The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are one of Canada’s most critical assets in a digital world, fighting cyber-crime and terrorism at home and abroad along with all of the functions and responsibilities that come with serving as the country’s only national police force. Unfortunately, in recent years the RCMP has faced a series of crises and scandals with life and death consequences and unprecedented management upheaval.
In a long overdue sign of resurgence, the RCMP Commissioner and the government would seem to be getting serious about a legislative and organizational overhaul. A major change being contemplated is granting the Force greater autonomy via separate employer status that implies greater freedoms from the shackles of central agency policies and procedures. In return, a new corporate governance regime would feature a board to provide managerial oversight, not unlike the Canada Revenue Agency model in some respects.
Such changes have been proposed by several studies and reviews in recent years, notably the Brown report commissioned by the federal government in the aftermath of financial mismanagement scandals. Complementary proposals for greater public oversight were offered by Justice O’Connor following the Maher Arar inquiry, although the scope of his recommendations also extended beyond the RCMP to include the entire national security apparatus (of which the RCMP is a key component).
There are wider implications for the federal government as a whole and it will be interesting to see whether the present Conservative government comes to embrace changes that may be viewed as fragmentary in nature. After all, we live in a world of growing interoperability and enterprise architectures for the Government of Canada (cloud computing being the next iteration), along with systemic horizontal expenditure reviews. Is a looser grip over the RCMP the right thing to do in such a context?
It absolutely is. Along with an overly inward culture that led to scandal, the RCMP has long struggled with its own IT infrastructure in part due to the unwieldy processes of government-wide planning and procurement (faring less well than the CRA and various other autonomous agencies). Empowerment is a better bet than control provided the necessary governance mechanisms are in place to provide a mix of guidance and oversight. Chief among these mechanisms is the board of management, which will require both competence and independence in order to play such a role. The spectacular failure of Ontario’s E-Health Agency in recent years underscores the risks and consequences of governance failure and the importance of getting it right.
In this informational era, individual departments and agencies require greater managerial autonomy; however, their organizational leaders must be held more publicly accountable as a result. Traditionalists defending the Westminster model will cry foul, arguing that only ministers can be held to account. This has clearly not been the case in the RCMP. While some would say this is due to the particulars of policing (and the need for some independence from political control), the RCMP should instead be viewed as a desired norm rather than the exception.
The world of technology is making interoperability increasingly feasible due to the advent of open source and open standards. What is missing is a willingness of government units to collaborate and engage in integrated outcomes. The key to facilitating this collaboration is not to seek ordainment from the centre (be it the PMO or Treasury Board) but rather to empower individual units with the tools to do their jobs and to provide a performance regime that demands results.
It is for politicians to set the policy objectives and to devise the governance mechanisms that enable departments and agencies to perform, both separately and collectively. It is for managers, aided and overviewed by effective boards, to undertake operational decisions and to be held to account in an increasingly open and direct manner.
The final piece of the RCMP governance puzzle is greater political and civilian oversight of the wider national security apparatus. The highly legalistic, secretive, and after-the-fact review of Afghan detainee documents further underscores Justice O’Connor’s call for wider and more regularized oversight of how national security information is gathered and shared, both within and across jurisdictions. Paradoxically, the more separate the RCMP becomes, the greater the need for proactive openness and scrutiny by politicians over policy matters.
So wish the RCMP well. Quite aside from its crucial role in safeguarding our society, the organization is also a critically important test case for governance reform across the public sector.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (email@example.com).