous assessments of the performance of key government services and report findings publicly.  As well, develop a new service strategy that aims to create a single online window for all government services with new performance standards.’

In this case, the new government is drawing on the experiences of many of the senior PMO staffers who worked previously for former Premier Dalton McGuinty. At that time, the Premier’s office became aware of the newly elected Blair government’s efforts in the UK to streamline government and to make it more effective by rigorously measuring outcomes and creating delivery units under the leadership of Michael Barber in the prime minister’s office. Many of the best features of the UK model were implemented by Tony Dean, then Cabinet Secretary of Ontario, who has captured his assessment of how to improve and manage government services in a recently published book, Building Better Public Services.

It is not surprising to learn that Dean has been advising the Trudeau team about his experiences in Ontario where he worked closely with many of the same people who are in the current PMO. As one of Canada’s most savvy administrators, Dean would have advised the prime minister that the success of his ambitious policy agenda would depend on his ability to: limit his priorities to only a few, set performance targets based on measurable outcomes, hold ministers and deputy ministers to account for their areas of responsibility, and regularly and publicly report on results.

In order to ensure that the public service is an integral part of this new emphasis on results, the government recently announced Matthew Mendelsohn’s appointment as Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet (Results and Delivery). He joins the Privy Council Office from the University of Toronto and the Government of Ontario where he served as a Deputy Minister when Gerald Butts was Principal Secretary to the Premier. With the Mendelsohn’s appointment the government is now well into the consolidation phase of their transition to power by completing the personnel and machinery changes that will drive the whole Cabinet process for the next four years.

Many of the elements of this results driven approach are reminiscent of the 1970’s work of the Planning Branch at the Treasury Board Secretariat. At that time, Prime Minister Trudeau, the elder, adopted a similarly strategic approach that emphasized the importance of effectiveness and efficiency in government. Sadly, after only a few years of operation, Trudeau abolished the Branch when its work revealed the ineffectiveness of a number of the government’s sacred programs and embarrassed the government in a pre-election year.

This Trudeau government starts with a much stronger commitment to getting government right, has proclaimed a strong belief in open government, and has also hired experienced people who have implemented a similar system in a provincial jurisdiction. Like the success of Program Review in 1995, it, in the end, all depends on the determination of the prime minister to make the tough decisions. The entrenched interests inside of government and in the wider policy community will inevitably rally around to protect programs that are no longer working in the public interest. Let the governing begin.

David Zussman is a Senior Fellow in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and is Research Advisor to the Public Sector Practice of Deloitte. dzussman@uottawa.ca

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