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Big government, just in time

Summary:
Big government road into town just in time, but alas when he jumped off his bronco and reached for his six-gun it became clear he wasn’t just-in-time government. What is clear, if nothing else, from the COVID-19 crisis, we should always choose our leaders with one thing in mind: character. Character determines how they will stand up to the unexpected. That’s what really matters. And frankly, all of them—municipal, provincial, federal—are passing the character test. Whether it is Legault, Ford, or Kenney, or whether Nenshi or Tory, and yes of course whether it is Trudeau, in crisis they have all shown true character. Opinion polling shows that strong and growing majorities of Canadians feel their governments are doing a good job in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. And it’s

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Big government road into town just in time, but alas when he jumped off his bronco and reached for his six-gun it became clear he wasn’t just-in-time government.

What is clear, if nothing else, from the COVID-19 crisis, we should always choose our leaders with one thing in mind: character.

Character determines how they will stand up to the unexpected. That’s what really matters. And frankly, all of them—municipal, provincial, federal—are passing the character test. Whether it is Legault, Ford, or Kenney, or whether Nenshi or Tory, and yes of course whether it is Trudeau, in crisis they have all shown true character.

Opinion polling shows that strong and growing majorities of Canadians feel their governments are doing a good job in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. And it’s impressive, their sensibility to consult, their conviction to act. Now, when we need them, all our leaders have shown up, just in time.

Big government, just in time

Big government, just in time

“Think Big” has become the guidepost for these abnormal times, but the other thing that is clear from COVID-19 is that we can’t be governed by character and ambition alone. Good governance needs a strong foundation in a professional public service, and an infrastructure that can deliver. Thank goodness Canadians have that too, but alas these muscles are not as tuned to real time.

The biggest stumble of the past week was the Trudeau/Morneau over-reach in the first draft of Bill C-13, an attempt to skirt parliamentary oversight and seize almost dictatorial control over taxing and spending for two years. Not immediately tasteful, not in character, and certainly not contributing to the we-are-in-it-together spirit that will be crucial to good governance and success.

Big government, just in time

This over-reach was probably driven more by insecurity than by partisanship, springing from having to look through the veil of uncertainty that has fallen over Ottawa. Staring into the mirror and seeing no reassuring reflection, the Ministers of Prime and of Finance wished for a pot of gold, just in case, you never know, down the road, we may need it.

Insecurity about a fluid situation, and insecurity about how much and how quickly support can be delivered, springs from the state of the government’s plumbing, a hard constraint on Big Think: the public service has a tough time doing just-in-time.

Employment Insurance, that grand social insurance scheme born from the disaster of the Great Depression, intended to offer income support to all in need, to insure against the great social risks we collectively face, risks that would bankrupt private insurers in no time, how is it performing during a crisis of the very kind it was intended to address?

It is straining, with computer code written in the 1970s running its servers, processing power and personnel stretched to the limit, overcrowded service centers that are now shut down. The public service is doing the best it can with old plumbing.

Big government, just in time

Ottawa mandarins like to muse about an “all of government approach,” a busting across the silos of different ministries to address all aspects of a policy challenge. But the biggest silos of all have never been breached, those between policy development and service delivery. And now the delivery plumbing is conditioning the choices that Big Thinkers can make.

What is also clear from the COVID-19 crisis, we should always be investing and innovating in public service delivery, something easy to ignore in normal times.

There is no doubt that the income support programs the federal government moved quickly out of the drawing room and into legislation this week were designed with an eye, not simply to whether they were big enough, but how they would be delivered. The cheques won’t be in the mail for weeks. In times of Corona, that’s a lifetime.

Our governments have to think big, but they can only implement incrementally, a couple of steps forward, another back. Events are moving too fast, capacity is too limited, for Canadians to expect otherwise, even if what they really need is both big and just-in-time government.

When Trudeau’s team first came to power they were enamored with the idea of governing with data. Measure outcomes, set targets, re-calibrate in the face of results, and move forward with a “there’s more to do” attitude. But lags in information and delivery make all that fall short.

There is always a big gap between intention and result, never mind in times of crisis, and that gap has to be filled with the trust that character instills in partners and citizens.

Trust gives us the assurance that the cheque is indeed in the mail, and character, now more than ever, needs to deliver. It can’t stumble too many times, before trust rides away.

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