Transcript: Government of the Future Series: How Big Ideas Shape Public Sector Innovation
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[The screen fades to Neil Bouwer in a video chat panel.]
Neil Bouwer: Good afternoon! Bon après-midi! Welcome to this event hosted by the Canada School of Public Service. We are delighted to have you this afternoon. My name is Neil Bouwer, I'm a visiting professor of practice at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and it's really my pleasure to be with you today.
Before we get started, I have a few administrative notes I just want to cover, the most important of which is that I am in the Ottawa-Gatineau area. That puts me on the land of the Algonquin Anishinaabe People, so it's traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin and Anishinaabe Nations. And we all are probably watching from different parts of the country, so we'll be on different traditional Indigenous territories. So, I do encourage you to reflect on that, wherever you are in the country.
We have a great discussion planned for you today. Just to make sure that you have the best viewing experience, I just want to mention a few things. First of all, the event will be translated. Mais donc nous avons des services de traduction aujourd'hui en français, donc vous pouvez accéder à cet service comme vous vouliez, and you can just look for the language button on your screen. There's also access to CART services, that's Communication Access Realtime Translation, through the Webcast platform. So, please refer to the reminder e-mail sent to you by the Canada School to access those features. As you're watching this, you might want to disconnect from any VPN you have, and if you have any kind of difficulties, you might want to connect from a personal device and re-launch the webcast from the link that was sent to you. And throughout the entire event, you can use that little button with the "Raise Hand" feature. It won't put your identity, it is anonymous, so feel free to use that and ask a question. I'll get those questions and I will draw from those in the discussion and try to weave it in as best as I can. We are going to have time to have a robust Q&A session.
So, today's event, we have a special guest that's going to be joining us. His name is Alasdair Roberts, he's a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts. He is also the Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Fellow at the Canada School of Public Service, and he is also a visiting professor at the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University. He has previously taught at Queen's, he's a Canadian by birth, and we're really lucky to have Al with us today. He has written extensively on public policy, and actually, if you want to visit his website, he's got a great website where he puts all of his presentations and articles, I absolutely love it.
[Alasdair Roberts appears in a separate video chat panel.]
He's got a new book out, and I hope he won't take offense to the fact I haven't read his latest book but I have read two of his other titles, one of which is Strategies for Governing, and the other one - get this - is, Can Government Do Anything Right? And those are great reads, very provocative, and really situate governing in the larger context of geopolitics and state capacity, and sort of innovation writ large in the movements of history.
So, for all us, as public servants, and we're all interested in making the country better, we also want to be on the right side of history. And so, if we're thinking about how we innovate and how we contribute in our day-to-day, it's important for us to look at these larger movements of history, and these larger paradigms that are operating all around us and how those are shifting. So, really happy today to have Al Roberts with us. Al, thank you very much for joining us, and what I'll do is turn it over to you and let you make your introduction and take us through a little bit of a presentation, and then I may jump in with a question or I'll catch you at the end, and then we'll go to audience questions as normal. So, over to you, Al.
Alasdair Roberts: Thanks, Neil.
So, my general theme of my work is rolling with shocks and unexpected events, and just as we went live, the internet connection went wobbly and so we just switched computers. So, the first question is, is my audio okay? Can you hear me alright?
Neil Bouwer: You sound great.
Alasdair Roberts: Okay, perfect. Now, bear with me if we do have to do a little adjustment on the fly.
Bon après-midi et merci pour l'occasion qui m'est donnée de discuter de ce sujet avec vous. Je vais m'exprimer en anglais mais il y aura de la traduction simultanée. Thank you so much to the Canada School of Public Service for the opportunity to visit Ottawa and the school this year as the Jocelyne Bourgon Visiting Scholar.
Bear with me for just a second, we're just getting our new computer all plugged in. Good, thank you.
And thank you to everyone for joining me on a Friday afternoon for this conversation. So, what I'm going to do is tell you a bit about the work I've done and the work I'm interested in this year.
So, if I could impose on Catherine to move us to the next slide, I'll tell you a bit about the sort of things that I'm interested in.
[A slide is shown with the title "How Big Ideas Shape Public Sector Innovation".]
[A slide is shown with the text:
"They are shared understanding about national priorities and how policies and institutions should be designed to achieve those priorities"
"Currently, in Canada, the paradigm is a blend of ideas:
- Individual rights
- Strong federalism
- Westminster democracy
- Globalized market capitalism
- Social inclusion
- Indigenous governance"
"Changes in Canadian paradigms (1983-2023):
- Expansion of Charter rights
- Changes to the Westminster model
- Shift in relations between federal and provincial governments
- Free trade, privatization and deregulation
- Broadening social inclusion
- Reconciliation and Indigenous governance"
"Every paradigm is distinctive and changeable"
"Big changes in ideas and institutions are evidence of adaptability".]
I've written a fair number of books over the last few years and the sort of evolving themes of the books that I write is looking at the evolution of what I will call governing paradigms. And I'll give you a sort of quick sense of what I mean by that. The proposition is that in any country, there is, at any moment in time, a sort of shared understanding about what national priorities are and how national institutions, governing institutions, ought to be structured so that those priorities can be adequately addressed. In a sense, the sort of big understanding about what the function or role of government is and how government ought to be organized.
And a critical point is that every country's governing paradigm is different. Sometimes I refer to these as strategies for governing or governing strategies. I've written a book called Strategies for Governing, so I may slip in and change language as we're going along, but let's call it the governing paradigm.
So, if I were trying to identify the governing paradigm in the Canadian context, it's not straightforward. It's a blend of ideas that reflect our own national concerns, the circumstances confronting the country, and our understandings about how to address them. But certainly, in that sort of governing paradigm, they include understandings about individual rights, the relationship of people to their governments, understandings about the allocation of responsibilities between federal and other levels of government, understandings about how we're going to organize democratic institutions, our model of Westminster or parliamentary democracy, understandings about the relationship of government to the economy, evolving ideas about social inclusion and who counts as a citizen and what citizenship means, and course in the Canadian case, also evolving ideas about Indigenous governance. And when you put all that blend together, there is, I think, a fairly widely shared understanding about the way that the country is going to be governed.
And an interesting question might be, well, if I work in a government agency, why should I worry about governing paradigms? One of the arguments I've made in my book, Strategies for Governing, is that all of us should be interested in the question of what governing paradigms are because they essentially set the boundaries of feasible action for policymakers and managers inside the system of government. Macro-level ideas about the role of government limit the range of middle-level and micro-level innovations. And the other thing I might say too is that governing paradigms aren't static. They evolve over time. So, we can actually think about a form of innovation that happens at a very high level and that is the innovation in our understandings about the overall governing paradigm. And parenthetically, public servants play an important role in shifting that paradigm over time. And if I were to look at the Canadian case on every one of the dimensions I mentioned earlier on, there had been profound changes in our understanding about how the country should be governed over the last, say, 40 years. The average Canadian is 42 years-old, so I'll take that as sort of a benchmark. There have been substantial changes in our understanding about how the country should be governed.
An important premise of my work is that this sort of transformation in governing paradigms, the big understandings about what the role of government should be, this sort of transformation is essential. Political systems have to have the capacity to reinvent themselves in response to new challenges. They have to have the capacity to change ideas and also change institutions to conform to those ideas. Countries that can't reinvent themselves, that can't figure out how to adjust their governing paradigms, the big ideas and institutions, will eventually stagnate and collapse. That is the sort of big lesson of history. If I could go to the next slide, please.
[A slide is shown with the text:
"Innovation and the adaptable country"
"Adaptability is the capacity to innovate at a system-wide level to...
- Anticipate challenges to key interests
- Invent new ways of governing
- Build political support for new ways of governing
- Execute by renovating institutions and practices"
"Adaptability is essential for countries to survive and thrive"
"We can and should shape institutions and culture to promote adaptability".]
So, what I'm going to do is introduce the concept of adaptability and I'm going to define adaptability as the capacity of a political system to change its governing paradigm and to evolve, reinvent its political institutions in response to new challenges. And its adaptability, that is the sort of central concept that I'm exploring in my work as the Bourgon Visiting Scholar this year. And I'm going to define adaptability as having four components. The first is the capacity to look down the road and anticipate major challenges, the second is the capacity to invent creative responses to those challenges, the third is the capacity to build political support or legitimately propose new responses, and then finally the capacity to actually execute, that is to say, transform institutions so that they conform to new ideas. So, if I could have the next slide, please.
[A slide is shown with the text:
"What is the process of change?"
"Do we just respond to the crisis of the moment?
- Short-term bias of democratic politics
- Social acceleration and short-term focus"
"Or do we anticipate and prepare for challenges?
- Can we anticipate what will happen?
- Who does this, and how far do they look?"
"Doubts about federalized liberal democracies"
"American politics is a story about problems of paradigm change".]
Let me just say a word about the process of change. Not all political systems are equal in their capacity to adapt. Some are very poor at adaptation. A classic example would be the Soviet Union which said in the mid-1980s explicitly that we are going to try and reinvent ourselves, we want to turn directions.
It was called Perestroika, or restructuring. And of course, that exercise failed and resulted in the collapse of the Soviet regime. The United States is going through a very painful process of adaptation right now. There's a stark change in the tenor of American politics from 20 years ago. If you talked to American leaders of either political stripe in the year 2000, you would have found a fairly substantial degree of agreement on how the country ought to be governed, and in fact, a lot of confidence, we might even call it hubris, that all the major problems had been sorted out. And what we have 20 years later, is a breakdown of agreement about the governing paradigm and a struggle to build a new consensus. There's also a very large literature that says that liberal democracies are actually not very good at adaptation. I'm not sure I'm persuaded by that literature, but I wanted to flag it because politicians are fixated on the next election. They think short-term because decision-makers become pre-occupied with the crisis of the moment or because governments are actually incapable of executing reforms.
In fact, if you look at The Financial Times' opinion page today, there are three op-eds, opinion pieces, on The Financial Times' website, all of which offer very sobering assessments about the adaptability of liberal democratic systems. And there's a big debate right now about the relative merits of models of technocratic authoritarianism, which some people argue China represents, the merits of technocratic authoritarianism versus the so-called western model of liberal democracy. And the central question is, which of these two models is better at adaptation, better at anticipating major challenges and mobilizing resources in response to those challenges. And I think that question is going to be with us for the coming decades because this is likely to be a very turbulent century. Could I have the last slide, please?
[A slide is shown with the text:
"How does system design affect adaptability?"
"Anticipation and invention
- Do institutions inside and around government have the capacity to anticipate challenges?
- Bureaucracies, parties, media, think tanks, interest groups"
"Engaging with the public
- Is the public conversation adequately focused on long-term challenges?
- Effects of technological change on culture and discourse"
"Making change happen
- Can governments execute major policy changes, especially when authority is formally divided?".]
So, what I'm interested in exploring is adaptability in the Canadian case. And I should say as a preface that I just said there's this debate about the relative merits of technocratic authoritarian models on one hand and the liberal democracies on the other hand. Right out of the gate, one of the problems here is that not all liberal democracies are alike. In fact, I mentioned these op-eds on The Financial Times' website. One of the difficulties is the tendency to lump all liberal democracies together. They vary in important ways, and those differences matter in terms of adaptability.
I would actually argue, for example, that the Canadian system has proved more flexible, more adaptive, than the American system over the last 40 years. And this raises the question that intrigues me, which is, what were the features of the Canadian system over the last 40 years that made it more flexible? And I've got some preliminary ideas on that, that we could discuss, but – and I'm not pandering to my audience here – I will say that one consideration is that Canadian governments generally have better quality civil services.
So, we can ask looking backward what was it that aided adaptability in the Canadian case? We can also look forward and ask ourselves, will Canada have the capacity to adapt to future challenges, the challenges that are coming down the road? How would we assess the adaptability of the system now and in the years going forward? And I'm breaking that kind of big question down into three subordinate questions. I'm interested in looking at policymaking at the heart of government, and that is, do all the critical players in the system - political parties, government bureaucracies, think tanks, civil society organizations, the media - do all of the various players in the system have the capacity and the motivation to take a long-term view and to think creatively about responses to challenges that will be coming, confronting us in the decades ahead? So, that's one big question. The second big question relates to the quality of public conversation, what the public at large thinks. Does the public at large have the knowledge and motivation to make good choices about long-term challenges? And if I could elaborate on that point for a moment, should we be worried about the corrosion of popular discourse because of technological change? And will that impair our capacity as a country to respond to shocks and stresses in coming decades? So, that's the second big question, the quality of public conversation. And the third big question that interests me is, decision-making and policy execution within our system of disaggregated governance. Do our various governments individually have the capacity to act decisively, and do we have the capacity to assure coordinated action by many public authorities? And I know this seems like a very broad topic, and I'm going to concede that point, but I also think it's critically important. It's an existential question for Canada and for every other country. History shows us that political systems, the rule is political systems collapse. Some last a very short time, some last a long time. What makes the difference is adaptability. And so, I think we have to recognize that concept and then think about what it entails.
Now, if I could just conclude on this point. One interesting thing we could say about the way in which the country has transformed over the last 40 years is that we're a more populous country. We've got about 50% more people than we did 40 years ago, and we are structurally also a more complicated country. We have spent several decades disaggregating political power, and we did it for very good reasons. We empowered individuals, we empowered provinces and territories, we are attempting to now honour commitments to empower Indigenous communities. We've empowered the marketplace. And as I say, we're doing all this for very good reasons, but the next century will be a challenging one. And the question is, how do we as a country, as a whole, make informed choices and coordinate action in this bigger and more complex system? And thank you very much.
Neil Bouwer: Amazing. I'm sure everyone on this event is envious of you having the chance to study this really fascinating topic.
So, I mean, when I think about adaptability at the state level, or at a country level, I think of things like free trade or 9/11 or the national unity crisis, and other big events like that. You didn't mention the c-word, the COVID word, but I'm just dying to ask you, first and foremost, do you think... what can you learn about the subject of adaptability given what the world has... we've all just been through the same natural experiment. Every country around the world has gone through the same thing. That's rare. And we've all responded to it differently. So, what do you think COVID will have to teach us about adaptability?
Alasdair Roberts: Well, funny you should ask that, Neil. There's a chapter in my new book, Superstates, which is available to find in bookstores everywhere, which actually says COVID was this natural experiment. I look at... that Superstates book is looking at four very large polities, India, China, the U.S., and the EU. And I basically say all four of these polities were essentially hit by the same shock at exactly the same time, and it's interesting to compare and contrast the responses. And very briefly, the lesson I draw from that is that among those polities that purport to honour liberal democratic principles - which is basically the EU, the U.S., and India - for me, one of the lessons I take from that is being careful about overcentralizing response, that you want to have robust, responsive capability at the sub-central level. There's a danger with overcentralizing response to shocks like that. One is that the centre gets overloaded. It's got more on its plate than it can confidently handle. The other is that the centre doesn't really understand ground conditions and can't make the right decisions about what to do in a particular region at a particular time. And there is, I think, more room for experimentation and learning if you decentralize responses as well. And I guess a final point would be, in a big complicated system, where different parts of the system have very different views about the way the world should work, if you decentralize response, you're more likely to have political support for that response. That is to say, the public at large is more likely to see the response as legitimate.
Neil Bouwer: Interesting.
Now, Canada has two, maybe many more things, going for it, but two of the things it has going for it, one is the fact that it's a federation. So, the kind of subsidiarity that you're talking about, I mean, we necessarily have sub-federal governments that are able to do their own thing. The other thing we have going for us is the fact that we're a Westminster parliamentary democracy, so political parties can appear and disappear in that. So, what do you make of those kinds of structural elements of the Canadian system? Are these natural assets or are these things that you don't think make much of a difference?
Alasdair Roberts: No, I think... there are three points and I want to get them on the table because my aging brain will forget them, but robust federalism, Westminster model, and effective electoral systems, I think, are all advantages for Canada, especially when you compare to the American system. So, robust federalism, provinces generally have better capacities, better fiscal capacities, better administrative capacities than their American counterparts. So, they're capable of responding to shocks more effectively. The second, Westminster system means that you've got more capable executives. Especially in moments of strain, it's possible for executives to act in a coherent and timely way, and that, I think, is a second advantage of the Canadian system over the American system. The third thing that matters, especially when you're thinking about the long-term evolution of ideas, in a democracy, is a competition between political parties. And the Canadian system has certain advantages, controls on spending in elections, low barriers to entry for new political parties, better systems for redistricting, taking the politics out of redistricting, of clean election administration. So, in that realm, a critically important realm for the competition of ideas, I think Canada again has the advantage over its American counterparts.
Neil Bouwer: Now, I think I agree with all of the points you're making but I would understand it If an observer from the outside said, wait a second, doesn't Canada still have a King and have a constitution that hasn't changed that much since 1867 or 1890, or what have you. So, what do you make of the fact that Canada still holds on to this medieval feudal system of governance with the monarchy?
Alasdair Roberts: Well, some value-laden words in there, but I guess two points. I guess the question would be whether the monarchy is regarded as sufficiently problematic. I'm not wording that correctly, but if King Charles had more political authority or his representatives had more political discretion, we might be more troubled by the arrangement. I made the observation that over the last 40 years, Canada has been adaptable, and I think I was truncating the conversation, but I think we want to recognize that, in fact, the system has changed in significant ways over 40 years, but I think we also want to recognize that in many ways, change hasn't happened or change hasn't happened fast enough. So, I want to recognize the glass is both half full and half empty. And I also want to think about, when I'm thinking about this topic, not just what were the features of the system that enabled change but also what are the features that have inhibited adaptation. So, I am taking a more rounded view of that. But one of the interesting features of the Canadian system is also finding workarounds, right? In areas where, let's say, constitutional reform turns out to be difficult, is it possible to find a workaround that achieves substantially the same result in a more circuitous way?
Neil Bouwer: Yeah, and I think I'm being a bit unfair. We did have the charter in 1982, and so that's, constitutionally speaking, a pretty recent development. Okay, interesting.
So, I mean, in the science world, we talk about paradigmatic crises, where it's sort of evident that the system, you know, it works until it doesn't. And when it doesn't, it's obvious. And then you go through this kind of difficult period of change which almost looks like... they look like milestones in the history of a country, whereas you can't help but get the feeling today that, as you say, things are a little more fluid, a little more rounded, maybe a little bit more nuanced. I mean, immigration is changing the face of Canada today, technology is changing the face of our relationships, A.I. is coming around the corner, digital practices are seeping in, and data analytics, and not to mention populism and some of these other forces. So, it seems like now, we're like... this idea of discrete paradigmatic crises is being replaced by more of an organic, ever-changing evolutionary. I'd be interested to know where you would fall on that. Do you think we should be thinking about a signatory event that changes the paradigm or do you think that this kind of constant evolution is more descriptive?
Alasdair Roberts: Yeah, and I think I want to do two points. The first is just to sort of elaborate a bit, my point of view. People may be listening, thinking, okay, this sounds very straightforward. But there is sort of a view of the world that I'm consciously rejecting, right? And the view of the world that I'm consciously rejecting is that life is sufficiently stable and predictable, that we can set up governing arrangements and we can lock down those governing arrangements, and we're good. That's the permanent settlement about how we're going to govern. And there is a school of thought, people out there who do sort of tend to think that way, there is one best way to govern. And some even go further and say, and this applies in any circumstance. In fact, around about 2000, there were a lot of intellectuals and leading statesmen who were basically saying, look, we figured it out, we've reached the end of history, there's one formula for governing, it's market-oriented liberal democracy. And I'm sort of taking a different view, I'm taking a realist view that says, no, life is too complicated for that, circumstances are constantly changing. You may find at a certain point that you found a way of governing your particular country that works for the moment, but the critical point is the, "for the moment." Whenever we talk about governing arrangements, we have to add the caveat, it's working for the moment, because circumstances do change, demography changes, technology changes, the structure of the economy changes, climate changes - and that's been true throughout history, not just recently. So, adaptation, alertness and adaptation really are critical qualities, and the capacity to invent and reconstruct institutions. And that, I think, is a quality that was not adequately appreciated in around about the year 2000 when people were saying we've got it sorted out. There was this sort of neo-liberal view of the world that said, what we're going to do is we're going to limit the role of government, we're going to put constraints, golden handcuffs they sometimes called them, on government, government doesn't have to think very much, it just needs to do its basic job of market regulation and everything will be good. And then we hit a century where it was one shock after another, and we realized that's not quite right. There's a need for government to think creatively about how to anticipate and respond to challenges.
On a second point, I did a book a couple of years ago which is essentially about paradigm change in the U.S. I'm not sure I stick to the argument, but I'll run it out. And I made the observation that, certainly in the American case, around about 2016, there had already been a lot of people lamenting the crisis of American democracy, and there was sort of this sense that the end of the world was nigh. And I made the observation that this is actually not the first time that this sort of democratic malaise has seized the United States. It happened in the 1970s as well, in almost exactly the same terms. It happened in the 1930s. It happened in the progressive era at the turn of the 20th century. And the observation I made was that there are sort of cycles here. And the nature of the cycle is that at a certain point, people think they have it all figured out. They've got this common understanding about the way their country is going to get governed. And then the world changes and the old formula no longer seems to work anymore. And originally, initially, people tried to just put band-aids on it, but eventually, the paradigm just kind of collapses. And then there's a process of search, okay, what do we do next? Political entrepreneurs go out there and sort of pitch a story about, well, maybe we could govern this way. And they try to build a political coalition that gets them into power, and then they commence the process of rebuilding institutions to fit with that new view. And you can see that happening, let's say, for example, in the U.S. during the period of the Great Depression. You can see it happening after the economic and social crises of the 1970s, and I think that's what's happening today. And the point I made in the book is that changing directions doesn't happen overnight. And I'll give you a couple of examples. In the 1930s, the financial crisis happens in 1929, Roosevelt gets elected in 1933, Roosevelt's sort of making stuff up for a few years. Eventually, it sort of gets this kind of coherent ideology behind it. By about the late 1940s or so, even Republicans are signing on to that kind of new deal understanding of what federal government does. But that's a block of time that spans 20 years. Now, if you look at the 1970s, the wheels start falling off about 1973/74. Reagan comes in in 1981. By about the early 1990s, Bill Clinton has sort of signed on to key elements of what Reagan was about. I could say the same about Thatcher and Blair in the U.K. But again, that's a span of about 20 years from the onset of crisis to the consolidation of a new consensus. So, if you thought that the wheels started to fall off around 2007 or so, you wouldn't necessarily be surprised that you're still years in and finding yourself struggling to develop a new consensus.
Neil Bouwer: I love it. Well, I mean, when you're looking at those kind of changes at that scale, it's really interesting to know that there are these sort of patterns or things that you can watch for. That's fascinating.
I'm going to remind our participants that you can press the chat icon and submit your questions, and I'll get to them. In fact, I do have a queue of questions. So, let me turn to one which just bridges us from kind of the theoretical and the high level, and in some ways, the grand movements of history, to get down to the level of the public servant and the person that is thinking about our institution of the public service and how it can be innovative. So, the question is, do you have suggestions for the public service to increase its capacity for long-term thinking? And the questioner says that their initial thoughts are the use of strategic foresight as a set of tools, as well as efforts to define and measure long-term outcomes, for example, through Canada's Quality of Life Framework. So, the question is, what are some suggestions for the public service to be more long... to take the long view?
Alasdair Roberts: Well, so, this is sort of like investing in infrastructure, right? You're spending money now to do something that's going to have a long-term payoff. And let's be clear that when we say long-term, we mean something maybe 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. And so, I would say that it seems to me that what you want to have in your public service is a recognition that doing this kind of long-term thinking on a regular basis as part of business as usual is important, building in the capacity to do that, building in a mindset that basically says, we've got stuff that we've got to get done today but we also have to be thinking down the road, and so having that as part of the kind of organizational capacity and organizational mentality. The second point I would make, though, is that we live in a world in which responsibility for policymaking is distributed. Many players are involved. The bureaucracy plays a key role but so do political parties, so do think tanks, so does the media, so do civil society organizations. So, if you want to build a society that is thinking about the long run, you want to think about distributed capacity to think about the long-term. So, you would be worrying, I think, about the capacity of all of these other actors to attend to the long-term as well. Do they have the resources and the mentality to think down the road? And I think public servants could also play an important role in kind of facilitating capacity building and attitudinal shift among those other players as well. It's also the case that the public service has access to key resources like information that are critical for other players to engage in the long run. And then the other, just to stretch it out a bit more, let's suppose you had core governmental actors and the sort of policy community narrowly defined, all thinking in the long run. Even that might not be enough. You can have a government or a policy community that's thinking about the long run but if the public at large isn't with you, if they're not attentive to long-run risks and thinking about the world in the same way, you're stuck. You're not going to have the political base you need to take the right course of action. So, it's also a matter of thinking about how the public is, what the public knows, and how the public thinks about long-term challenges.
Neil Bouwer: I really like your comments there, Al. I mean, one of the barometers I use is, when I'm looking at a department or into policy areas, how often does the government put out policy research or policy papers where the answers are not already figured out? So, sort of, true consultation papers with open-ended... we used to call them green papers, and that's a good bellwether maybe for what you were talking about, which is this sort of policy discourse.
I'm going to move to the next question, and the person says they love how you framed attempting to adapt and reach consensus on new government structures. So, could you speak to ways or examples of how that could happen, which favours the sovereignty of a diverse citizenship, and to decide and influence the way forward over well funded interests of corporate and foreign national groups? So, at any level, federal or some federal level.
Alasdair Roberts: Well, that's a challenging question. Could I ask you, sort of, to just restate it for me?
Neil Bouwer: Yeah, I mean, so, I think the person is looking for examples where rather than listening to the usual suspects or large corporate interests, but really reaching out to diverse areas of society, in particular, people that don't... may not have a voice. So, for example, you've mentioned Indigenous, we could also talk about racialized groups or other subsets. So, just if you could reflect on examples that you've come across in the spirit of adaptability, but where the voices of sort of the more disenfranchised form part of that.
Alasdair Roberts: I'm not sure I can answer the question directly but I think there is an important... we've flagged an important challenge here. And bear in mind, everything I say is sort of preliminary, right? Because I'm working through these things myself. But a curmudgeon might say, well, one of the reasons the system was adaptable in the late 20th century was that it was basically elites that were making the decisions, that you had a small number of privileged actors who were making the call, and they made the deals and got things done. And that's not tolerable. You want to... part of the whole point of building a just society is empowering individuals who have been excluded, diffusing political authority, increasing participation, and bringing new actors into the system. And we're struggling imperfectly to do that, allowing more voices in the room. And then the challenge is, and we're doing that because it's the right thing to do, advancing human rights. I should say parenthetically, one of my other projects recently was getting the community of scholars in my field, public administration, to be more forthright, and making clear that the work we do is about advancing human rights. But, so, we're committed to that project but we also have to recognize that with more voices in the room, the question is how do you cultivate a shared vision? This is sort of what I was getting at at the very end. In a system in which power has been more broadly distributed, how do we assure the capacity to, to the extent we can, get everybody on the same page about national priorities?
Neil Bouwer: Excellent, thanks. Yeah, I know that is a tough one to take on but I guess when you're talking about centralization versus decentralization, we also need to think about the society itself and whose voices are being heard, and as we adapt, in whose interests are we adapting? So, I think this is something that, in today's context, it's really important for us to bear in mind. So, great question from there.
I just want to move to the next one, and it's really the question around the question of trust. So, the environment you're describing is a dynamic environment with unforeseen shocks, and you're commenting on the government's ability to adapt to those shocks and you're making the link to governance and to the population. So, the question is, how much do you think trust in government affects the government's ability to adapt?
Alasdair Roberts: I think it is important. I'm a little leery about using a language of trust in government, not because it's not important but it's very general, right? But governments need to have... in a liberal democracy, governments need to have the public behind them. And a predicament is that many government agencies suffer from problems of legitimacy. And this was true even before the pandemic, but the pandemic illustrates that legitimacy is also an asset that can be corroded if you rely on it in moments of stress. So, this is, I think, another one of the challenges. I know that's an imperfect answer, but again, the question is how do you convene, how do you coordinate action in a world in which trust, legitimacy is a scarce commodity?
Neil Bouwer: Yeah, certainly we would all agree with the contrapositive, which is if you're in a high-trust environment of government, surely that makes you more adaptable, because...
Alasdair Roberts: it would give you more room for maneuver.
Neil Bouwer: Yeah, more political capital, I guess you could call it. Also, hopefully, it would mean that the political representatives would actually represent the views better, as well, if there's a mutual trust there.
Alasdair Roberts: So, one thing I would say is that I want to be careful. I don't want to conflate or mix up adaptability and crisis management. In a way, I might say if you're in a system that is crisis prone, that indicates a failure to adapt. You didn't see the challenge coming, and then suddenly at the last minute, you're caught off guard and you're struggling with a crisis, a real immediate threat to some key interest. And crises burn up legitimacy very quickly because you're putting extraordinary demands on members of the public as you struggle to contain the crisis of the moment, and that's always been true. It was true during the pandemic. It's true even during wartime. We tend to get romantic visions of the way countries reacted to things like the Second World War, but even at that point, legitimacy burns up. There are boundaries to what the public is prepared to do or tolerate. So, one way to deal with the problem of legitimacy is to make sure you don't get into a situation where you're constantly dealing with crises. So, preventative maintenance is important because it helps you avoid situations where you're burning up legitimacy to deal with the crisis of the moment.
Neil Bouwer: So, the example I gave earlier was COVID, but maybe a better example is actually climate change. And I know we call it the Climate Crisis but let's agree maybe that it's not an immediate crisis in the way that COVID was, and it is an act of adaptability to be able to change things now. So, I guess this is a roundabout way of asking you, what is, in your mind, a good bellwether for adaptability? If you were to look at Canada or any other country and put your finger on something, and say, here, this is evidence of adaptability and not just crisis response, what would be a good example for you?
Alasdair Roberts: Well, I'm not sure that I would have... the pandemic is unusual because it hit multiple polities at roughly the same time, within a matter of weeks basically. But one of the sort of motifs of my work is that every country is different, every country deals with its own peculiar bundle of shocks and strains. Sometimes they travel across borders, but not always, and even if they do travel across borders, the impacts are different, like the Global Financial Crisis in the U.S. versus Canada. So, I'm not sure I've got one kind of bellwether litmus test that works across all jurisdictions, or I'm not sure that's the right way to think about it. I would say, and this makes it more complicated to contrast and compare, it's a question of whether a country is doing a good job of addressing the threats to core interests in that country. So, in Canada, we had the national unity debate, which is sort of, in some ways, a distinctively Canadian phenomenon. And the question in terms of adaptability would be, how did Canada deal with that strain? So, it makes it difficult to contrast and compare. I would say, on the climate change question, I do think that, going forward, that's going to be a major challenge in a couple of different ways. There's the immediate impact of climate change on Canada and its economy and ways of life. I also think, and again, let me make a pitch for my book Superstates, available in finer bookstores everywhere, that climate change is going to have a destabilizing effect in the supersized polities, the U.S., China, India, and the European Union, an especially destabilizing effect in these polities. So, one of the things that Canada is going to be dealing with in the coming decades is not just with dealing with the effects of climate change at home but dealing with the fact that it's destabilizing all of our major partners.
Neil Bouwer: As you're talking, I'm trying to think of other sort of global trends that could be hallmarks of adaptability, and what's come to mind is the proliferation of rights, for example, same-sex marriage, transgender, and other things, and that's a global phenomenon but it's happened at different rates, Indigenous reconciliation, which we're still in the early stages of, 350 odd years in. So, that's not very adaptable but that is also common to many countries in terms of...
Alasdair Roberts: Technological change and automation.
Neil Bouwer: Yes, and I guess the uptake of artificial intelligence will be another one.
Alasdair Roberts: Yeah.
Neil Bouwer: Okay, that's interesting.
We haven't talked much about the digital revolution, and there's been much discussion about information, misinformation, disinformation, social media, which is changing the way we interact with one another, creating new hazards and new risks and new approaches. What do you make of the sort of digital revolution in terms of adaptability of states?
Alasdair Roberts: I think it has complicated effects. On one hand, it gives governments new capabilities, new capabilities for monitoring what's going on in society. I know monitoring seems like a loaded word but basically knowing what's going on inside your territory, which is an important part of governance. It gives the capacity to improve services more effectively and perform essential functions. So, these are all pluses for government. On the other hand, it makes life more challenging for governments because a lot of these tools that are being available to government are also available to civil society actors. So, you're dealing with a population that is more wired, more connected, more mobile, more able to challenge the governmental action and question the legitimacy of government. The broader consideration too is just the way in which technological change is changing public discourse or the boundaries of public discourse. Part of being a political community is that you're talking to one another. You're not talking to people in other countries... I mean, I don't want to be excessive about this, but your principal focus of conversation is with other people in your own polity. You're talking about shared questions, you've got a shared understanding about what the agenda is, and you're talking with each other in a reasoned way. You're engaging in civil discourse. And an interesting question that I think we're all aware of is whether changes in the informational environment are corroding civil discourse. And there's lots of books being written about that. I would add, in the Canadian case, there's a question of whether it's breaking down the boundaries of discourse, breaking down old communities of discourse so that we're not talking to one another, we're talking with communities of interest that may happen to flow over borders, so that in a sense, it's very hard to maintain a common agenda, to stick to the topic as it were. What challenges do we need to address in our own country and how should we as a community sort that out? So, that's something else I would worry about.
Neil Bouwer: Absolutely. I'm always dumbfounded when the conspiracy theories get so much traction. And in a world where the discourse is done by intermediaries that are professionalized, like think tanks and academics and governments, you see less of that, whereas just the kind of bizarre... I think of the election denialism in the U.S. for example, just to see the kind of traction those views get in the context of misinformation, disinformation. It seems like a whole new world, actually.
Okay, excellent. So, now, I want to ask you, if you could wave a magic wand for a government like the Government of Canada, and if you could introduce something to it, whether it's an internal think tank, a consultative body or something, or a best practice that you've seen in another jurisdiction, is there anything that you would say, hey, maybe consider this? Do you have sort of an institutional feature that you would love to see introduced to the Government of Canada along the lines of improving our adaptability?
Alasdair Roberts: So, it's premature for me to do that because one of the things I'm doing right now is taking advantage of this great opportunity given to me by the Canada School to talk with folks and actually ask them that sort of question. And so, there's two levels to this, right? Well, three levels, as an academic. I'll stop before I get to four levels. Level one is let's recognize that adaptability is an essential quality, which I think is a step forward, because there was, as I said, 20 years ago, very few people would have recognized adaptability as a central quality. Adaptability is important. So, level two is, okay, what are the features of a system that make it more adaptable? What are the institutional arrangements that really make a system capable of adapting? What are the practices? What about political culture or popular culture, just the way we think about the world? What are the elements that give the society the capacity to anticipate challenges and recreate itself in clever ways? And then the third question is, okay, using that sort of understanding about what the elements are, where are we doing well and where could we do better? So, I'm going to try and come up with some tentative prescriptions by the end of my stint as a visiting scholar, and I'm working on a short book for - as part of this project - a short book for McGill-Queen's University Press called The Adaptable Country. So, your question is basically my assignment for the year.
Neil Bouwer: Well, I can't wait to see where this takes you. I know that it's... at one level, at a high level, there are some features that are probably worth really digging into. But then, as you get into the texture of it, probably every department and every agency has its own views about the degree to which there's foresight in its area, where there's policy discourse in its area, and I can see that it's going to be very textured for you. You could probably spend a lifetime collecting, but could you tell us a little bit about sort of the journey that you're going to be going on now, and sort of how you're going to go about your work? And in particular, for those of you on the line, if people want to engage with you, how can they do that? How can they find out what you're doing but also contribute their own ideas about their own areas to your research?
Alasdair Roberts: Sure. So, a key thing to know is that I have a website which is alasdairroberts.ca, or aroberts.us if you're looking for something shorter, but let's go with the Canadian domain name, or just Google me and I'll pop up. And my contact details are on there, and I'd love to be in touch with people who would like to talk about this. That would be awesome. And so, the other thing I'm doing is I'm reading intensely and talking with lots of folks, and trying to sort of triangulate a sense of where we think we are. But I would say that I think adaptability is going to be the critical question for this century. And it's important for Canada, it's an existential question for Canada. If we want the country to be here 100 years from now and thriving, we have to think about adaptability. But more broadly, if we care about human rights, if we care about liberal democracy, we have to think about adaptability as well. Because the challenge is going to be from authoritarian systems that basically say, say what you like about human rights, our model is better at looking at the long run and mobilizing resources to deal with long-run threats. So, we have to find a way, as proponents of human rights, of building political systems that respect the values we care about but can also roll with the punches.
Neil Bouwer: Amazing. Well, I love the term adaptability more so than resilience, because I think resilience assumes that there's a status quo ante that you want to protect, whereas your notion of adaptability is a lot more dynamic and fluid. And I guess there will be some people that say, well, they like the way things are today, and I can remember when the Clarity Act came in in Canada, and those that were worried about a possible secession of Quebec debated whether or not it was a good idea to have a Clarity Act that would have essentially been a pathway for Quebec to achieve independence. And so, there's a tension, because change isn't good for everyone, and so they might prefer that status quo ante. So, incredibly important, the work that you're doing on adaptability.
I should say on behalf of the School that I think on March 10th, you're going to be having another learning event through and with the Canada School of Public Service to which all of you can attend to continue the dialogue. So, that's fantastic. I don't know that the poster is up yet or the website is up yet, but it will be coming soon. You can mark it on your calendars though, March 10th, I think it's 10:30 a.m., and whatever it's called, it's going to be about adaptable government and the work you're doing.
So, I guess before we wrap up, Alasdair, I wonder if you have any concluding thoughts for the public servants, the technocrats, as they're going about their work. And of course, they're under big pressure to deliver day-to-day, but at the same token, what you're putting on the table is really thinking about the future. So, what advice would you have for the public servants on the line who are really just trying to deliver the crisis management and the programs that they've got but also want to keep an eye on what you're highlighting which is the adaptability of the systems that they're serving?
Alasdair Roberts: Well, this is sort of the puzzle. Everyone is under tremendous pressure to deal with the work that's on their desk right now, right? And so, the question is, well, how do you build systems, governing systems, bureaucracies, that are capable of getting the job done, but also, at the same time, sort of taking time to think down the road? And I'd make the observation that this is also a question of adaptation? So, how do we change our current system so that we're doing a better job of anticipating the future? I don't have neat solutions for that but I think the first step to solving the problem is thinking about it, being aware of it. And certainly, if anybody would like to carry on the conversation, please do get in touch.
Neil Bouwer: Amazing. Well, I'm sure people do. I think there are many different strategies for thinking about the future and adaptability versus the day-to-day operations, and there's different models in different departments, and so forth. So, if you're interested in this topic, please take Al up on his offer to e-mail him and get in touch with him. Also, mark it on your calendars, March 10th, here at the Canada School of Public Service.
So, I think we'll wrap it up on that note. Al, thank you so much for this important work and also for making yourself so available to us. We really appreciate it. So, we will kindly accept your invitation to engage. We're also looking forward to your engagement not just with public servants but to broaden the dialogue to the broader policy ecosystem as well as to a more... in a public-facing way. Very exciting times. So, thank you once again.
Alasdair Roberts: Thank you to everyone for joining us on a Friday afternoon, and I hope everyone has a great weekend.
Neil Bouwer: Amazing. Donc merci à vous tous. Thank you for joining us today, and stay tuned for more events from the Canada School of Public Service. Merci.
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