While government watchers tend to concentrate on the big policy issues, the vast majority of government officials perform a myriad of tasks associated with program delivery while others provide oversight and assessment of the appropriateness of the ways in which the billions of dollars of public money are spent. At the federal level, the day to day administration of government is carried out in hundreds of departments, ministries, boards and commissions under the ever watchful eye of the Treasury Board Secretariat.
Over the years, in an effort to increase efficiency more administrative responsibilities have been decentralized to departments where further decentralization has been extended to regional offices in order to provide managers with the opportunity to make their own management decisions. The notion of “let the manager manage” is at the philosophical heart of Canadian public administration but this principle has always been balanced against the need to ensure consistency, fairness, and control in all management decisions.
Every decade or so, there is public disclosure of the deficiencies in one administrative area or another leading to a round of assessment and reform. The problems with the Phoenix pay system or Shared Services Canada are only the most recent administrative problems that have been brought to public attention.
Those with an appreciation of the history of public administration in Canada will be familiar with the many reform efforts that have modernized the Canadian system. For example, the Gomery Commission in 2005, PS2000, the D’Avignon Report on Personnel Management, the Lambert Commission on Financial Accountability, and the Glassco Commission on Government Organization in 1960 have all highlighted ways in which the federal government could improve significantly its administrative practices. Each of these reports identified weaknesses in the administrative systems that they examined leading to earnest efforts to improve management practices. Ironically, at the end of four decades of administrative reform, the “layering on” of more policies in an increasing number of areas created a problem of its own, as the weight of the new policies began to undermine the government’s ability to act. This led to the observation in 2009 by Wayne Wouters, the former head of the federal public service, that “the web of rules” was suffocating good management, innovation and risk-taking.
Since then, and operating in an environment of enhanced public scrutiny, the federal government has been systematically examining its policy suites to ensure that the current rules and regulations facilitate good management and do not undermine managers’ ability to do their job in an efficient and effective way. The current Treasury Board website reveals the fruits of their labour with a restructured and refined grouping of government administrative policies. As a result of the rationalization of the “web of rules”, the federal government’s policy suite has been reduced to 196 policies and directives grouped into ten areas that cover the full gamut of federal government administrative activities.
Not surprisingly, the largest number of policies (49) are devoted to people management and a similar number for financial management. The third largest suite of policies (31) are for information management and information technology. The remaining areas cover access to information and privacy, communications, official languages, government security, asset management, service delivery and transfer payments.
One of the policy areas that has been most radically realigned by Treasury Board ministers is the one related to “Results, Evaluation, and Internal Audit”. While the Harper government had an uneasy relationship with public servants, it was very committed to creating a more efficient public service. Working on the heels of the Gomery Commission, various Treasury Board presidents moved to make government accountable for its spending by strengthening the audit function in departments. The Harper government also made deputy ministers more accountable for how the funds under their responsibility was dispensed, created an Departmental Audit Committee comprised of outside experts to provide oversight over spending and set up a Centre for Excellence for Evaluation to advise departments on how to best proceed.
Since the Trudeau Liberals were elected in 2015, the emphasis on audit, evaluation and outcomes has accelerated to accommodate the Prime Minister’s desire to explicitly link policy results and future program spending. This has led to the creation of a Cabinet Committee on Agenda, Results and Communication (discussed in last month’s column) chaired by the PM, the issuance of a new policy on results, evaluation, internal audit, the details of which are found on the TBS website.
The Treasury Board Secretariat, under the leadership of Ms. Yaprak Baltacioglu, appears to be pivoting to meet the aspirations of the new government – achieving value for money and providing evidence for Ministerial policy making. The commitment is laudable but many challenges remain, including a lack of departmental expertise in data analysis and evaluation, a culture of risk aversion, unrealistic expectations about what can be accomplished and by when, and some confusion about the various roles being played by the central agencies.
Peeling back the web of rules is a most desirable outcome. However, management change cannot be rushed and none of this is possible until departments have the human resources on hand that can measure program outputs and outcomes. Let’s not undermine this worthwhile project by having unrealistic expectations about what is possible.
David Zussman is a Senior Fellow in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, Adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria, and Research Advisor to the Public Sector Practice of Deloitte. firstname.lastname@example.org