Treasury Board President Tony Clement is leading the federal government’s Strategic and Operating Review of departments and agencies. He spoke with editor Toby Fyfe about the future of the public service.
Governments today face many “wicked issues” brought on by globalization, the recession, an aging population and the like: what role does the public service play in helping them manage these issues?
Well, the public service is a source of many different skills. One is implementing policies that have been sanctioned through elections and through a party’s platform, but of course the public service is also a great generator of ideas and of solutions that are more apropos for changing times and changing challenges.
Some say big government is an impediment to growth, prosperity and innovation. Do you agree?
I believe that thinking government is necessarily the solution to a problem is outmoded these days. Canadians, based on the research I have seen, are looking for a more targeted approach. There are areas where they see government being the first line of activity on things like protecting the public but there are other areas, particularly related to economic growth and development, where they expect government to be more of a collaborator with the private sector and other non-governmental organizations to arrive at better solutions. I think the expectation of government has changed since the ’70s and ’80s; it’s potentially more efficient and effective for government to have that collaborative role in many different public policy areas.
So government helps facilitate other sectors to do the job?
It could be that the government acts as a convener that brings together various aspects of society, whether it is NGOs or the private sector, other people who can offer solutions to a problem and help arrive at a multi-faceted solution. Look at philanthropy nowadays: you have the Gates Foundation helping to implement solutions on HIV-AIDS, on tuberculosis, on other afflictions in the Third World. It’s not a government solution, but government has to be a part of it.
Does that mean government has little role in leading societies through change?
I think it depends on the nature of the challenges. Obviously when we faced the recession it did land on government to quickly and nimbly be part of the solution. That’s because the recession was created by a credit crisis where, because it was bank-related, a lot of the tools available to the private sector to continue to create economic activity were no longer available for a short period of time. So government had to be available and that’s why we initiated the Economic Action Plan, which had a lot of government expenditure when it came to public infrastructure and public investment in R&D. That’s a good example of where government did have to intervene. But we’re at a stage where, with the recovery ongoing, we have to step back and return to a lesser role.
It seems that citizens see the public sector as being inefficient and unable to achieve results.
I think that’s part of it, but I think the public has also seen that inefficiency and lack of results can occur in the private sector too. So one should not tar with a brush any particular sector but realize that sometimes there are limits to what government can do and limits to what the private sector can do. One always has to find one’s way depending upon the nature of the problem. That’s why creativity and innovation have to be part of the public sector, because it’s not going to be the same old solutions that will necessarily be effective in the future.
It can be argued that an ineffective public sector potentially puts the government as an institution at risk because it doesn’t have the ability to do what it should. Is that fair?
Off the top of my head it would make sense that it could erode public confidence in government, but at the same time I think that we have been through a 40-50 year period of extensive government intervention. Pierre Trudeau’s time was through a government that operated through reason over passion that would arrive at solutions for society’s ills. I think since that time we’ve realized that is not necessarily the best solution or that there are maybe unintended consequences associated with that, a lot of it dealing with the retardation of economic growth and prosperity if government gets too big and too bloated. We’ve lived through that period of complete faith in government being all things to all people. I think as a society we’ve gone beyond that now. We have a more realistic view of what government can do, just as we have a more realistic view of what the private sector can do. That is a positive thing. That’s the context in which I and other members of the government have to work.
Should the government maintain equality of service delivery in a diverse country like Canada?
Well, I think it depends. For instance, that’s always been a traditional role of the Canada Health Act, where the government aspires to equalize the availability of certain health services across the nation that would not necessarily be the case if federal dollars were not used. One would like to think there are certain things about being Canadian that are shared across the country. Most people today, though, don’t see government services as the way in which they define themselves as Canadians. There are other values that we share: our commitment to democracy and freedom, our view that we should have an orderly society free from threat of violence, for instance. Those are, I think, more the values that Canadians share rather than always defining ourselves from government services.
How does the public service maintain its value as a policy creator? Is it about working with other sectors to come up with the right options?
I don’t necessarily see it as an either-or. I think working together helps animate creativity in the public sector to arrive at conclusions that would not be automatic if they were in their own cocoon. At the same time, it helps the private sector and NGOs to have a good and positive relationship with the public sector; it helps them have a sophisticated understanding of why you can’t just cookie-cutter private sector solutions in a country as complex as Canada for complex public policy challenges. I think that both the public and private sectors can learn from one another and that should be encouraged.
What would you expect the public service of Canada to look like after your government’s five-year mandate?
I think there are going to be certain areas where we can have more efficient delivery of quality government services. I would like to see a more paperless system, and more sensible offerings that are more intuitive to the public. There has to be more one-stop shopping for citizens in their interface with government, either online or more generally. The public does not understand why they have to go to different departments for different government services. I think we have to more nimble and leaner and perhaps be more crosscutting. These are all things that will make the experience of dealing with government much less complicated for the citizen and, ultimately, more satisfying.
Would you imagine the federal government doing less?