From Silos to Synergies: Collaboration and Cabinet in a Networked Era – Canadian Government Executive

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CommunicationDigital Governance with Jeffrey RoyGovernment
November 9, 2017

From Silos to Synergies: Collaboration and Cabinet in a Networked Era

The Trudeau Government’s decision, in August 2017, to split the Indigenous Affairs Ministerial portfolio offers a potentially important inflection point in Canadian Westminster governance. Although skeptics have good reasons to be concerned that such a move is mere political window dressing and, worse yet, could yield the creation of two underlying and eventually even more dysfunctional bureaucracies where there is now one, allows a more generous view of these changes to present itself. Simply put, the Government has made a modest step in recognizing some of today’s new governance realities, and insisted on a dose of political collaboration in an overt and strategic manner.

Political collaboration, and collaborative governance approaches that can follow, are not exactly prominent in the Westminster model. Although Cabinet is theoretically a discursive body and a gathering of equals (since our Constitution recognizes the Ministry but not the post of Prime Minister) with a whole of government scope, Ministers nonetheless serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister (or Premier) and their portfolios are assigned individually; each one underpinned by a separate organizational architecture. What little coordination takes place does so in secret – either at a high and often abstract level via Cabinet or administratively via central agencies and operational committees.

The uphill and often futile battle of working horizontally across resulting Ministerial silos has been well documented and dissected by a range of leading Canadian scholars. In 2010, mainly building on their efforts, I wrote my own commentary in Policy Options (The rise of networked governance everywhere but in Westminster) arguing that while collaborative and networked governance had become increasingly prominent across the private sector and parts of civil society, its’ acceptance had been stunted within Westminster governance due to the traditions and confines of Cabinet structures and central agency controls.

From ‘Harperland’ to Trudeau, it would seem that not much has really changed. What’s worse, many Provinces today feature downsized Cabinets with some Ministers assuming multiple portfolios. A network of one is hardly the answer: many public servants in these jurisdictions understandably report that such Ministers have little time to grapple with intricacies, much less entertain novel forms of collaboration. Instead, overall guidance and direction stem from central agencies, reinforcing centralized tendencies in terms of both information sharing and decision making.

The (current) Trudeau era arguably began with a modest change of tone – with promises to empower Ministers to genuinely lead and with mandate letters that spoke often of specific collaborative responsibilities with Cabinet colleagues. One particularly noteworthy moment came in April 2016 with the introduction of Doctor-assisted dying legislation when both the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Health appeared together in several media outlets to thoughtfully and jointly articulate the Government’s approach and objectives. Of course, it should not go unnoticed that then-Justice Minister Jane Philpot would subsequently become the newly created Minister of Indigenous Services.

If Ministers Philpott and Bennett collaborate openly and meaningfully in the months and years ahead, such a change would represent an important departure from traditional Westminster customs. Nonetheless, for much to be accomplished in bettering Indigenous communities, a myriad of networking relationships must be properly leveraged with stakeholders both within the federal apparatus and outside of it. Although these latter relationships are unique and especially complex within the confines of Aboriginal matters (and the promised ‘nation to nation’ approach in pursuing self-governance), such complexity also permeates a range of public interest spheres: climate change, health and wellness, and public safety are but three prominent examples where it makes little sense to look to a single Minister to orchestrate and oversee workable solutions.

Beyond cultivating trust and effective working relations with Aboriginal stakeholders, arguably the largest (and very much related) task confronting Ministers Philpott and Bennett is to create a new set of governance bodies to support their individual and integrative efforts. As many commentators have noted, simply slicing the old Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada into two is a mere recipe for bureaucratic proliferation and escalating turf wars. The ensuing organizational restructuring that awaits could easily deteriorate into turmoil for years to come, dooming any prospects for outward renewal and meaningful change.

What is required – both in this specific setting and broadly across government, is a sea change in how Cabinet portfolios are assigned, funded, pursued, and evaluated. Such a notion is hardly novel. Yet since the Canada School of Public Service commissioned a thoughtful examination of horizontal governance more than a decade ago, not much of political significance has happened. One of the key messages of this 2004 report prepared by Herman Bakvis and Luc Juillet, not surprisingly, is the paramount importance of political leadership if vertical inertia is to be meaningfully challenged.

More recently, the Privy Council Office (PCO) has embraced Blueprint 2020 as an important paradigm for governance renewal within the federal apparatus (an initiative that began under the Harper Government and is now in reformation). Since the 2015 election, moreover, PCO has recruited a number of leading minds within its ranks and has also partnered with the Public Policy Forum to create a set of Prime Ministerial Fellows – promising public servants researching innovative themes in their chosen fields.

As important as such steps are in signaling new directions, they can amount to little in terms of systemic renewal if the overlying political apparatus remains unchanged – which is why the political restructuring of Indigenous Affairs marks an important moment.

Unfortunately, however, another Cabinet change announced simultaneously by the federal government tempers any sense of optimism. The appointment of a new Minister for Public Services and Procurement Canada is both insufficient and unfortunate. The problem is not the new Minister, however capable she may be – but rather the unreasonably and ultimately counter-productive notion that any one person can possibly oversee such a vast and antiquated portfolio, especially at a time of accumulated crises with the Phoenix payroll system, Shared Services Canada, and large-scale procurement.

At the very least, this portfolio cries out for Ministerial separation between the public service and procurement dimensions. Beyond such dissection – and the obviously urgent matter of properly compensating employees, other networked realities present themselves. On the public services side, innovative governance renewal invariably involves central agencies and other line departments. With respect to procurement, effective working relationships with line departments are fundamental. Cutting across both realms is technological complexity and efforts to create government-wide digital architectures, the mandate of a new and struggling agency, Shared Services Canada (overseen by its own Chief Executive Officer).

In short, if new and more effective governance arrangements are to be forged, the Westminster doctrine of centralized and siloed political authority must adapt to shifting societal realities: working across Ministerial boundaries must gradually become the norm rather than the exception.

Barriers to working horizontally within the current system are well known. Echoing many of the findings of Bakvis and Juillet, a 2016 report prepared by the Government of South Australia (Working Together: A Joined-Up Policy Guide) summarizes the major barriers presenting themselves: a lack of shared vision; limited contacts; organizational (and political) culture; limited authority; and limited capacity.

In order to overcome such barriers, the report presents a strategic governance triangle encompassing three inter-related dimensions (each with its own set of determinants): public value; legitimacy and support; and operational capacity. Situating horizontal governance mainly within the latter dimension, the report provides a detailed blueprint for pursuing collective action beginning with a fundamental enabler: ‘Formalising the structures for collaboration and ensuring leadership endorsement’ (p.9)

Despite its utility on many levels, the report fails to address the need for wider political innovation at the Cabinet level (a critical aspect of public value and legitimacy and support), undoubtedly for many of the same reasons constraining Canadian initiatives such as Blueprint 2020. Central agencies prefer to control – and politicians most often prefer to govern within the familiar confines of traditionalism rather than risk wider and untested forms of transformation.

How should Cabinet structures adapt? In 2010, I made the modest suggestion of opening up Cabinet Committees: few outside of government know of their existence much less whether or not they shape performance. Cabinet committees could become a modest basis for communicating to citizens and stakeholders the need for integrative solutions around specific policy and service delivery agendas. The usage of deliverology targets – applied to subsets of government actors (i.e. sub-groupings of Ministers), rather than individual Ministries as is largely the present norm, might begin to cultivate a degree of integrative thinking across various Ministerial domains.

Yet much deeper reforms are required. New political and operational mechanisms await invention: integrative Ministerial Councils, for example, could serve as task forces to pursue specific policy and service innovation agendas. Such Councils would require pooled resources budgeted through an integrative mechanism that would bind both Ministers and officials and hold such a body to account as a single, networked entity. As importantly, this new integrative mechanism would be tasked with the very sort of outward consultation and relationship building that will now sorely test the capacities of Ministers Philpott and Bennett.

As with the example of Indigenous Affairs, the risk of creating new governance mechanisms stems from the ensuing uncertainty – and the very real possibility that new bureaucratic layers shall merely stifle what little innovation remains. Yet this is arguably the unhelpful state of affairs inside of government today: horizontality and collaborative experimentation emerge informally, only to be snuffed out by an underlying inertia of incrementalism and control. As the Trudeau Government has recognized in at least one key domain, there is an urgent need to do better. Nineteenth-century political structures cannot suffice: a refurbished, more open, and more collaborative Cabinet apparatus is both essential and long overdue.

 

Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (roy@dal.ca).

About this author

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy is Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. He is a widely published observer and critic of the impacts of digital technologies on government and democracy. He has worked with the United Nations, the OECD, multinational corporations, and all levels of government in Canada. He has produced more than eighty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and his most recent book was published in 2013 by Springer: From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. Among other bodies, his research has been funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He may be reached at: roy@dal.ca

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