Policy
September 10, 2013

The critical role of policy advice

As a deputy minister for the past 13 years, most recently at the Department of National Defence, Robert Fonberg has experienced firsthand the challenges of policy development and implementation in a rapidly changing socio-political context. Last spring, he was asked by the Clerk of the Privy Council “to examine the model of policy development in the Public Service.” He spoke with editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe.

 

What do politicians think of policy development in the public service?

That’s a great question and one you should probably put to politicians. I think you would hear some say that the public service is slow, is not all that innovative, is risk-averse, and is protective of what it thinks is “its space.”

I think others would say that it’s a rather remarkable institution with a committed and dedicated cadre of professionals that works in the public interest as defined by our government and has served governments extremely well, not just over the last six years but over the last 36 years since I joined the public service.

It can’t be easy to be a politician in this day and age. Managing today’s challenges of governing while establishing and implementing policy to guide the future direction of the country is a big enough task, but now you have huge additional pressures on you every day from a full range of views of Canadians through social media, blogs and the traditional media. Canadians have expectations that somehow every issue ought to be addressed in real time. It’s probably easy sometimes to look at the public service and think, “This is a pretty risk-averse institution, it keeps saying ‘Let’s take this one step at a time, because we’ve got to get it right.’”

I suspect that while this is an oversimplification of the two perspectives, there’s a bit of realism in them and they generate frustration on both sides of the fence, and I think we all need to understand the dynamic.

On the public service side, when we advise the government on ways to achieve their policy direction, or how to implement a particular policy, we are careful about any and all unintended consequences; regulatory changes, program design, these things can have unexpected impacts on Canadians, their communities and livelihoods. In this context, it’s not that the public service is risk-averse, it’s that, given that what we advise on has far-reaching implications, we as a public service have a responsibility and duty to make sure that we’ve got it right on behalf of our government.

Some things are easier to provide policy advice on, and some are far more complex, but no one should be surprised that there is a natural tension between the public service and the government on the process of policy development, advice and decision making.

Why does public policy development matter today?

I guess you could argue that public policy development matters even more today than it did 20 or 25 years ago. Back then the world presented itself as a much simpler place. Policy development was a kind of “specialist” endeavour. Few people or organizations had a real opportunity to have their voices heard on individual issues. It was – and still is – the responsibility of the public service to reflect the diversity of views in its advice to the elected government on how to implement its policy direction.

But today, because of the evolution of things like globalization and ubiquitous access to information and communications technologies, public policy development is more challenging, more complex and arguably more important as the policy space has become a noisy and crowded space. Today, everyone with a policy idea can express it and has a way to be heard instantly around the country. There are many ideas from many quarters about what the right direction is for the country, what the right policies are, and what the precise implementation plans ought to be.

And while our elected governments clearly set policy direction, and make final decisions on precise programs and legislation, where their initial direction is less than fully precise – which is often the case – policy development by the public service becomes critical to articulating the options for proceeding and the implications and impacts of those options.

You have said we are still using an industrial era model of policy development. What do you mean by that?

Look at how we did policy, say, 25 years ago, before the real advent of the Internet, way before social media, the minute-to-minute blogosphere and the disintermediation of news and information generally and ask, how did we do policy back then? Well, in our Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, our government establishes its policy direction very clearly through such things as the Speech from the Throne or the annual budget. That direction flows down from the prime minister and his cabinet to deputy ministers who are accountable for providing policy advice, and from them down into their “policy shops.” For argument sake, those shops would lead the rigorous options work required to turn the direction into actionable program or policy or regulatory changes. And we would flow these actionable options back up to the prime minister or ministers or the cabinet. And at the end of the day, they make the decisions.

To be clear, the deputy minister is accountable for the policy advice and the prime minister and ministers are accountable for the decisions that they take, regardless of whether they choose to proceed with the advice provided by the public service. In all of this, it is critical that the public service be, and be seen to be, impartial and non-partisan in its advice; unbiased, thorough and rigorous in its policy development work.

This is pretty much how the system should and does work. And if you ask yourself today, “How do we do policy?” the answer is, it looks a lot like it did 25 years ago.

So what has changed?

The context was entirely different back then: the pace of change was slower, stakeholder views were sought in a deliberate and structured way, our policy analysis work was developed on the foundation of rigorous analytical models that were often beyond the reach and means of many organizations. The public service had easier access to structured data than most. The public service was often able to “frame the questions” our governments were concerned about and take the time to do the work to answer them thoroughly.

The policy development cycle was more ordered and predictable. Governments, with the help of the public service, were able to manage communications, consultations, and engagement in more stable environments when the external voices were limited.

So back to today: the policy space is ultra-crowded. Everybody with a smart phone is a policy advisor; it’s not hard to quickly crowdsource a full range of views on any particular policy issue. But, as has always been the case, for all of those views, who decides on their veracity? Who decides whether they’re based on good data? Who decides if they’re based on good science? And who decides if they’re based on sound methodology?

Governments are constantly under pressure to be responsive to, and react to, all of that noise out there. How do governments structure their strategic policy agendas and then chart a sustainable course through all that noise? Our challenge as a public service is to fully recognize the dramatically changed context within which we provide policy advice, and to embrace the adjustments required to make sure that our unique voice stands out in the public policy space.

By the way, I don’t want anyone to think that somehow I’m saying that “only the public service’s ideas should be heard!” It never was that way; it never should be that way.

What then becomes the value of the public service policy contribution?

I believe that a strong and vibrant and non-partisan public service is a necessary institution in the equation for the long-term enduring success of Canada. The public service has shown great capacity to adapt and change over time. It’s something that we need to make sure we continue to do.

Like I said earlier, policy development and advice is an extremely complex business today. The public service is the only real institution that develops policy in the public interest on behalf of the elected government and has to help its government find a path through a noisy and crowded space. Canadians ought to have confidence that their public service is built on a foundation of excellence and works on behalf of all Canadians. Sure we make mistakes, but we learn from them and we get better, and those mistakes are minuscule compared to our achievements.

What does that mean for the specific role of the public servant in the policy process?

I think it’s really important to unpack the notion of policy advisor in this day and age. What we mean by policy advisor really depends on the issue and where we are in the policy development cycle – a cycle that has become far less predictable than it was even just a few years ago.

In some cases, our role may simply be to “convene” people with different views, to understand them. In some cases it may mean challenging a whole range of views against certain norms or directions. Sometimes it may mean we need to add our own voice to the research out there that everybody else has done. Or where we’re trying to negotiate between various voices that have an interest in something and trying to find the right way through an issue, arbitrating or mediating or ultimately just advising on what we think is the right solution based on the government’s overall direction.

You have said that as policy advisors we have to decide whether we see ourselves as just being one voice among many. What did you mean?

The public service’s voice is clearly not just one among many. It is a unique voice in a crowded and noisy public policy space. And I say this for a few simple reasons. As a public service we abide by a stringent code of values and ethics. We are the guardians of the cabinet decision-making process. We are paid by the Crown, by the taxpayer, to work only in the public interest of the country as defined by our democratically-elected government. There is no other institution in the country that can make that claim.

You have also said that networks are now acting like new silos. What do you mean?

This is probably me being a little bit provocative, testing a proposition to get a sense of whether we’re actually building and embracing the right kinds networks both within the government and outside government to build the best knowledge and generate the best policy outcomes we can.

I’m no expert, but I do worry that some of our horizontal networks are missing opportunities to generate better policy outcomes. I think that we as senior public servants can help that process by more clearly shaping the expectations of our existing networks and by being deliberate about building new networks that have a policy orientation. Many of our internal networks are horizontal in nature. I think we need to get better at vertical networking, too. How do we create the right push and pull dynamic to get great policy ideas off the shop floor and into the hands of more senior people that have the right understanding of risk and government direction?

All this affects innovation, doesn’t it?

I think it probably does. There is a real hunger and thirst in the public service to innovate. And there are great examples of innovations taking place throughout the public service. The problem is that deputies, and then all down through their organizations, need to be clear that we do not innovate simply for the sake of innovating. In the policy space, innovation needs to be clearly tied to an end, to a better policy outcome or better policy advice given the government’s direction.

The senior leadership of the public service needs to articulate, enable, facilitate and create a safe space for the policy innovations that are, and that could be, taking place in their organizations. The very essence of innovation, like investments, is that some don’t work out. If the risk associated with failure is too big, or worse undefined, policy innovation in the public service will be stifled. I don’t think the country can afford a public service that doesn’t innovate.

But again, strengthening the culture of innovation in the policy space requires clear understanding of the risks involved and the tolerance for errors. Taking risk, by definition, means some things won’t work out. If the tolerance for errors is zero, not much innovation or risk-taking is going to take place.

You’re going to be presenting to your deputy colleagues in the future. What are the messages you’d like them to take away from this discussion?

I think three messages. One, which I think they intrinsically understand, is our role as public servants, as senior public servants and as senior policy advisors, is more critical today and more complex than it ever has been. Two, collectively we need to be more deliberate in seeing and understanding our role as policy advisors in the multi-dimensional reality of our time. And third, that we as deputies need to make sure that our policy organizations not only understand the complexity of the world today, but are encouraged to take the right kinds of risk in the context of delivering on the policy direction of our democratically elected government.

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