Friday, May 22, 2020

Thoughts on the Public Sector amid the Pandemic

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

First let me preface my thoughts with a well worn -- and probably utterly useless if pressed -- disclaimer: what follows is series of interconnected thoughts on political theory, policy ideas, public institutions, and the public sector writ large. It's a sector I've worked in and written about for nigh on 15 years now, so while my reflections are familiar, the are not intimate. They are based on what I'm observing out there and not what I'm working on in here. I'll try to be succinct.

On Political Theory

I find it incredibly interesting that -- as former Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick remarked in the Hill Times -- (paraphrasing) Canadians have instinctively turned to the public sector for help. Undoubtedly, the role that government(s) play in shaping societies is becoming increasingly more apparent as the Prime Minister, Premiers, and Public Health Officials announce new measures and provide updates to citizens and civil servants successfully deliver on those measures at breakneck speed. Whatever the history books have to say about the public sector's response to the pandemic will undoubtedly come to shape societal views on the role of the sector in society for the foreseeable future.

The role of the media is also far more prominent as the demand for information increases, so too does news consumption, and the importance of reliable, evidence based reporting. Literacy is even more important as the battle between reliable information and misinformation unfolds across a myriad of platforms, legitimate or otherwise, that are either hand curated or algorithmically served to users. Make no mention of people in key leadership positions -- ranging from big 'P' political to small 'c' community -- spreading misinformation (by design or by neglect) and putting others at risk. As your average upper-middle class, university educated human being, I am consuming everything from thoughtful public affairs programming (i.e. TVO's The Agenda w/Steve Paikin) to random reddit threads highlighting the absolute breakdown of social fabrics and basic human niceties. That said, I take some solace in the fact that the latter of which doesn't seem to be as bad in Canada as it is elsewhere.

I'm also interested in the relationship between Canadian's sense of civic duty and the pandemic. Voluntary stay at home orders seemed to been taken seriously and we've avoided having to invoke mandatory lockdowns. I'm wondering how much of this is rooted in la politesse Canadienne and our relationship with our healthcare system. It stands in sharp contrast to much of what's being reported on from our neighbors to the south.

There's a lot being written about mission-orientation, how mission-driven governments have fared better in the COVID-19 crisis, how the pandemic creates an opportunity to develop a new, public-interest-based approach to innovation, and ultimately, how we should recognize the state’s power to create value. A successful mission-oriented strategy is one that mobilizes all sectors of society (i.e. public, private, not-for-profit, academic, etc.); it requires that governments play a strong shaping and convening role, that the media act as an independent check and balance on progress, and that citizens accept the fulfillment of the mission as a part of their civic duty.

There is equally increasing attention being paid to modern monetary theory (MMT). Some have argued that the Coronavirus has destroyed the myth of the deficit, others that MMT is the only appropriate response to the pandemic, and still others that we ought not be worried about public spending to stabilize the global economy. There are also a couple of policy ideas that are gaining attention (discussed below) that are very much linked to the MMT school of thought even if discussions about them don't invoke the nomenclature.

In short, the Overton window seems to be opening more widely and the range of what is being discussed as viable policy options is broader. Many are citing Rahm Emanuel's old adage, "Never let a good crisis go to waste," but are cutting the quotation short, leaving out the equally important second half: "It's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." Surely there will be consequences to missing the opportunity.

On Policy Ideas

The pandemic has had an incredible impact on global economies and (for some) completely obliterated their work-life balance. As our economies re-open, some are arguing for a shorter, 4-day work week, including the Prime Minister of New Zealand (who is currently the country’s most popular leader in 100 years thanks to her pandemic response).

With countries creating a myriad of new economic supports, some countries (e.g. Scotland, Spain, Finland) are looking at Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a potential solution. In the United States, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has given former presidential candidate Andrew Yang $5M to build his case for UBI, which is starting to look like a viable policy option. Here in Canada, David Dodge (former Governor of the Bank of Canada) remarked in a recent Public Policy Forum podcast that this is the closest Canada has every been to having UBI. Former Senator, Hugh Segal (a long time UBI advocate) made a compelling case for the underlying economics (and simplification of our social safety net) in a recent Recovery Project webcast, and the Macleans editorial board just asked whether or not UBI will be this country's pandemic legacy. It's also worth noting that a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister rejected the idea for now, but that doesn't mean it isn't being discussed.

In the midst of stabilization attempts, Governments are also concurrently planning their stimulus/recovery measures. Recognizing this, many are calling for Green Stimulus. The UN chief asked governments not to use public funds to save polluting industries, the International Energy Agency has said that the crisis will wipe out demand for fossil fuels, and more recently here at home, a new advocacy group (with some notable names) is pushing for a green recovery plan (joining the likes of organizations such as Smart Prosperity and Pembina). We know the pandemic has had an impact on global emissions but that much more needs to be done if we are to meet our climate objectives. Using stimulus money to advance climate (and other societal) goals (i.e. diversity and inclusion) seems to make sense. In fact a recent study indicates that it would be the most cost-effective way both to revive virus-hit economies and strike a decisive blow against climate change. Perhaps it could even put to bed the false dichotomy of economy vs environment.

On Public Institutions

Often when I speak to folks about innovation in the public sector I start by asking them to engage in a thought experiment. For a minute imagine that you can throw away all of the existing structures of government, name your five biggest policy priorities, and explain to me how to most effectively tackle them. Chances are it looks different then the current institutional array. That said, it likely includes government institutions, many of which likely look a lot like those institutions we currently have. However, what folks usually describe is something broader and less restrictive. More often, it sounds a lot like mission orientation, mentioned above, without necessarily invoking the term. The truth is that there is an incredible amount of value in the current institutional array, and we should be skeptical of anyone who argues we should tear it all down and start from scratch. Everything isn't broken, we don't need to change everything. Let's take what works and build around it. One needs to look no further than the how the pandemic has impacted the United States to see the cumulative impacts of winding down various state run programs, departments, and agencies. Again, our conceptualization of what public institutions can and can't do could shift dramatically against the backdrop of the pandemic and the actions taken (or not taken) by governments around the world.

On Technology within the Civil Service

Civil servants at all levels, regardless of their opinion, now have to deal with working from home. Resisting telework and/or flexible work arrangements is now impossible. In retrospect many of the arguments against it seem silly in retrospect seem silly. Or do they? While the usual suspects were quick to issue their "I told you so(s)" and "the genie's out of the bottle(s)", there's still a lot to be done. To invoke a quotation favoured by the technologists, future is here, it just is unequally distributed. Not everyone has access to hardware they need to connect to government networks securely, not everyone can be on the VPN (which never expected to carry a full workforce for an entire 9-5 workday). Hardware is in demand and networks are actively managed, certain tracks of work are being prioritized, others de-prioritized. We may have been thrust into the deep end of flexible work, but not everyone knows how to swim, and there simply isn't enough room in the pool for all of us to be in there at once, less few of us drown (to continue the metaphor at risk of straining it). While the experts in digital and/or open government and/or public engagement have historically focused their attention on the tools of the trade (social media, data, dialogue, etc.) what we are in most need of is more of what I will call 'meat and potatoes' IT infrastructure. Whether or not your department's IT department blocks social media or your Minister is on Twitter is moot when you don't have the tools you need to get on the network in the first place. The importance of 'hard digital infrastructure' cannot be understated, its a core business enabler.

The successful deployment of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit could not have been possible without digital technology. The deployment of the benefit has proved that governments can deliver IT projects effectively and efficiently -- and quite frankly, calls into question why years later public servants are still dealing with pay issues arising from the Phoenix Pay System (but let's park that). By all accounts, the project has been an incredible success and is helping millions of Canadians access benefits almost immediately, without issue. That said, the underlying technology or the digital skills needed to develop, deploy, and maintain it, are only as valuable as the analogue, old school, policy chops, needed to design and implement the policy measure. Analogue threads the needle, digital delivers the goods; we should be talking more about the policy choices we are making and less about the digital infrastructure we use to make good on them.

On the Culture of the Civil Service

Much like the status of individual civil servants IT infrastructure, results may vary. If your team culture sucked before the pandemic, it likely sucks now. Good teams, and good teams with experience working flexible work arrangements have a distinct advantage. My team was just getting its feet wet with flexible work arrangements and we fared pretty good, but there was definitely an adjustment period, and we are constantly working to improve the experience for everyone. Job mobility is also incredibly difficult right now -- unless you are in a rotational program or moving to Pandemic related files -- and on-boarding on new teams virtually is the new normal. In short, we are in this for the long haul. Personally, I'm mentally preparing myself to work from home for the next year. As a manager I'm quite comfortable managing people remotely. As a people person, I must confess that I miss daily face-to-face interactions my team members tremendously.

On Linking it All Together

How governments respond over the next year will be more important than ever. They could embrace MMT and leverage the value public institutions to create country (or global) missions that fundamentally reshape the fabric of societies. They could take advantage of a wider Overton window, enact green stimulus measures to mobilize all sectors of society, and introduce conditionality on government support that helps ensure non-government actors continue to work towards that mission. They could introduce measures that incorporate changes to how we work and how we are compensated for that work with a view to creating a more diverse and inclusive society. They could appeal to our renewed sense of civic duty, and build that mission safely from our homes, strengthening the current institutional array where is makes sense and creating new supports where they are most needed. Or, they could just let the opportunity pass them by. 

Ultimately, the choice can be simplified: will governments work to get 'back to normal' despite the pandemic exposing the holes in our social fabric, or will they try to mend them, and build something better?

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