In 2011, the Institute on Governance launched the Modern Makers of Canada Award to recognize a significant contribution to the shaping and modernizing of Canada leading into the 21st century.
The winners were Gordon Campbell, former premier of British Columbia, and Danny Williams, former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. When in office, both led transformational change and a renaissance in their public services. They spoke with editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe.
What role does the public service play in helping governments manage complex issues such as globalization, the aging population, fiscal challenge and the like?
Gordon Campbell: I think it has a critical role to play in a professional non-partisan way where it gives the political representatives advice without fear and then implements without favor; in other words, it follows the direction that has been made by the political leadership.
It’s our public life that defines us as Canadians and I think one of the really critical things is to recognize that the public sector is going to become one of the most important means of enabling us to improve the quality of life for Canadians and to build the kind of future that Canadians want in every province and every region of the country. And I think we’re going to be in an era of partnership where the private sector, the public sector, the non-profit sector, work together to accomplish common purposes and common objectives that are set at the political level. It’s going to be a very exciting time for people in the public sector.
Danny Williams: Well, first, it is very helpful if the public service provides background information, puts together as much as it can to give you good, solid background information from the best possible sources. That’s very important. There’s also another important role and that’s to formulate opinions of their own that they can present with different solutions and choices. I find there’s a tendency in the public service that the status quo is fine, they don’t want to rock the boat because their political masters may take offense to it and the elected officials may find that certain issues are controversial, they just don’t want to go there. That, unfortunately, can stifle new and innovative ideas.
Do you worry that public servants are themselves partisan, say, from a previous administration?
Williams: To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of severe partnership in the public service. I think that public servants generally do their job to the best of their ability – the vast, vast majority of public servants do that. I’ve seen people who have been put there by other governments but certainly served our government very well. It’s an issue for some people but I wouldn’t be overly concerned about that.
There seems to be a view that big government is bad, that it’s impediment to growth, prosperity and innovation. Do you agree?
Campbell: For me, the role of government is that it enables us as citizens and communities to reach our objectives. It reminds us of what we have in common; it’s not a divisive force. Government should be the glue that holds us together around the values that we share as Canadians. So I think all of us have got to recognize that the changes that are going to take place in our world are not just changes for government, they’re changes for us as citizens, for how we deliver services.
Government should hold itself to account. I think governments are going to have to find ways to provide the public with the information they gather. There’s been a tendency to hold that information at the government level; what we have to do is open up and let citizens look at the different ways that we can accomplish our goals and solve our problems.
I really believe that, whether it’s how we deal with aging in our society, how we deal with healthcare, how we deal with education, how we deal with the environment, or how we deal with First Nations. All of those things are going to require us to work in partnership. If we continue to follow the kind of fragmented, balkanized approach to the issues that confront us, we’re not going to be successful.
Williams: Big government is no different than big business, big corporations. Big operations can be effective if they’re productive and if they’re efficient. My preference is lean and mean. I prefer to have a very, very lean organization and then build it and grow as we start to get into other areas, whether it happens to be in business or in government.
The problem, of course, is when you take over a government, you inherit the previous hirings and the previous public service at whatever level and whatever size it is. So when you find that you want to get into new areas or create new departments or step into new policy initiatives, you have to hire to fill those new policy initiatives without a proper method of being able to go back through the old policies and the old programs and basically sift through and streamline government.
It’s very difficult to drill down into tens, if not hundreds of thousands of employees and make the right decision on every single employee. If you were a corporation and you were relatively lean and mean, well, then as you grow and as you need talent and expertise, you can hire and add it, but also at the same time assess the people that are already there to find out whether they’re in the proper roles and the proper functions. I would prefer a lean government. But just because it’s a big government, it doesn’t mean that it can’t produce – but it has to be efficient.
Is there a role for other sectors in feeding into the policy process?
Campbell: Absolutely. The question is to make that a more deliberate and more open process. We have to have processes that lead to decisions that lead to action. One of the things that I think is going to be a challenge as we move into the 21st century is that time’s not on our side. Every year that goes by is lost forever. If you’ve ever been in the hotel business, you know that if you don’t sell your rooms every night, you don’t get those nights back.
Let me give you one example of what I think is smarter government. There’s not a province or territory in the country that doesn’t believe we have to be environmentally responsible as we approach the major projects that are in front of us. I don’t believe any elected representative doesn’t believe that we should be smart or think we shouldn’t take into consideration our environment.
So, it should be possible in an open democratic society like Canada to have one environmental process that’s based on sound science, that’s based on a thorough review of all the issues that are in front of us, and to prepare a thorough response to the mitigation of any challenges that may be faced. If we keep on having two and three and four review processes, we’re actually creating substantial new risk for investments and we’re going to take away opportunities from Canadians. We have to be willing to make institutional change in Canada without saying to ourselves, “We’ll lose all the advantages we have as Canadians.” I think we have to recognize that really those advantages come from us being smarter.
So we need to reduce overlap and duplication between the various levels of government?
Campbell: Yes. I worked for local government, regional government and provincial government. I always felt that we were elected by the same people. I think we always have to ask, “how do we help the other levels do their job?” as opposed to what sometimes has bee