By Richard Shimooka, Heather Exner-Pirot, Ken Coates, Aaron Wudrick, and Shawn Whatley
September 28, 2023
Introduction by Richard Shimooka
An opaque regulatory process that has stymied oil and gas development efforts, deterred investment, and dampened competitiveness, while giving market share to Russia and other authoritarian energy producers. A $35 billion Canadian Infrastructure Bank that has only finalized two projects, and failed to leverage any private sector dollars. A medicare system that struggles with mismanagement and governance complexity, alongside layers of state influence, special interests, public pressure, and much more. And a lack of planning to safeguard locally engaged staff in Afghanistan that led to catastrophic debacle when the Afghanistan state collapsed in August 2021.
At first blush these may seem like an unconnected series of anecdotes, coming as they do from different departments and contexts. Yet upon further examination, they are examples of a crisis of governance across a wide range of policy areas, reflecting a systemic failure at both the political and bureaucratic levels to manage complex public policy issues.
This is not without some irony, given the current government’s election pledge to implement a system of “deliverology” management to improve program execution. Yet after seven years in office, the Trudeau government has displayed a remarkably consistent inability to do the difficult work of actually delivering – as opposed to simply announcing – its stated policy goals. The causes are not always the same, nor are the outcomes. But the corrosive effects are now evident in almost all areas of government operations, including areas identified as high priority by our political leadership. The result has been the provision of substandard services, delays, and major cost overruns.
This paper consists of a collection of essays, each written by an MLI senior fellow, with the aim of documenting this phenomenon across multiple policy areas. Each essay will cover a specific topic and will show the immensely damaging consequences – not just in terms of the decay in state capacity, but also of public trust and morale within the civil service.
The key dynamic that underlines this issue is between the political leadership and the bureaucracy. At its core is the lack of political leadership to make decisions and push them through. This may partly be the result of greater centralization of policy-making within the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which leaves ministers and their departmental staff without the a ctual authority to implement decisions.
There is also the political leadership’s focus on messaging, rather than deliverables. No significant policy planning has been made before an announcement, which then is realized to be far more complex than previously conceived. This often requires careful political leadership to effectively navigate, which is lacking. In other cases, the government may not want to actually push through a policy due to its political cost. In both these instances, the political leadership will attempt to use the bureaucratic process to imbue greater legitimacy to the policy.
The second part of this dynamic is the bureaucracy. While the political leadership has tried to offload decisions, the bureaucracy is not well placed to manage them. A key underlying issue within the bureaucracy is the subtle cultural shifts among its workforce over the past 30 years. This has shifted the focus away from providing unvarnished advice for the political leadership to defending its stated political positions.
To insulate itself from criticism, the bureaucracy has added additional layers of “process” in order to confer greater accountability and ultimately legitimacy to policies. Yet they are often wholly inadequate to deal with the challenge, leading to sclerotic progress on files as there is no ability or internal impetus to advance them. In cases where multiple departments or sub-departments are involved, policy gridlock occurs – as there is no authority to push forward decisions through the bureaucratic systems.
Compounding this syndrome of “performative governance” is the damage in other areas from inertia caused by the government’s failure to make any choices at all, which deprives the public, including the media, opposition and other actors from even offering criticisms or suggestions to course correct. Bad decisions can at least be fixed. Instead, Canadians face policy paralysis everywhere they look, caused by a government that appears to alternate between making announcements devoid of substance and follow-through, and simply not making decisions at all.
Table of contents
- Introduction – By Richard Shimooka,
- The final turn in the CF-18 replacement saga – By Richard Shimooka,
- Canada could have been an energy superpower. Instead we became a bystander – By Heather Exner-Pirot,
- Putting government mismanagement of Indigenous affairs in the rear-view mirror – By Ken Coates,
- The failed promise of the Canada Infrastructure Bank – By Aaron Wudrick,
- Health care governance in Canada: Complexity, overlapping magisteria, and the need for clarity of purpose – By Shawn Whatley,
- The darkest of stains: Canada’s evacuation mission to Kabul, August 2021 – By Richard Shimooka,
- Conclusion ♦