Strengthening Canada’s system of governance

It’s fair to say that, as a rule, governments have no shortage of acronyms. However, when “MF” echoes through Ottawa’s corridors of power, the term relates not to a programme, project or ministry but an individual: one Maryantonett Flumian. Such is her status in town that she enjoys instant recognition by virtue of her initials alone.

Some of this can be traced to her engaging personality. But it is also a testament to her 30 years at the top tier of Canada’s public service. Her career has spanned federal and provincial government, as well as domains such the labour market and serving as the first deputy minister of Service Canada, which is where Canadians go whether online, by phone, or in person to access government programmes, services and benefits.

“I always relate to these subjects as a recovering public servant,” she jokes. “I haven’t been there for six years, but it is impossible not to have a love for the subject and the work that is done there especially right now. The prime minister has said he sees the public service as a true partner, and he has stressed the value of government as being the social platform from which all sorts of good can come. If we can combine this with the trust that is out there for government then it takes us to some very exciting places.”

Through the looking-glass

For the past several years, MF has resided at the Institute on Governance. Its location, just a few blocks away from Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, is an apt geographic metaphor for its influence and reach into Canada’s system of government as well as countries as far away as Iraq, China and Botswana. Its mission is to “advance better governance in the public interest”, and it seems a perfect fit for someone of her experience and connections. There is clearly much for her and the IoG team to get their teeth into.

“Government needs to go from black box to glass box,” she says. “Citizens will come periodically and gaze in, but even if it is just periodically boy do we need to change the way we dress. We need to think about what it is like for people to be looking at the inside of government the processes and policies and we have a lot of sprucing up to do, especially if we are inviting them, and civil society, to have a peek in.”

This heightened sense of transparency can be traced in large part, she believes, to the digital technology that is currently helping policymakers worldwide rethink services and how they deliver these services to the public. “Things like deliverology and open data are about restoring trust and relevance to an institutional base which I think is fundamentally important but the digital era we find ourselves in enables us to work very differently, more rapidly and much more transparently,” she says. “This is about not only how citizens see ourselves but how we work. And so with plans like citizen-centric policies, transparency and so on, we have to always keep in mind that this is different to what has come before.”

So, with this in mind, how should Canadian policymakers think differently?

Chasing the governance changes

That the pace of digital change heralds huge potential and opportunities for government is widely accepted. From upgrading government websites to make them more user-friendly something that is urgently required in Canada to using real-time data to shape the implementation of policies, the possibilities seem limitless. MF suggests, however, that the way government is structured in Canada is yet to align with these rapidly changing times.

“One of the fundamental principles to everything we have tried to achieve in government in a digital era is that it takes big programmatic silos,” she says. “Such programmes are structured for your mythical average citizen. For example, it’s never been so easy to collect the data, but in government we’re still collecting it for the programme not necessarily to find out about the citizen. This is a mindset shift we’ve got to change.”

She goes on to suggest that the priority should now be to ensure that government programmes are flexible enough to address the nuances and complexities of citizens as individuals, rather than just categorising them into various generic groups.

“At the moment, if you try and wrap these programmes around citizen needs, you get a bunch of stuff breaking down because, thanks to digital, it is now all about the whole of government and the individual, not a collection of individual programmes and the individual,” she says. “This is what digital does it breaks down what has gone before, and it has happened in the business sector already. There is something fundamentally different now about the way we have to disassemble and reassemble what is going to work, and this is probably one of our biggest challenges.”

MF also cites the role of evidence and how it impacts decisions as another key trend that is moving government in Canada and beyond away from its previous reliance on individual programmes. Collaboration is key, she believes. “While silos will still exist for the purposes of administration, the prime minister has sent a very strong signal that this is not enough to be effective,” she says.

“Although it is important for ministers to administer their departments, the governance model he has placed on top of that is very different. He is placing huge emphasis on collaboration in cabinet, and this means there is greater emphasis on the rest of government to do the same. This is going to change how we do business, moving us towards the discipline of thinking more broadly about what the problems really are, to planning and ultimately doing which leads to results and delivery.”

Such changes, she admits, are broad in scope but she is nonetheless convinced that they remain eminently achievable as long as the opportunity is grasped without hesitation. “Leadership is required at all levels of the organisation,” MF concedes.

“But the prime minister says we’re ready for it and I don’t think he is leading either the country or the public service over a cliff. I think we can rise to the challenge, but we will only all be successful if we all understand the urgency of what we’re talking about. The trust window doesn”t stay open forever we’re all in it together.”

 

FURTHER READING

  • Destination delivery – Canada’s new focus on results. A rigorous focus on results and delivery is woven deeply into Canada’s new approach to governing. Matthew Mendelsohn, the government’s delivery chief, tells us how they are getting on
  • Canada’s next digital chapter. Bardish Chagger may be new to government but she’s not one for taking things slowly. She tells us why Canada needs a ‘moon shot’ for its digital strategy
  • From vision to reality. Government leaders worldwide share the objective of making an impact and getting things done but it’s rarely straightforward. BCG’s Hans-Paul Buerkner offers some advice, and explains how the Centre for Public Impact can help
  • The God Revolution. Public impact is easier said than done, admits former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell. Here, he tells Adrian Brown about his experiences as the UK’s top public servant and why impact is rarely viewed as a key priority among policymakers.
  • Beltway and beyond. Former senior advisor to two US presidents, Elliott Abrams, shares his perspective on how governments can achieve more