Worldwide, public and private sectors alike are grappling with the dual challenges of globalization and demographics. In Canada, this is playing out at all levels of government – from healthcare to education to multiculturalism to defence. In many of these areas, other counties see us as a beacon. Even so, our public policy leaders are facing intensifying pressure to play a larger role on the global stage. In fact, 86 percent of Canadians think “Canada can have a positive impact on world affairs by serving as a role model to other countries.”
Managing these challenges, seizing the opportunities they afford, and achieving our national and international aspirations will require the public and private sectors working together. If we don’t adapt, adopt and innovate, we won’t be able to balance Canada’s traditional generosity in social spending and its need for an energetic private sector not excessively burdened by taxes.
Increasing our public sector’s effectiveness and efficiency – to provide more and better services with less time, less waste and less bureaucracy – would free time and resources for our leaders to create innovative solutions for complex public policy issues. Canada could expand services at home and be a role model for other countries seeking sound solutions to our shared challenges.
We are talking about “productivity.” In this context, this is not about cost cutting and layoffs. It’s about achieving better results in terms of quantity and quality with the people and resources we have today.
Our public-sector leaders are under enormous pressure to achieve more while spending less. Canadians are demanding an ever-greater range of flexible and individualized services. And they want them delivered more efficiently and more consistently. At the same time, taxpayers are insisting that the public sector stays within its spending limits, advocating cost restraints even for crucial programs.
Quite a challenge.
Our population, spread across six time zones, ranges from remote communities to crowded cities and sprawling suburbs. The overlaps and ambiguities of three different levels of government often leads to friction, frustration and inefficiencies. And our laudable dedication to multiculturalism adds complexity to the challenge of delivering better services at an affordable cost.
These challenges demand an even more efficient and effective public service if Canada is to achieve its aspirations. Fortunately, the public sector is blessed with many dedicated people with a strong sense of mission and purpose.
While important differences exist between the public and private sectors, we can learn much from each other. Many civil servants are striving to break down the organizational, cultural, and structural barriers that stop them from achieving more – and to counter the myths about improving productivity (see sidebar). They are drawing on insights of the private sector to achieve greater transparency, improve performance management, align incentives more effectively, promote accountability, invest in training, and use technology with greater agility. All of which are key to attracting, motivating and retaining highly skilled, talented people.
Yet the inherent multi-dimensionalism of public sector challenges requires more innovation and experimentation.
The way forward
Consider healthcare, our governments’ largest area of spending. The Canadian system is widely viewed as a model of social compassion and economic realism. Given our aging population, though, how will we be able to sustain the promise of providing universal access to healthcare while maintaining high medical standards, reducing waiting times and holding the line on costs? In Ontario, for example, the healthcare system overall now spends about $100 per second on drugs alone.
How could we spend our money most effectively? Could private sector procurement approaches work? The UK’s National Health Service, for example, is enlisting the logistics company DHL UK to manage £4 billion of spending to purchase everything from beds to bandages.
Or consider defence, Canada’s second biggest federal expenditure. With our soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we need to ensure we have the best possible procurement, logistics and training processes, tailored to our military structure. The UK’s upgrading of the quality and effectiveness of its logistics and training programs has resulted in greater productivity, higher morale and a significant reduction in overall defence spending.
Admittedly, public-private partnerships are highly controversial and hotly debated. This approach seeks to leverage the public and private sectors’ best features: the public sector’s ability to build civic consensus – to say nothing of its high degree of dedication and potentially vast economies of scale to deliver value in great amounts – and the private sector’s ability to mobilize resources. When they work, these partnerships can be remarkably effective.
A national example is the 12-kilometre Confederation Bridge, linking New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The private sector paid for the bridge, freeing the public sector to fund other priorities. The private party gets the tolls for 35 years for building the bridge, and the local communities benefit from a cheaper and more efficient mode of transportation.
An international example is GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations). Founded in 2000, this coalition includes UNICEF, the World Health Organization, national governments, the Gates Foundation, the vaccine industry, public health organizations and NGOs. In the past five years, Canada has contributed $158 million to this initiative that has vaccinated more than 126 million children worldwide.
Earlier this year, Dr. Julian Lob-Levyt, GAVI’s executive secretary, traveled to Ottawa to thank Canada for its support. “Canada’s bold and far-sighted commitment…has quite literally helped us save hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Seconding civil servants to business and business executives to civil service fosters collaboration and the sharing of ideas. Unfortunately, since the Gomery Commission, this has become significantly more difficult.
Public-private initiatives are one way to improve productivity. Another is to combine the principles of evidence-based policy making with the best project management tools. This entails:
1. Defining crystal-clear policy objectives that directly target the problems as well as what success would look like
2. Building a rock-solid fact base quantifying the issues and their root causes together with the stakeholders. A joint public-private-NGO effort to build a carbon abatement curve that calibrates opportunities to reduce emissions with their costs could contribute significantly to today’s politicized climate change debate
3. Developing, testing and refining options with the stakeholders
4. Delivering policy using rigorous project management techniques including tracking metrics, targets, clear accountabilities and processes for corrective action.
In sum, by improving productivity at home, Canada could increase its effectiveness and reduce its costs, enabling it to take on more internationally – collaborating with its friends and allies to resolve shared problems and meeting its citizens’ aspirations to be a positive force in the world.
If we all work together – private and public sectors alike –