By Drew Fagan, Senior Advisor
The closer one gets to government, the more enigmatic it can seem. People think they know what’s happening in the halls of power — among other things, the media covers government more closely than other institutions such as the private sector. But they really only see the part of the iceberg that’s above the surface. Meanwhile, to mix metaphors, government can seem like a maze as one tries to navigate it.
Government is big in Canada and often ungainly. The size of the public sector stands in the middle ranks of industrialized countries, but it’s still more than 40 per cent of GDP. And that’s what government does directly, like entitlement programs, or defence, or much of the health care and education sectors. On top of that, there’s everything government regulates, like financial services. Meanwhile, our decentralized structures mean that the orders of government — federal, provincial/territorial and municipal, plus Indigenous self-government — often seem to be on top of each other, or working at cross-purposes.
Recent trends have made things more challenging still, and seemingly contradictory, such as:
- Government as more open versus government as more closed … Few initiatives take place these days without engagement with those likely to be impacted, through round-tables or written submissions or one-on-one meetings. This gives outside interests — companies, associations and others — access perhaps like never before to those formulating policy. But it may not give them access to those deciding policy, which has coalesced among a smaller and smaller number of people at the centre of power: the PMO in Ottawa or equivalent offices of political leadership across the country plus, maybe, crucial ministers and the most senior public servants.
- Government as more political versus government as more bureaucratic … That tendency towards engagement also manifests itself as reticence to take decisions that may offend vested interests and damage political prospects. The political path of least resistance can easily staunch potential long-term reforms that are strategically advantageous but harmful with voters (sometimes known as the tragedy of the horizon). Meanwhile, government’s accountability agenda, which was partially borrowed from the private sector — de rigueur cost/benefit analysis, performance measurement and management, value-for-money audits — has come to be characterized commonly as a misbegotten “web of rules” which makes government even more risk-averse and prone to stasis.
- Government and priority-setting versus government and cutting through … One knock against the Trudeau government (as set out most recently here https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-why-arent-things-working-as-they-should-policy-execution-is-key/) is that too many priorities mean no priorities. It’s true; I can remember, similarly, an internal government document that set out the priorities of the Ontario government of Kathleen Wynne — between 100 and 150 of them. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that her successor, Premier Doug Ford — a suburban businessman at heart — hands out his cell-phone number to underline that he’s cutting through process and getting things done. That might be a good starter but it’s not generally a good finisher. Government isn’t just about calling a guy, even if it is the person at the top of the food chain; it is of necessity as much about fair processes as good results, as the premier would himself underline.
With those parameters in mind, how does one make inroads in government?
1/ It pays to get your oar in when the water is quiescent. As one example, the Ontario political parties were writing their election platforms in recent months. (The governing Progressive Conservatives are using the recent Budget as theirs, but party officials have been looking for other good policy ideas too.) Those are opportunities to engage with the people writing the blueprint. The same is true during the campaign of the public servants quietly preparing to brief the next government, of whatever stripe, after the dust settles. One needs to know them, engage with them — political staff and the public service alike — and understand how your priorities fit with theirs, or potentially might.
2/ It pays to get your oar in when the water is turbulent. On the other hand, government is not always about advance planning. Sometimes, it’s about responding to events as best it can, such as during the COVID crisis. Then, the capacity to provide needed policy advice or services in real time can pay real dividends, cutting short an often cartesian process of decision-making out of pure necessity. One needs to be known inside the system as the one to call by the system when your issue (or service) becomes the issue, or to reach out to them first.
3/ Be patient. Like any house renovation, it’s probably smart to double the time expected to win approval and get things done – unless, that is, the circumstances of point 2 above apply. But in normal times, government likely will seem frustratingly risk-averse if your proposal is edgy (sometimes known as first mover disadvantage). If your proposal is complex, it’s likely that the checks-and-balances of the policy process may seem every bit as complex, even if the ultimate decision-maker may be clearer than ever before. (The arch phrase here is “one neck to choke,” meaning the person with ultimate authority. But the PMO is only going to focus on so many things and, in the end, one can easily find oneself in a frustrating game of pass-the-buck, caught between departments or officials.)
4/ Be resilient. Be focused. Be opportunistic. Look for champions, especially at the political level but also in the public service. Understand things from their perspective. And, most importantly, make sure that what you’re proposing serves a strong public interest. At the end of the day, despite all of the above, that’s still what matters most.
Drew Fagan is a senior advisor at McMillan Vantage. He is also a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. He previously spent many years in the public service federally and provincially, particularly as an Ontario deputy minister.