The Trudeau Government has been off and running for almost one year. Despite its third party status before the election, it has been quick out of the blocks, with wide ranging policy announcements in all sectors of Canadian society. As a general rule, Trudeau has brought a freshened view of the activist role of the federal government within the particularities of the Canadian federation. His balanced gender Cabinet, consensus-seeking behaviour, bold initiatives in electoral and senate reform, and a penchant to consult to Canadians in more than 100 policy arenas have all signalled that the federal government is going to act and be governed differently than any other previous government—not just Stephen Harper’s.
At the recent August Cabinet retreat, Trudeau emphasized that the theme of the get together was relationship-building. However, given the timing of the meeting he also took advantage of the gathering to remind cabinet colleagues that the first phase of his government’s term was nearing completion and it was now the appropriate time to make decisions that must be implemented before the next general election.
At the cabinet retreat, Ministers will also have had a briefing on the state of the economy and its prospects for growth in the next few years. For the government to implement its ambitious spending agenda it now be apparent to all cabinet ministers that the economy will not generate sufficient new revenues to pay for their many expensive election promises.
All of this serves as backdrop to one of the most innovative and potentially important actions taken by the Prime Minister during his transition to power in 2015. At the time of swearing in of the Cabinet, the government announced the creation of a Cabinet Committee on Agenda, Results and Communications. According to the government website, the committee, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, sets the government’s forward agenda, tracks progress on priorities, and considers strategic communications.
Given the importance of this machinery change in the executive functions of the government has spawned a mini industry in Ottawa that is designed to support the Cabinet Committee. As a starting point, the government created a new secretariat within the Privy Council Office, led by Matthew Mendelsohn a former Ontario government Deputy Minister, to ensure the success of the Cabinet Committee and to work with the Treasury Board Secretariat in realizing its full potential.
In this regard, the President of the Treasury Board, Scott Brison, has been given a central role in coordinating the work of departments in tracking the results of government programs. Evidence of his pivotal position is found in his mandate letter that instructs him, to “review policies to improve the use of evidence and data in program innovation and evaluation’ and … conduct a review of tax expenditures and other spending to reduce poorly targeted and inefficient measures, wasteful spending, and government initiatives that are ineffective or have outlived their purpose.”
Furthermore, the Treasury Board Secretariat has given some backbone to these good intentions by announcing a new Policy on Results and a revised Results-based Management and Accountability Framework (RMAF). One particularly important element of the results policy has been the appointment of a Chief Results and Delivery Officer (CRDO) to serve as a point person for all of these new activities.
At the heart of this government-wide exercise is measuring the outcomes of all government programs and linking them back to future spending decisions. All modern governments face the same dilemma of not having enough revenue to pay for all their election platform promises. And since, in the short term, the economy is not likely to generate enough new revenues for their requirements, it makes good sense to look at current spending commitments for inefficiencies and underperforming programs.
The federal government has done many similar cost containment and evaluation efforts over the past 40 years when it first attempted to link spending to results. Most of these exercises have not been particularly effective but others like Program Review in 1994 were able to slash billions of dollars from the annual spending cycle in order to reallocate tax revenues. There are many complex reasons why previous efforts have failed but usually it was the failure of the government to make the hard decisions to abandon underperforming programs or the lack of objective and verifiable evidence regarding the effectiveness of individual programs.
As the government enters the second year of its four-year mandate it is facing a sluggish economy with only limited prospects for economic growth. Consequently, it is imperative that the government “double down” on its efforts to ensure that the data are available for the Cabinet Committee on Agenda, Results and Communications so that it can make the difficult spending decisions in order for them to implement the resulting policy decisions before the 2019 election. It is very likely that the upcoming work of the Cabinet Committee with the awkward name of “Agenda, Results and Communications” will, in the final analysis, define the success of the Trudeau government.
David Zussman is a Senior Fellow in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and is Research Advisor to the Public Sector Practice of Deloitte. firstname.lastname@example.org