Transcript: 2023 Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar Lecture: Building an Adaptable Country
[Video opens with animated CSPS logo.]
[Title page, text on screen: 2023 Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar Lecture: Building an Adaptable Country / Conference with the visiting scholar as part of the Jocelyne Bourgon Initiative: Building an adaptable country.]
[Video shows a concrete block wall, with a sign that reads "Canada School of Public Service" / Canada School of Public Service.]
[Video shows image of Taki Sarantakis standing at a lectern, with all the Provincial flags shown behind. Text on screen: Opening remarks by / Opening remarks by]
[Taki Sarantakis appears full screen, standing at the lectern.]
Taki Sarantakis: Welcome. My name is Taki Sarantakis. I'm the President of the Canada School of Public Service, and it is my great privilege and pleasure today to introduce you to the 2023 Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar Lecture at the Canada School of Public Service. Madame Jocelyne Bourgon was one of my predecessors, but more important than that, Madame Bourgon was also Clerk of Canada's Privy Council, and she was the first female to rise to the head of Canada's public service. We are celebrating her legacy, her many legacies, today through this lecture. The second annual Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar Lecture, and this year's lecture will be given today by Professor Alasdair Roberts from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Professor Roberts is one of the top public policy experts, public administration experts of his era. And even though he teaches in the United States, he is a Canadian who has a longstanding interest in Canada's federal public service. Today, he is talking to us about institutions, but more importantly than that, he is talking to us about adaptive institutions. As we all know, the world around us is changing rapidly. Our institutions are not changing as rapidly. At some point that will cause considerable distress to our system. And Professor Roberts will start a discussion on that for us today. After the lecture, he will be joined by two wonderful employees of the Canada School of Public Service to further explore the themes that he has introduced.
[Video shows image of Caroline Pitfield. Text on screen: Moderator / Moderator]
[Video shows image of Dr. Alasdair Roberts. Text on screen: Presented by / Presented by]
[Video shows image of Jill Sinclair. Text on screen: Special guest / Special guest]
[Caroline Pitfield appears full screen, standing at the lectern.]
Caroline Pitfield: Hello, and welcome everybody. My name is Caroline Pitfield, and I'm an executive faculty member here at the Canada School of Public Service. I will be your moderator this morning. Building on the introduction of our president, Taki Sarantakis, it's my pleasure to introduce you to Dr. Alasdair Roberts, the Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar at the School for this academic year. Dr. Roberts is a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and has written several books on government authority. We've been very lucky to have him in our midst this past year, and many of us have enjoyed the opportunity to hear about his research on adaptability in political systems.
Today, Dr. Roberts is going to share his insights on this with you, including views on the functions that political systems must perform to remain adaptable, and how Canadian institutions and political culture have enhanced adaptability in recent years. Dr. Roberts has also identified potential threats to adaptability in current Canadian governance and has suggestions for us on how these might be addressed.
Following his lecture, Dr. Roberts and I will be joined by Jill Sinclair for further discussion on his research. Jill is a fellow here at the Canada School. She's been a member of Canada's defence, international security, and foreign policy community for most of her professional life. As a senior public servant, she has led many high profile initiatives in the space and contributed to several major defense and policy reviews.
Before we begin, however, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people on which the three of us are gathered here today in Ottawa. It's a beautiful day in this beautiful place, and we are very grateful to be here. Many of you will be joining us from other traditional territories across the country. I would invite you to also take a moment to acknowledge them.
And with that, Dr. Roberts, over to you.
[Dr. Alasdair Roberts appears full screen, standing at the lectern.]
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: Hello. My name is Alasdair Roberts. I'm Professor of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This year I am also the Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar at the Canada School of Public Service. Ms. Bourgon has had a distinguished career in the Public Service of Canada and enjoys an international reputation for her insights on public administration. I am grateful to the School for the opportunity to hold this position which is named in her honour.
To begin, allow me to explain my background and research goals over the past year. I am Canadian and for many years, until 2001, I was a professor of public administration at Queens University where I wrote extensively on the Canadian system of government. Over the past 20 years I have studied the same subjects in the United States and also in Europe and Asia. During my tenure as Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar, my research focused on a specific topic: the ability of government systems to adapt to new challenges. I wanted to determine in general terms what traits government systems need to have in order to respond constructively to long-term challenges. Next, I wanted to determine whether the Canadian system of government in particular had these traits. During my research I interviewed nearly 100 people involved in public affairs in Canada. I have also benefited from the books and articles written by a new generation of talented Canadian scholars. I will continue my research over the next year. So we can think of this speech as a report on work in progress.
Let me explain in more detail what I mean by adaptability in government. An adaptable system is one that is capable of transforming itself to meet new challenges. This transformation involves a shift in ideas, as leaders and citizens develop new understandings about national priorities. It also involves the renovation of institutions so that they are able to advance those priorities. Adaptability is essential if governments want to retain authority and legitimacy in a turbulent and often dangerous world. Already this century, we've seen dramatic shifts in culture; technology; the global economy; geopolitics; and climate, and we know that much more changes [are] coming in decades ahead. Countries that are not nimble will not thrive under these new conditions. National success will require skilled leadership and a flexible state. One that is capable of rebuilding itself to undertake new tasks.
Now, an adaptable country must perform four functions. First, the system must be good at forward thinking. That is the governmental system, as a whole, should be vigilant about potential threats to important national interests. It should not be caught up in the politics of the moment or preoccupied with yesterday's battles. Second, the system must be good at inventing strategies for responding to looming dangers. It isn't enough to be aware of problems – the system must be capable of thinking creatively about how to manage them. Third, the system must be good at legitimation of strategies. By this, I mean the work of building broad political support in favour of one response or another. And finally, the system must be good at execution. That is, translating a strategy into action by restructuring institutions and practices.
Now, countries are not all equally good at performing these four functions. Throughout history, many systems have collapsed entirely because they ignored looming dangers, or because they could not build consensus on the need for change, or because they simply could not put new ideas into practice. Even today, many people are skeptical about the adaptability of liberal democratic federal systems like Canada and the United States. They claim that systems like ours are prone to short term thinking, polarization and gridlock. These critics suggest that technocratic authoritarian systems like China are likely to do much better in the coming decades. One of our challenges in Canada is to prove these critics wrong. We want to show that open and free societies can also be adaptable societies, capable of responding nimbly to new strains and stresses.
Now, what can we say about the adaptability of the Canadian governmental system? I would argue that the Canadian track record on adaptability over the last 40 or 50 years is very good. This may come as a surprise because there are many people who see Canada as a country that resists change. I strongly disagree with this view. In fundamental ways, Canada is a very different country than it was 40 years ago. For example, we've made the country more populous and diverse by adding 15 million people. From the point of view of 1983, that's like adding another Ontario and another Quebec. We have also empowered Canadians by giving more protection for individual rights through the Constitution and ordinary legislation. At the same time, we've radically transformed the role of government in regulating the economy. And we've redefined the meaning of Canadian federalism by shifting the balance of power from Ottawa to the provinces, and beginning the work of acknowledging the rights of Indigenous peoples. And finally, we've adjusted the role of every major institution in Ottawa: the House of Commons; the Senate; the Supreme Court; the Prime Minister's office; and other ministerial offices and, of course, the public service itself. None of these transformations happened by accident. They were all the result of deliberate policy choices. We have engaged in a massive renovation project with the aim of making our country a better and more resilient society.
Not all countries have been equally flexible. For example, I would argue that Canada has made bigger changes to its system of government, than has the United States over the same period of time.
How can we explain the adaptability of the Canadian system of government over the past four decades? I believe that the Canadian system has possessed this feature which has made it particularly effective in performing the functions essential to adaptability. These traits have compensated for the potential weaknesses of federal democratic systems such as Canada or the United States. For example, critics often complain about the shortsightedness and complacency of democratic systems. But Canadian politics in the 20th century has been anything but complacent. We were constantly worried about the future of the country. What's more, this concern had positive effects. It led us to devote time to developing strategies to meet new challenges. Among other things, we have relied heavily on royal commissions and independent advisory councils to set a roadmap for national policy. Our federalist system has also proven to be very advantageous compared to the American alternative. Both the American states and the Canadian provinces have been described as laboratories for experimenting with new ways of governing. For a variety of reasons, however, Canadian provinces are better equipped to act as laboratories; they have more autonomy, better administrative capabilities and greater responsiveness to voters' preferences.
There is another feature that distinguishes the Canadian system at the end of the 20th century. We have demonstrated a talent for negotiation and compromise. Canadian leaders have generally been adept at finding a way forward for the country, even when governments had very different interests. What's more, the Canadian system makes it easier for governments to act once policies have been adopted. Our parliamentary model of government gives our leaders more power to act decisively. The American model, based on the principle of the separation of powers, is much more vulnerable to gridlock. Our way of organizing the public service, which doesn't rely as much on political appointments, also means that Canadian governments are generally more efficient than their American counterpart.
I don't mean to suggest that our country functioned perfectly at the end of the 20th century, but there was a distinctly Canadian approach to governance that improved our ability to anticipate and respond to hazards. Many aspects of this distinct approach can still be seen today. But there are also ways in which our ability to adapt has deteriorated in recent years. In my research this year, I identified four main threats to adaptability.
The first of these threats is a shift toward short-term politics. Political leaders and citizens are more likely to be caught up in the politics of the moment, and less likely to be focused on problems further away on the horizon. One explanation for our drift towards short-termism is simply that decision makers are busier than they used to be. The flow of information to the top has increased, and it is much harder for leaders to keep on top of events. Workplace stress has increased. Officials do not have as much time to reflect on long-term challenges.
The changing character of our politics has also encouraged short-termism. Canadian elections are more competitive than they used to be, and minority governments are more common. As a result, political leaders are more focussed on the next election. Political competition has also encouraged parties to put more emphasis on party platforms. More than before, we expect parties to make detailed promises during campaigns and to deliver on those promises while in office. One side effect of this new form of platform governance is that public servants play a smaller role in policy formulation. Another is that governing has become preoccupied with delivering on promises within one electoral cycle.
There is another consideration that has encouraged short-termism. We have abandoned mechanisms that once provided some counterbalance to short-term thinking. In the 1990s and early two thousands, we shut down many advisory councils that looked at long-term trends, and we abandoned the practice of establishing Royal Commissions to explore national challenges. To put it another way, we dis-invested in forward thinking. The second threat to adaptability has to do with the health of our national conversation about politics and governance. Academics sometimes talk about the need for democracies to have a healthy public sphere. That is a space in which citizens can engage constructively in debate about national priorities.
In a big and complicated country like Canada, maintaining a healthy public sphere is hard work. Today, that work is made even harder by innovations in information and communication technology. These innovations have had two effects. First, they have eroded the boundaries of the Canadian public sphere. For example, foreign corporations now play a much larger role in shaping communications among Canadians. And Canadian citizens are more likely to be caught up in echo chambers or filter bubbles that cross national borders, and in political debates that bear little connection to Canadian realities. One result is the creeping Americanization of political discourse in Canada.
Technological change has also had a second effect on the public sphere in Canada. It has corroded the quality of public conversation. The negative effects of new media are now well-documented. An increasing amount of evidence shows that social media platforms are addictive. They reward impulsivity and provocation, and perform poorly at distinguishing between real news and fake news. Professional journalists find it increasingly hard to make a living in this new environment, and this also contributes to the decay of public conversation. Added to this is widespread concern about Canadians' limited knowledge of their own history; about their system of government; and about challenges likely to confront the country in coming decades. Even when we do talk with one another, we are not well prepared to make good choices about looming challenges.
The third threat to adaptability relates to the health of conversation among our country's leaders. Precisely because Canada is a complex federation, the management of intergovernmental relations is critically important. And historically, Canada has done this very well. However, we can see a deterioration in the quality of conversation among our country's leaders, our first ministers, over the last quarter century. This trend parallels the decay in public conversation I noted a moment ago. Conversations among national leaders seem less civil than they once were. A related difficulty is the failure of all first ministers to meet regularly to discuss national problems. Of course, provincial and territorial leaders meet routinely in the Council of the Federation established in 2003. But this body is not a true Council of the Federation. It does not include the prime minister or representatives of Indigenous peoples. The structure of the council itself might encourage an oppositional mentality among provincial and territorial leaders.
For its part, the federal government has alternated between approaches to federal provincial relations, sometimes trying to disengage with provinces and attempting at other times to deal with provinces bilaterally. Following a practice that the constitutional scholar Peter Russell once called "Make-a-deal Federalism". What is lacking is a forum in which all national leaders meet routinely to discuss items of common concern. This is a routine practice in other federal systems like Australia, India, and the European Union, and also in international bodies like the G7, which will hold its annual Leaders' Summit in Canada in 2025.
The fourth threat to adaptability has to do with the health of the Canadian public service. A country cannot be adaptable if its public services are incapable of taking new ideas and translating them into action efficiently. Of course, Canada's federal public service has an international reputation for integrity and professionalism. Still, there are concerns. Many observers of the public service say that it is developing a risk averse culture, reflected in a reluctance to experiment with new ways of working.
Now, I'm not sure that risk aversion is the right diagnosis of the problem facing the federal public service. I see risk aversion as a symptom of deeper troubles. The underlying problem is the steady buildup of controls relating to the work of the public service over the span of 50 years. Most of these controls have been adopted for good reasons, with the aim of making the public service a better place to work and improving efficiency and accountability. But we have not kept track of the mounting cost of complying with all of these controls. Sometimes the cost of new controls has clearly exceeded any benefit that the controls were intended to produce. At the same time, we have increased the number of independent watchdogs responsible for policing the public service. In a polarized political environment, controversies over perceived rule violations are much more likely, and this is an important cause of risk aversion.
So far, I've been talking about administrative controls on the public service. We've also added a new layer of political control. Sometimes we talk about exempt staff in Ottawa, but I will talk about the political service instead. The political service did not exist 40 years ago. Today, this institution has almost as many people as the Department of Finance. This is another layer of control that encourages risk aversion. Now, in the past, Canada has often established Royal Commissions to conduct periodic reviews of the public service to determine whether controls still make sense. But, as I said earlier, Royal Commissions are no longer popular in Canada. The result is that we have an ongoing accumulation of administrative and political controls, but no way of doing a proper spring cleaning.
I discussed four threats to adaptability: a shift toward short-term politics, a decline in the quality of civic discourse, a similar decline in discussions among our national leaders, and the overlap of administrative and political controls within the public service. Overall, I describe a shift towards a more reactive and impulsive mode of governance, less effective at finding Canadian solutions to national problems, and less effective at translating ideas into action.
It's not all doom and gloom. Canada remains one of the best governed countries in the world. But in my view, we cannot afford to be complacent in an increasingly unstable world. We should think seriously about what we can do to improve our ability to anticipate and respond effectively to long-term national challenges.Let me briefly suggest some areas in which policy reforms might improve adaptability. First, we can start reinvesting in forward thinking. One way to do this might be by adopting a recommendation made by the Lortie Commission on Electoral reform 30 years ago – the establishment of publicly funded party foundations. Party foundations operate in many European countries. They function as think-tanks working with a long-term orientation, and they have proved to be effective devices for improving the quality of party policymaking, and also raising the level of public debate. Although these foundations are associated with parties, they are strictly barred from engaging in campaign related activities.
Second, we should adopt further measures to protect the quality of deliberation within the Canadian public sphere. Of course, the federal government has already taken significant steps, including financial support for journalism, and proposed new legislation to compensate media when news stories are mentioned on search or social media platforms. There are some critics of these initiatives, including some populists who say that these programs constitute an unacceptable extension of government control over the public sphere and a threat to freedom. I believe that some of these criticisms are misplaced. Government has always played a critical role in protecting the public sphere in Canada. Moreover, there is a populist defence of these programs. They really are about promoting freedom. That is, the freedom of Canadians to make informed choices about the future path of their own country. We ought to be more direct in framing the debate over initiatives to support the public sphere in these terms.
There's also an argument for going further with media reform. Digital platforms produce many benefits, but also some toxic side effects. In these cases, platforms ought to be regulated, just as we would deal with other polluters or producers of addictive substances. A third reform: we can take steps to improve the conversation among our national leaders. Canada's Council of the Federation ought to be a true Council of the Federation, including the Prime Minister and representatives of Indigenous peoples. Moreover, meetings of our national leaders should be regular events, based on a commonly agreed agenda. This has been recommended by many experts over decades, starting with the Rowell–Sirois Royal Commission back in 1939. At the same time, though, we should put aside the expectation that every meeting must produce some major new deal.
Finally, I endorsed the proposal recently made by Professor Donald Savoie, that there should be a Royal commission to study the condition of the federal public service. A Royal Commission is really the only way of assuring that this subject gets the time and attention it deserves. The commission ought to look specifically at the web of controls that have been established over decades and consider whether the benefits produced by these controls justify the costs which they impose. And the commission should look at the role of political service, that is the exempt staff, and not just at the career public service.
Over the past 30 minutes, I've made a number of claims. More generally, I have argued that adaptability is a quality of government that we should pay more attention to. I have also explained why the Canadian system of government was adaptable in the past, and why we need to
be concerned about adaptability in the future. Of course, much of what I said is debatable. You might think I overstated the threats to adaptability or overlooked other threats that are more important. Although we may disagree on the details, I hope we can agree on the essential idea. Our country is an extraordinary experiment in democratic governance. We want this country to prosper for a very long time. To do so, our system has to integrate the quality of adaptability. It must be designed to anticipate dangers and find effective solutions to these dangers. And we, as researchers and professionals in public administration, should be constantly asking ourselves whether our system of government is as adaptable as it could be.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today. Thanks again to the Canada School of Public Service for honouring me as this year's Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar.
[Video shows an image of Dr. Alasdair Roberts, Caroline Pitfield, and Jill Sinclair seated together on a stage. All the Provincial flags can be seen in the background. Text on screen: Panel Discussion / Round table.]
[Dr. Alasdair Roberts, Caroline Pitfield, and Jill Sinclair appear full screen, and are seated together on the stage. The camera changes angles to highlight each guest as they speak.]
Caroline Pitfield: Alasdair, thank you so much for sharing those insights with you. I think I speak for both Jill and I when I say it's a real privilege to be with you here today, and to be able to ask questions on behalf of the audience.
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: Thank you. It's great to be here.
Caroline Pitfield: So, Jill and I first crossed paths when she was the Assistant Deputy Minister at DND, and I was sort of an equivalent branch at Public Safety. She and I were working on one of many national security policy updates, and I was impressed by her keen strategic insight, but also her ability to frame the discussion. So I'm going to give the first question to her.
Jill Sinclair: Well, thanks Caroline. Alasdair, I have to thank you for a simply terrific lecture. I think you've given us a lot to think about. So, you talked about forward thinking. You talked about the need for the governmental system as a whole to be vigilant about threats to important national interests. I have to say, that gave me pause to reflect, because there's a massive debate in Canada as to whether we even have a sense of national interests. So could you elaborate just a bit on that? I mean, what are the national interests? How do we discern them? And if we don't have them, does that prevent us from being agile and able to adapt?
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: I think I would break it down in a couple of ways. Every country, including Canada, in general terms, you can sort of identify what the major national interests are. There are: external security; internal cohesion; internal order; prosperity; the advancement of some conception of social justice. That's in the abstract. What I'm thinking about is basically the capacity of the system, as a whole, to anticipate what's coming down the road.
I outlined four elements of what an adaptable system has to have, and the first is basically vigilance. The capacity to see the threats or challenges coming down the road, [and] think about how they're going to affect those core national interests. That's the first thing, basically vigilance. And then the second bit is basically strategy making: thinking about how we, as a collectivity, are going to respond to those pressures that are coming down the road.
Jill Sinclair: Hmm.
Caroline Pitfield: I think that's really helpful, the vigilance and the strategy. I think maybe we're okay on vigilance strategies, [where] you're going with this?
Jill Sinclair: Yes.
Caroline Pitfield: One of the things I thought about when I was listening to your lecture is that maybe we're also kept on track by some external forces. So, crises like Covid really forced us to do certain things but also the role of the courts in the charter. I think you mentioned that briefly, but I was curious about those outside forces and pushing us ahead or keeping us on track.
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: I think, as I look at the evolution of the Canadian system over say 40 years, I think one of the big themes that I tried to get at in the talk, is that the structure of the system has changed. And one of the ways it has changed is that we have diffused power within the system. And I'll get to the courts in a second, but we have recalibrated the balance of authority between Ottawa and the provinces and territories, so that's about diffusion of power. We've empowered individuals so that that sphere of individual autonomy is bigger than it used to be. And, of course, it's protected by the judiciary more actively than it used to be. We've devolved power from governments to the marketplace, we've shifted the balance there. And we are engaged in the project of devolving authority to Indigenous communities. And that's also protected by the role of the court. And the court now plays an important role in pushing us to change in other ways.
But the one big point I think I would get at is that we now have a system that is much bigger. I mean, there's more people in it for one thing, but it's also got [the] power more diffused. And then, the question is how do we, as a collectivity, how does the system as a whole reach some degree of agreement on how we move forward? You know, in a way, it's a question of something like planning in a highly disaggregated system. That's the sort of thing I'm thinking about.
Caroline Pitfield: Fair enough. Jill, do you want to respond to that?
Jill Sinclair: Well, I'd like to just follow up because you didn't quite get back to the courts, so maybe we can just push you a little bit more on that, Alasdair, because the courts, with the charter, the courts have played a very, very important role in trying to read where society is going, not tread on the area of responsibility of government, but to be able to make sure that society is prepared for those changes. In fact, they're a factor in our adaptability, I think. I've never really thought of it that way, but your response makes me think, well, yes, the courts play that really important role. What do you think of that?
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: Well, that's right. I mean, the courts do play an important role in flagging issues that we need to attend to. And the courts also, in Canada, operate with a certain sensibility, a certain understanding about what the sort of fragilities or vulnerabilities of the system as a whole are. And I think, in key cases, an awareness that part of the challenge is getting the players to work together. There's a difference, I think, in temperament or sensibility that between, let's say, the Canadian Supreme Court and the American Supreme Court on this, coloured, I think, by a sense of the fragility or the delicacy of the system as a whole.
But I think the point I would make is that in a highly disaggregated system, everybody's got to be looking forward. Not just the courts, but also government agencies, political parties, and civil society. We've all got to be collectively looking down the road and trying to think collectively about how we're going to address those challenges. And the two things I think I would flag on my shortlist of concerns is that we are not engaged in forward thinking as much as we ought to be. Everyone is doing a bit of it, but in politics the political horizon has shrunk. We're not as vigilant as perhaps we used to be. We're not looking down the road as far as we used to be. And then the other question is sort of thinking creatively about where this country should be 30 years from now, rather than let's say three years from now.
Caroline Pitfield: One of the things I think about when you talk about sort of diffused power in the country is the FPT dynamic or the federal-provincial-territorial dynamic, which is the bane of many federal policies' existence. I think you've cast that as a positive thing, as an innovative thing, a thing that moves us forward in a positive way. I think it could be equally seen as something that might frustrate harmony and adaptability. So, I wondered if you want to talk about that a little bit more?
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: So, I'm going to wander off for a second.
Caroline Pitfield: Go for it.
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: I flagged something at the start of the talk, and I think I would just sort of restate it. You know, this century is going to be sort of a test of two very different styles of government. And one style is the sort of technocratic authoritarian model of China, which basically says that the way you preserve an adaptability in society, the way you get through rough waters, is by having a system that is highly centralized and authoritarian and guided by experts, and that's the way you steer the ship. And we are one of those countries that has said, no, we're going to go a different path. We're actually going to decentralize power quite substantially to the marketplace; to individuals; to provincial and territorial governments. And we can tell a story about why we actually think that's a better path to adaptability.
One argument would be that it allows everybody more room to experiment with different ways of coping with looming challenges. And the classic argument, as I said in the talk, is that, well, provinces, or states in the US, can be sort of laboratories of democracy. That's the argument. Interesting question about whether that's actually true in practice. And, as I said in the talk, I think it's a stronger case in Canada than it would be in the States. But every regime design involves a calibration of benefits and risks. And in the Canadian system, one of the arguments would be, everyone gets more room to experiment and innovate. The vulnerability is, how do you hold everything together? We have one of the most loosely jointed polities in the world. And there's good reasons we set it up that way.
One argument, it's not predicated entirely on arguments about adaptability, it's also a sort of ethical argument about the right way to live. But we've set it up a certain way, and then the question is, what's the connective tissue? And, in my view, the connective tissue is the way we do collaboration or coordination, the informal practices that get us working together. And it's also about deliberation, how we talk with one another, and also about political culture, that sort of shared understanding about what we're trying to do. That's what holds all the pieces together. And I think a big concern that I have is that the connective tissue – we've made this system more loosely jointed. Even looser than it was, but we're not attending as much as we ought to, to the connective tissue.
Caroline Pitfield: Absolutely.
Jill Sinclair: Yes. You've said so much there, Alasdair, that I want to kind of pounce on. So, this connective tissue, and coherence, and integration, and this need to both be national and macro to deal with existential threats, which are looming, as well as to be diffuse and decentralized to empower people, and let voices be heard and all of the things you've talked about. So, then there's social media. And there's the realities of the 21st century. And there's questions about how does government act in that space? How does government control or manage, live in that space? And how can government's voice be heard in this cacophony of diffuse actors, many of whom are inimical to the sorts of things that you've laid out as our national interests?
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: I think there's probably two points there. One, I think, has to do with the health of what I call the public sphere. You know, that space in which we all talk, as Canadians, to one another about what it is we're trying to accomplish here. And one argument, Canadians have always been concerned about creating and protecting that space. And one of our challenges today is that the integrity of the public sphere is really being assaulted in many different ways. Technology has changed the way it works. As I said, it's eroded the boundaries so that it's no longer clear that Canadians are always talking to Canadians. It has destabilized the agenda in the sphere so that we're not entirely sure what we should be talking about when we talk to one another. There's evidence [that] it's corroding the civility of discourse.
And another challenge is that there's some evidence that the level of knowledge or understanding that's necessary to participate actively in the public sphere isn't what it was, that we don't know enough about our history; about our system of government; about the challenges coming forward. And so, one point I think I would make is that we need to be more deliberate in thinking about how we protect the public sphere. How you basically reconstruct it and preserve it so that it's a conversation led by Canadians; that the agenda is relatively stable; and it addresses Canadian priorities; that we are engaged in civil discourse; and that Canadians have the knowledge they need about their history, about the system, about future challenges to participate directly.
And so for me, one important thing is I'll just sort of say, let's name the danger. There is a problem here with the integrity of the public sphere. And, at the moment, I think we're sort of fighting various little brush fires around the edges, not recognizing that they're all part of that central question. Which goes really to a question of sovereignty. How do we protect our capacity as a democracy to chart our own course? So, this is a long-winded answer, but that's thing one. Thing two is what does government do here? Government can't control the conversation in that space. And it shouldn't try to. But what it can try to do is, and quite legitimately try to do, is stabilize and shape the agenda. And it can do that by – because this is a busier world, it's a more frenetic world, ordinary Canadians have many more distractions than they used to. It's a question of how do we maintain focus? And we do that by heavy investment in conversation. One of the great things about Royal Commissions – which we don't really do anymore, kind of a big think about the future – is that it was sort of a focussing exercise. It made people focus on a certain set of questions. It concentrated attention and resources to facilitate a conversation on this sort of thing. That's one thing you could do.
I mentioned Party Foundations as another way of investing in ideas, improving the capacity of political parties to have a coherent conversation about what the future would look like. We used to do independent advisory councils. They've sort of gone out of fashion. My impression is that the tendency in Ottawa has been to say that when we do policy making, we don't want to do [a] Royal Commission. It'll take forever. We need results next week. And actually I think that's the wrong way to go, because the difficulty is that if you want to focus public attention in a crowded, busy world, you need to up your investment and invest more heavily in saying, this is what we need to talk about. And these sort of small scale, quick turnaround consultative exercises don't focus attention. They don't attract attention. They don't do the job in a busy world.
Jill Sinclair: Hmm. Caroline, can I have a follow up?
Caroline Pitfield: Yes, I was going to say, you need follow up? You go for it.
Jill Sinclair: Alasdair, so on the two things that you've talked about, the first one, I'm going to be a little bit mean here because, and you used the term name the danger, and you talked about looking at what are Canadian priorities? We sit next to the United States of America, which you know because that's where your university is, [and] protecting that unseen boundary in the news sphere, in the social media sphere, in the narrative sphere, [is] almost, I would say, impossible. And if you speak to Canadians, as you have done in the course of your research, the blurring of the line between what's the American narrative and experience and the Canadian, it's a little bit worrying that we don't have that definitional space.
So, I'd like to ask you, how do you do that, living next to the United States, if you're not Quebec? If you're not Quebec, you don't have a bit of a linguistic framework around it. And then your second one about investing in the conversation, and a focussed conversation, [I] could not agree more, but how do you maintain the intention of publics that flipped?
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: You know, I think I'm going to go back to the basic point that there is a basic question here, and I'm not quite sure how to frame it. I would call it a question of adaptability because it's a question of the capacity of the political community we call Canada to look down the road, and see what the dangers are, and think collectively about how we're going to address those. And again, I don't think that we're looking down the road enough. And so, I could say it's a question of adaptability. I could say it's a question of political sovereignty. Do we have the capacity to talk with one another and chart our own course? I could say it's a question about the integrity of democratic processes. I'm not sure what vocabulary to use. But, however we frame it, it's about our capacity as Canadian citizens to talk to one another and make our own collective choices about our future, and that capacity is under threat for one reason or another. We need to think deliberately about how we preserve and promote that capacity in the years ahead, because that's, I think, fundamental to the entire exercise.
And I mentioned earlier on, when we talk about disinformation campaigns, we're sort of getting at that. When we talk about the problem of regulating the internet, we're sort of getting at that. When we talk about the problem of the quality of journalism and support for journalism, we're sort of getting at that. We're having these little – but they're not integrated – and that's why I'm basically saying very often when we talk about these things, we sort of put it under the header of arts and culture. The principal department responsible for doing a lot of this is preoccupied [with] Canadian heritage. It's preoccupied with arts and culture. When you look at the major objectives in the department, in their departmental results framework, you won't see anything about the preservation of democracy in there, or anything like it.
So, this is why I say the first thing we need to do is say, okay, this is actually what we need to be focussed on. After the terror attacks of September 11th, we recognized a new threat and we reorganised to address that threat, so Public Safety Canada was created, I think, in 2003.
So, we identify the danger and we say, okay we need to reorganise our governmental capacities to focus on that problem. I think we probably need to do something similar today.
Caroline Pitfield: Hmm. As you were talking about the dialogue between the Canadian public and the government, one of the things I kept thinking about is the importance of trust in that dialogue, or authenticity, which made me think about this government's strong commitment to things like openness and transparency and accountability. You mentioned platforms being public. The other thing that became public are these mandate letters. I am curious about your thoughts on how those two concepts work together. Whether openness, transparency, accountability frustrates adaptability, or frustrates that dialogue, or supports that dialogue?
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: It all depends. And a few years ago I spent a lot of time working on Access to Information, when I was a big proponent of transparency with regard to the reform of the Access to Information Act. And I did a lot of work on that internationally. So I'm, in general, an advocate of more transparency in government, but transparency is a process value. It doesn't get directly to the point I'm concerned about. A government can be completely transparent, but if it's not attending forward to the risks, and trying to promote a conversation about how we're going to attend to the immense challenges we're going to confront in coming decades, transparency is sort of a side point. Transparency doesn't get you very far.
On the point about transparency in mandate letters, one of the things that does strike me is, there's been this change in the character of Canadian politics over the span of about 25 or 30 years. And we may be so used to it now that we don't recognize that it's actually a qualitative change in the character of Canadian politics. But this notion that a party has to have a detailed, fully costed platform, and it has to have that before it gets elected.
And then there's a reconfiguration of understanding about what it means to govern. You come in with your platform and then it's about deliverology. You execute the platform and you publish your mandate letter because that's the list of deliverables. It's like a sort of contract. It's like you're a contractor with the Canadian public: this is what we promise to do; this is what we will do. That style of government, which I should make clear is not peculiar to any one political party, is potentially problematic in a couple of different ways.
One observation I would make is that it front loads the process of policy making, because the policy commitments get made before the party comes into office. And our political parties don't have the policy capacity necessary to generate platforms competently. And that's one of the reasons why I think party political foundations would be a good idea.
The second point I would make is that there's a tendency, because we're relying on this mode of what I call platform governance, to emphasize commitments that can be transformed into deliverables in one electoral cycle. So, it induces short-termism, which is problematic.
The third problem is the lack of realism that's baked into this model of platform governance. And one way to think about that would be, go look at the platforms from the 2021 election, and ask whether any of the platforms actually attended to the issues we ended up facing in 2022. Did any of the platforms talk about inflation, or war in Ukraine, or the Freedom Convoy? Did any of the platforms – I want to be careful about my years here – from 2019 attend to the pandemic? I could roll back and ask, did any of the platforms from an earlier election anticipate the global financial crisis? Did any of the platforms from 2000 anticipate the terror attacks of 2001?
So, there's a certain lack of realism built into the platform model. Most of the big issues that we've been preoccupied with this century were never anticipated in political platforms.
Caroline Pitfield: Yes. Front loaded policy is interesting because, of course, the government, for a long time, did forward thinking for forward planning, looking to inform policy when parties did come in. But it doesn't happen as much anymore.
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: If I could just pick up on that. You know, I think part of the premise is that, if you're a political party, the premise is we have to operate this way because this is how we get consent from voters. That's what voters are looking for. I think there's reason to question that rationale. There was, I believe, a proof strategies poll that came out in February that basically said, voters are becoming increasingly critical of political parties because they are doing – this is not the language in the poll – this targeted slice and dice politicking. You know, constructing platforms that are aimed at particular constituencies. And voters get the game, they understand the game and they're dissatisfied by it. And they're basically saying, look, these political parties, they're not talking about big ideas. They're basically just trying to roll up enough votes to get in a majority. That's thing one.
There was a Leger poll that was done at the end of 2022, and it was a poll of young, well I call them young Canadians between 15 and 40. And what that poll showed was intense frustration. 70% of respondents in that poll said that they anticipated that there would be major challenges, something on the scale of war, facing the country over the next foreseeable future. Major challenges like that. A large majority of respondents said that they didn't think that governments were addressing the long-term challenges. That they felt betrayed by their governments because they're attempting to make plans for 20 or 30 years down the road, but their governments aren't. So, I think there's a space for a party to step back from trying to do this sort of, I don't know, intensely retail politics and saying, okay, let's have a conversation about where the country needs to be going 30 years from now.
Caroline Pitfield: Absolutely. Jill, do you want to jump in?
Jill Sinclair: Yes. I mean, again, it's a really hopeful landscape that you paint, that we could actually move our politics to less retail and more forward thinking. It makes me wonder about who's going to be the first political party to say, no, those mandate letters that you've become accustomed to? Saying, no, they're going to be secret now, we're not going to share them anymore. And yes, just trust us and vote for us.
But my question really, Alasdair, is about, where does a public service that is all about public policy, and is about thinking not just 30 [years] but well beyond that – I worked in Defence, our time frame begins at 50 years – where does public service find itself in this space? And how can it, if we are in this reality of retail politics or if we're in a transition to something better, how does the public service position itself to support the sort of thinking that needs to go on?
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: Before I go immediately to your question, [I'll] just make another point because there may be some folks listening who say, well, wait a minute, there are actually some areas in which we do forward thinking: Defence. We do think about forward thinking. Climate change. We're sort of looking down the road. Maybe Immigration, we're thinking about the long-term consequences, although I think I might push on that. But one of the things that I'm getting at, when you think about national strategy, you can't think in silos, because all of these problems are interconnected with one another. What I'm thinking about is the broad question of how all of these things fit together, and how we try to shape the country in the future.
And, practically speaking, one way to think about it might be to say, let's suppose you're a Canadian who's not a policy wonk, but you want to vote intelligently. You want to participate in the debate about the future of your country. Where would you go today to find a coherent, credible, fact-based story about where this country's going 30 years from now, and what four or five major things we're going to have to worry about, and how we're going to address them in total? What's the national strategy? And that, I think, is the sort of thing we need to be doing more deliberately.
I think with regard to the public service, I'd make two points. Governments are one of the actors that should be engaged in this sort of big think exercise. You could also take what I'm saying and apply it in a more reduced form to every department and agency. I've basically said there are four things that you need to be worried about. You need to be vigilant. You actually need to be aware, you need to be looking down the road. You need to be thinking creatively about strategy. You need to be engaged in the process of legitimation. That is building political support – or I suppose, what do we call it – licence for what you want to do, and then the capacity to execute.
Well, any agency or department could basically ask, are we doing those four things ourselves? Are we getting trapped by the pressures of the moment, so that we're not thinking 30 years down the road? Are we thinking sufficiently creatively about what our role might be? Are we engaging with our stakeholders, so that they're on board? You know, it's pointless for government to be forward thinking if all of your stakeholders aren't. Everyone has to be roughly on the same page. And then basically asking, is the organisation itself sufficiently nimble or flexible? And what can we do, within the parameters available to us, to improve our adroitness in responding to challenges?
Jill Sinclair: Caroline, can I have a follow up on that?
Caroline Pitfield: Yes, sure. I've got one too, go ahead.
Jill Sinclair: So, when you talked about some of the remedies, you talked about how we need to build the space for public conversations; Royal Commissions; strengthening the policy ability of political parties. One thing you haven't talked about, which I've often wondered about, it's the way in which the US system, which has a number of complexities, but it has this think tank community where folks roll in and out. Whilst a party is out of power, they're sitting in a think tank doing the deep policy thinking, one hopes, and also providing critical commentary. We don't tend to have that sort of community in Canada. When you looked at the instruments that we need going forward for adaptability, for preparedness, for readiness, did this occur to you? Or did you think about and thought, oh no, that doesn't fit Canadian political culture. I'm interested that it's not on your list.
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: Well, one difficulty is that we don't have a think tank community like the American think tank community. And I did, in the course of my research, look at the resources available to major American think tanks and compare them to the Canadian realities. And I think Brookings Institution, for example, which is a major think tank in Washington, if you look at their revenues, it swamps the revenues of the 10 or 15 major Canadian think tanks. That may even be generous to the Canadian think tanks. One of the premises in the 1990s was that we are going to disinvest, the government is going to disinvest in forward thinking. We're going to dismantle independent advisory councils like the Economic Council of Canada. We're going to stop doing Royal Commissions like the MacDonald Royal Commission on Canada's future. And the premise was that the think tank community would pick up the slack, and the think tank community hasn't picked up the slack. It just lacks the capacity to do it.
And this is what I mean by disinvestment in forward thinking. We have to think creatively about how we're going to address that problem. I've suggested a couple of different things. I think there's a case to be made in certain circumstances for forward-looking Royal Commissions. I also like the idea of party political foundations on the European model. And now I've forgotten what the rest of my point was going to be. But one difficulty is that we just don't have the think tanks. Remind me what your question was.
Jill Sinclair: It was, why didn't you think of, let the government invest in think tanks, or let civil society be strengthened to feed that conversation much in the way the US does? And I take your point that the funding isn't there at the moment. But we did do it in the past, but we did disassemble it. And why you didn't think that this is something we needed to invest in.
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: Well, I would actually say this is something we need to invest in.
Jill Sinclair: Okay, good.
Caroline Pitfield: Great.
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: And you know, when the independent advisory bodies were being dismantled in the nineties, because we were in a period of restraint at that time, there were many people who said, look, we're blinding ourselves. We're undermining our capacity to see the threats coming down the road and respond creatively to them. So, I did a little calculation. The MacDonald Royal Commission, in the 1980s I think, cost about $20 million. That in current dollars would be something like 60 or 70 million. The last time Canada hosted a G7 Summit the estimated cost was something like $600 million. The time before that, when we hosted the G7 Summit, it was about $300 million.
So, my argument would be that the return on investment with something like a MacDonald Royal Commission, or somebody like that, is much, much higher. And if we're thinking about charting a course for the country, as a whole, if we did party political foundations on the level that the Germans do it, accounting for population differences, the annual cost, I think my calculations, if I recall them correctly, would again be something like $60 million a year. Which, again, is, if you average it out, less than we spend on G7 Summits.
Caroline Pitfield: Yes. I mean on the margins, it occurs to me, because you are here with us as an academic, there's also the relationships with the academic community. I think that's something that we haven't fully developed in terms of getting that input on our strategic planning, so it's something to think about as well.
But I wanted to go back to a previous comment, or your previous answer. You talked about capacity to execute and I feel like our conversation today has been a lot about, I think you even used this expression, "the big think". I'm interested in "the big do". <Laugh>.
I think that one of the things that frustrates the legitimacy of the government, or people may say we're not adaptable, because we can't implement. And I wondered in the course of your time researching this past year, whether you came across that? Whether you have challenges in public service in terms of actually doing things, executing? Whether there are changes we need to make at that operational, how-we-work level to make ourselves more adaptable?
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: So, I did attend to that, and I spoke with a lot of people over the course of the year, and this is a sort of constant refrain. And usually, the two phrases that come up repeatedly are risk averse culture and web of controls, or web of rules. And, as I said in my talk, I tend to think of risk averse culture as sort of more of a symptom than a problem. And my inclination would be to say that one of the things that's going on here is this sort of accumulation of administrative controls and political controls on the public service over the course of 40 or 50 years.
And sometimes, as I said, every time a control is imposed, there's sort of good intentions. The benefit cost analysis isn't always done as – let's be charitable and say – it isn't always done as elegantly as it might have been. Sometimes we impose controls not really thinking about whether the costs associated with compliance are actually going to outweigh the benefits quite substantially. That's happened.
The other thing is that we layer on control after control without looking at the cumulative effect on the public service. And I would say parenthetically, one of the interesting innovations in Canadian government over the last 40 years has been this use of independent officers to monitor one particular interest or another. We started off with a Human Rights Commissioner; a Privacy Commissioner; an Access Commissioner; and now we've got a whole battery of commissioners.
There are scholars who actually say that, outside the United States, who have talked about the advent of a new system of democracy is sort of what's sometimes called watchdog democracy, or monetary democracy, where you have all of these officers who are responsible for monitoring X or Y. I haven't done a deep comparative analysis, but my hunch is that we're sort of in the vanguard of pursuing that model. And it does have a certain dynamic, especially in a polarized political environment where different actors take their cues off what these various independent officers say. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that approach to democratic governance, but I think there is. And then of course we've also got, as I mentioned, the layering of this system of political control, which is another substantial institutional innovation over the last 40 years. We didn't have a political service on top of our public service 40 years ago, and we've added one in.
So, we've got two things, at least two things going. We've got increased controls; we've got this new system of monetary democracy; we've got this new institution, which I'll call the political service. We've added all this stuff. I do think it is time to do a "stop and think" and say, okay, let's look at how the public service is doing in this new world. We used to do, I'm going to sound like a real hawk on Royal Commissions <Laugh>, but
Caroline Pitfield: You like them. <Laugh>.
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: I like them. Yes. And we used to do these sort of periodically, they were useful for spring cleaning. You sort of stop and say, okay, how are things going? The Glasgow Commission is the classic example of that, but we haven't done a substantial Royal Commission on the public service in almost half a century. So, it's not out of turn to say, well, maybe we ought to do something like that.
There are some folks who have said, well, who have acknowledged that there are problems, but who have said we're ambivalent about a Royal Commission. We want to do something internally because it's going to be quicker turnaround, more practicable. The difficulty with trying to do it internally is that some of these questions are going to attend to questions about the statutory regime, for example, that governs the public service. And to do a review thoroughly and have legitimacy, I think you have to have some sort of independence to it.
I should say, parenthetically too, that among other things, these sort of standalone inquiries were also great ways of engaging the academic community on different issues pertaining, again, their focussing mechanisms. You provide a way of focussing academic attention on questions of national importance.
Caroline Pitfield: It's an interesting alternative to all the programs, strategic, comprehensive cost cutting reviews that we have done over the last couple of years, because we have done those.
We're getting to the end of our time. I think we have about five minutes left. Jill, I was going to offer you an opportunity to say one last thing and, Alasdair, you too. I didn't want to cut it off without [that].
Jill Sinclair: Well, I want to say thanks, Alasdair. I mean obviously this is a conversation that could continue and I hope that everybody that's listening goes off and has a chat, and thinks about all the issues, especially those four categories and what you can do. This idea of integrating our effort; the need to be aware; the need to be prepared; the need to be agile; this is something everybody can do in their daily work. It's nice to get it top down, but you can start at bottom up and I want to thank you for giving us so much, not just food for thought, but also food for action. So thanks, and thanks, Caroline, for great great moderation.
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure talking with you and I'm grateful to everybody who's been watching us for taking the time to join in the conversation virtually, as well.
Caroline Pitfield: I'm going to join in the chorus of thanks here and thanks [to] both of you, for the great conversation, and Alasdair, I think this brings your year at the School almost to a close. So, on behalf of the School, it's been great having you as our Scholar, but I hope you'll still be a friend of the School, and help us on these and other issues as your research moves forward.
Dr. Alasdair Roberts: Absolutely. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to come back to Ottawa and re-engage, and look forward to continuing to engage in the future.
Caroline Pitfield: Great. Thank you. Thanks. And so thank you, as well, to our audience today. I'm really glad you were with us. I hope you enjoyed our session.
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Caroline Pitfield: The School has more amazing events to offer and I would encourage you to visit our website and check those out. Register for future learning opportunities that appeal to you.
Once again, thank you to the two of you and thank you to our audience and have a wonderful day. Thank you.
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