In the wake of the G8 and G20 meetings it was expected that the government would build on the success of those summits by elaborating on its economic mandate during the remainder of the summer. Instead, its ongoing disagreements with some of its agencies has created disharmony within the public service and has undermined the credibility of some of its most important public institutions such as CSIS, the RCMP, Statistics Canada, Foreign Affairs and Veterans Affairs.
While our national government has defined itself in terms of narrow niche issues, the rest of the world continues to find ways to respond to challenges. And while we tend to benchmark our activities by looking at the goings on in the United States, Australia and the Northern European countries, the impact of globalization requires us to train our sights as well on what is happening in many rapidly developing countries.
For example, in case we needed some encouragement to look elsewhere for examples of dynamic countries, earlier this year China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy and now has its sights clearly on the U.S. and its number one ranking.
Canada has always ranked well, on the basis of international comparisons, in the quality of its workforce. In general, our admirable position around the world has been the product of an effective and broad based educational system that has made Canada a leading nation in terms of educational attainment at the university and college level. While our historic outcome measures have been impressive, there is now persuasive evidence, from the OECD and elsewhere, that our public spending on university and college education is much lower than in many other countries. In fact, there are at least a dozen countries that spend more money per capita on education than Canada and have faster annual rates of spending growth than ours.
One non-OECD country attracting considerable attention in recent years is India, which has emerged as a major economic force in Asia and has also developed aspirations to be a world economic power in the next few decades. India’s ascendancy as an economic powerhouse is not an accident but the result of concerted government action. For example, in 2006, it launched the National Knowledge Commission, a high level advisory body to the prime minister with the objective of “transforming India into a knowledge society.” In the course of its work, the commission submitted more than 300 recommendations on 27 “focus areas,” many of which are being implemented.
Unlike most government task force initiatives that lose momentum, such as Canada’s digital economy initiative, the work of the National Knowledge Commission continues with an aggressive implementation plan that shows a high level of commitment that is rarely associated with prime ministerial task forces. It is obvious that the Indian leadership has decided to focus its policy agenda and to concentrate on a few priorities among a large number of urgent needs for this relatively poor country. To give further impetus to the commission’s recommendations, in early August, Prime Minister Singh created two separate councils for higher education and health to accelerate reforms in these sectors. He then appealed to key stakeholders such as state governments, civil society and citizens to contribute their expertise to this effort.
Sustained priority setting on the part of national governments is a feature of many countries today. In the past year, the U.K.’s new coalition government issued a manifesto defining its goals; in Australia, former Prime Minister Rudd completed a plan for the modernization of the public sector after wide public consultations; and President Obama completed an overhaul of the U.S. health care system. The Indian case is another example of strategic planning becoming a crucial element in defining a country’s competitiveness in the face of global competition.
Due to previously implemented policies, Canada is still well placed to be a leader in the knowledge and digital economy and in other sectors as well. However, it should be obvious to all that the current preoccupation of the government with political wedge issues and attacks on the leadership of our public institutions is not the best strategy for keeping the country ahead of others. Canada is paying a significant price for not developing a strategic plan that would improve our international competitiveness in the knowledge economy. The price of inaction is high when other countries are moving forward so quickly.
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.