Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button
History Table of Contents
1998 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1998
Rethinking Canada for the 21st Century

Meeting the challenge: In a global society in crisis and rapid change,
at what do we excel; where do we fail?

David Zussman, President, Public Policy Forum

We’ve been asked to do a little crystal ball gazing.

My colleagues will look to the future and, as Monique has already in the context of change in lifestyles, particularly the family, and Peter will talk from an economic perspective.

I will attempt to describe how changing notions of governance will transform government in the next decade.

You may agree with nothing we have to say but I hope that our very act of trying will garner some admiration.

Good government is one of our most valued assets, as valued as our land, our resources, our environment, and our intellectual capacity. Good government affects us profoundly, regardless of our position in life. Our ability to maintain its integrity speaks directly to our ability to offer Canadians quality of life and increase our standard of living.

Yet not even nations like ours that have long taken good government for granted can afford to be complacent.

Take a moment to consider what government will look like a decade from now.

First, it is likely that most of our interactions will be done electronically, along our Internet system. Some of us file our income tax using E- file but imagine most of our transactions taking place from the comfort of our home, office or library directly to the appropriate person (or mechanical voice) in government.

Secondly, I expect that our interactions with all levels of government will be seamless, although given Canada’s preoccupation with jurisdiction the usual wrangling among the three levels of government will continue in the background.

Thirdly, given our high expectations for the quality of service that government provides, the person with whom we interact at the end of our Internet connection will more than likely not be a full time public servant.

Instead, most of the people or, regrettably, the voice mail systems we are interacting with will be working in organizations that are contracted to provide services and whose compensation will depend on their performance.

In the words of one senior federal public servant, government in the year 2025 will be less like a supertanker, and more like a collection of small craft linked together by software.

While the role of public servants will change significantly, the role of elected officials will change dramatically.

Members of Parliament will be more responsive than ever to public input. In response to lower levels of confidence in public institutions and increasing demands from for input into decision making, our members of Parliament will be looking for new ways of consulting constituents and interest groups that allow for more citizen involvement.

By the way, you’ll notice I didn’t make any reference to the Senate because I have no really strong idea where we’re going to end up on that.

Traditionally, Canadian institutions have enjoyed relative high levels of public trust, but over the past 15 years we have seen a precipitous decline in the public’s trust in government and public service. This shift in public opinion is significant and cause for some concern. We need high levels of trust in order to govern.

In 1927, William Lyon Mackenzie King put the benefits of high levels of public approval this way:

"Government, in the last analysis, is organized opinion. Where there is little or no public opinion, there is likely to be bad government, which sooner or later becomes autocratic government."

All of this will result from increased accountability levels within the constraints of the Westminster model, where the ultimate accountability is played out in Canada every four to five years. The debate about the relative influence of interest groups is likely to continue but newer forms of direct electronic communications with decision-makers in the form of referenda, polls, citizens, juries, and town halls will re-balance the role of interest groups.

This development has already brought into question the legitimacy of interest groups.

We are well aware of the growing importance of GATT and the WTO in Canada, and have observed how the IMF is driving governance change in many countries.

In addition to these well established organizations, we have also seen how the Canadian inspired land mines agreement has recently created new organizations that will bind the world together in a different way.

As a result, citizens will become aware of a growing number of international organizations that are not based in Canada but play a significant role in setting the rules that govern our activities, not only in trade and commerce but also in defining our cultural and social programs.

As mentioned by others this morning, these Meta, or super organizations, will exercise extraterritorial influence over domestic behaviour in addition to our own activities abroad.

In short, during the next decade, we will be looking at government through two opposite prisms.

The first prism will ensure that all major policy decisions will accommodate the demands of interested citizens for a greater say in decision making. The second prism will ensure that Canada has sufficient say in the regulation of global activities, be they economic or social in nature.

Why will this new order come about? For the simple reason that the old order is gradually disappearing. To paraphrase an old saying, a funny thing happened on the way to the Age of Information, our system of government became outdated.

All of us are familiar with the changes that have surrounded us since personal computers first arrived on our unsuspecting desks. These awkward looking machines became tangible evidence of the impact infomatics is having in the work place. Robotics and high-speed information transmission attacked — but did not solve — the productivity problem at the cost of job security, while the expansion of trade routes and trade alliances gave us access to large new markets at the cost of our total sovereignty.

Largely unnoticed during the early days of this information and global revolution were the effects these changes were having on our notions of governance.

If the world was going to be our marketplace and we now had almost instantaneous ways of communicating with one another, as a consequence we also had the capacity to improve our democratic institutions.

While we have a general understanding of what we mean by democratic principles, until recently, we were limited by practical considerations in the application and full enjoyment of them.

These developments have the potential to give citizens_ more say in the governing of their nation. As Peter Drucker noted in The Post- capitalist World, "every few hundred years in Western history, there occurs a sharp transformation.

"Within a few short decades, society — its world view, its basic values, its social and political structure, its arts, its key institutions — rearranges itself. Fifty years later there is a new world, and people born then cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born.

"We are currently living through such a transformation."

Why should we care about governance and good government?

In my view, we simply have no choice in this regard.

Governments without legitimacy will not function, and without a functioning stable government, Canada will lose its most central institutions and one of the elements that makes this country so attractive to live in.

The legitimacy question strikes at the heart of this discussion, by challenging us to develop new means of working with government — both elected and unelected — that restores our confidence in these institutions.

Failing to do so will serve to undermine government’s ability to act in the public interest.

Since no other sector can or should protect the public interest, the restoration of public confidence must be a high priority for all of us.

While modern government has become more complex and multi-voiced, however, it has simultaneously shrunk, at least at the administrative level.

Restructuring and downsizing has left the public service narrowing its activities by devolving programs to successively lower levels of government or by encouraging other sectors of society to take on these responsibilities as profit centres. In reaction to the dramatic realignment of these responsibilities, citizens have demanded a say in these changes.

Fiscal pressures over the past five years have pushed the public service into thinking about new or alternative arrangements for the delivery of services forcing public servants to redefine their skill set to include a better understanding of business acumen, measuring results, and increasing knowledge of service quality and accountability.

What has happened over the past decade provides useful insights into why I make the predictions I have about government and governing in the future.

Consider, for example, the increases we have witnessed both in government complexity and in political activism. We have more political parties in Parliament than previously, giving expression to a wider array of views — primarily regional — than in the past.

Many of the parties use new and multiple modes of connecting with their constituencies and the broader Canadian public. Web sites are now standard practice.

While the political debate can be seen to represent narrow interests, I suspect that it represents a glimpse of the future where many more voices will participate in more complex conversation about more public policy issues.

There are a number of other voices coming through, through new political entities such as the establishment of the new territory of Nunavut for the Inuit of Northeastern Canada, and the actualization of the Nisga Treaty in Northern British Columbia.

Municipal governments are also gaining a more significant voice at the decision table. All of these represent fundamental changes to our political landscape.

Finally, we have, at long last, recognized that public policy is more complex and inter-related than we have previously acknowledged. We know for instance that the changing nature of work is, without doubt, now one of the most challenging problems this country is facing.

We are also aware, that despite billions of dollars of public and private investment, we have not been able to answer, to our satisfaction, the simplest of questions about the future of work; especially work for young people.

What are we all of us going to do from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday, in the first decade of the new millennium?. What skills and knowledge are we going to need at that time? We simply don’t know.

Within this context, how will government be organized?

If there is one trend that characterized government during the last 20 years, particularly in OECD countries [it] has been the narrowing of government activities. While much of this activity is driven by a desire to re-balance fiscal demands for public funds, public attitudes have also changed over the past decade in Canada.

Canadians want many of the things they have always cherished, such as a first rate health care system and access to education, but they are less willing to spend money on low priority areas of public policy.

Moreover, they want all levels of government to work together without the usual squabbling that is found in most federal states.

Some countries have already taken this new route.

In Sweden, for example, a typical department has less than 100 persons. The ministries make up less than 0.2 percent of public employment while most of the service delivery takes place through administrative boards that are overseen by a board of directors.

It is also unrealistic today to think that citizens will not play a more active role in government decision-making. Over the past decade, citizens have demanded and won a place at the decision making table either through referendums or by becoming members of interest groups.

However, we are just beginning to understand how to engage citizens in a meaningful conversation about important choices.

Mechanisms for citizen engagement are exploding onto our political arena and few of us have had the seasoned experience to understand which of these are effective, appropriate and truly responsive.

There are, thank goodness, limits to downsizing and retrenchment. Increasingly, Canadians are staking out a clear position about retaining certain fundamental values that distinguish us a nation.

Recently, I read that Canada, together with The Netherlands, is seen by many in the European Community as the third way of governing because of our civic society. That is, we continue to be perceived as a nation having found a balance between economic maximization, reallocation and quality of life.

In large part, to the extent that we are actually delivering a balanced approach, it is due to individuals who volunteer time and money to help Canadians and to the numerous voluntary organizations and initiatives that continue to support our communities.

Maintaining this aspect of our nation — the health and durability of our civic society — is already a significant challenge for us. It will only increase when we make the commitment.

Our determination to rework a civic society is bound to result in a great deal more devolution to the third or volunteer sector. This transition process is not a new one — every student of constitutional history is familiar with the delegation tradition in Canada — but the pace and one way nature of the movement will be significant in the next quarter century.

This may have the desirable effects of saving our current social programs that government cutbacks might otherwise eradicate. But it will raise special and difficult problems, as well.

Most notable, will be the question of accountability. If we have learned nothing else from the recent Krever Inquiry it is that control of the third sector cannot be exercised on an ad-hoc basis. .

For the third sector, especially for our voluntary institutions and organizations, it means that we will need to re-build a capacity that has been eroded through government budget cuts.

Both government and businesses will need to invest in this sector to strengthen its ability to deliver community services, to provide a voice to citizens for a variety of civic interests, and to serve as an effective voice in the determination of future public policy and government direction.

For corporations, the issue of partnerships will need to be re-examined.

It is unlikely that we will be able to sustain our present notions that government and business will be partners in the sense of a marriage of mutual interests, It is more likely that we will recognize — using the guardian/commercial syndrome models of Jane Jacobs — that there are times when government will need the expertise of the private sector in program delivery and some policy development, and others where it will need the third sector or go it alone.

This development may force us to revise our current thinking about public-private partnerships and that these represent overlapping interests. In my view, interests only converge at the highest level of abstraction.

At the working level, increasingly we will again recognize that the public service works in the public interest, and the private sector works for its own private interests. And that is healthy in a nation where all interests — public, private, civic — are respected and valued.

All of this should lead to increased levels of trust and confidence in our political leaders and public institutions.

In summary, I have tried to capture the following ideas for our discussion period.

First, we do not fully comprehend the pending impact of technology on governance, as our forefathers didn’t understand the pending impact of the industrial revolution on their understanding of work and society. Citizens, at our encouragement, will demand a greater voice in decision making and higher level of public services.

Second, the public service of Canada will be smaller due to technology and a more diminished role in society as the volunteer and private sectors grow in relative importance.

Third, governing has already become more complex due to two diametrically opposite changes. The first are the new and emerging Meta, or global organizations, replacing the role of the traditional state. The second are the myriad of new grass roots organizations that derive their legitimacy from their local interests.

And fourth, our present political institutions will be forced to reinvent themselves in such a way that takes into consideration more citizen input and greater public accountability.

In conclusion, these matters are too important issues to leave to special interest groups, journalist, academics and ideologues.

We cannot borrow solutions from other countries.

Canada has the opportunity to be the first of the post modern nations — one that balances the efficiency of the market place with the redistributive effectiveness of the state and of individual preferences.

The issue of the future of our political and governmental institutions is crucial in determining the ultimate role of government in the next century.

Couchiching is the ideal place to discuss these issues.