Some free advice to Trudeau on delivering the platform

by Ian Brodie

Ottawa Citizen
May 2, 2016

“Deliverology,” the new term for old work of public administration, is all the rage in Justin Trudeau’s Ottawa. Michael Barber, the former British political aide turned high-price management consultant, is tutoring cabinet ministers and senior officials on how to make sure the public service accomplishes what the government has promised it will do.

Once Barber moves on to his next meal ticket, Trudeau’s team will find that delivering on a political program still depends on three unexciting but essential levers of government: financial management and comptrollership; human resources; and information technology.  Trudeau’s success will depend on his team’s ability to strengthen those levers.

The federal government’s financial management has improved over the past two decades. After the “billion-dollar boondoggle” at the Department of Human Resources and Social Development, the Chrétien and Martin governments spent time and money rebuilding comptrollership in the public service. Grants and contributions, in particular, are run more tightly. The Harper government reaped the benefit of these investments when it spent heavily on stimulus projects and infrastructure during the global financial crisis and received a clean audit from the auditor general. Political decisions on fiscal policy remain fallible, but the public service has probably never been better at tracking and accounting for public spending.

Delivering on a major undertaking like the Harper stimulus package requires too much attention from the skilled public service leadership at the centre of government and in departments. Too much spending is still mired in the “web of rules” the Harper government never undid. After two decades of ever tighter financial management, Trudeau’s team will have to give some thought to loosening some of that management. That will be a challenge.  No public servant wants to run the risk of a bad auditor general report or hostile questions in Parliament. But delivering means getting things done, and that means overcoming the bias to inaction without the need for constant pressure from PCO.

There is more to do on human resources.  Previous governments made long-overdue changes but too many senior officials see human resources work as incidental to their core competence.  The Harper government commissioned a wise appraisal of human resource management in the public service by one of Mr. Harper’s most trusted public servants, Susan Cartwright. Her recommendations remain fresh today.  The work to improve human resources management is low-profile: better recruiting, better ways to deal with poor performers, and more meaningful assignments for younger public service stars. The federal government has the talent to do this already. Trudeau’s team should stop them from chasing deliverology fads and put them to work on Cartwright’s agenda.

Finally, Trudeau’s team will have to tackle the most feared problem facing every bureaucracy: major information technology projects. The risks of failure are high and success brings workforce and workflow disruption.  As a result, major government IT systems run long after they should have been replaced and the Ottawa IT community is full of people who specialize in patching up applications written in ancient programming languages. Strong leaders in the Harper era got the political green light for risky efforts like modernizing the public service payroll system and Shared Services Canada. But these have not fully lived up to the promise of reducing costs. Before the federal government can embrace the new tools of e-government and social media, it has to prove that “government IT” is not a career dead-end by successfully squeezing the full benefits of these systems.

Continuing to improve comptrollership, committing to better human resources management and rehabilitating government IT – they are not the stuff of sexy consulting presentations. But if Trudeau’s team wants to build a public service that can deliver on its ambitious plan for governing, they are three pillars it needs to lean on.

Ian Brodie is an associate professor in the Law and Society Program at the University of Calgary. He was chief of staff to Stephen Harper from 2005 to 2008.

Photo: CBC News

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