Over the last couple of weeks, for example, the University of Saskatchewan’s Loleen Berdhal and the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson each published articles about reforming the public service. (See here and here for Berdhal; and here for Ibbitson.)
Berdhal and Ibbitson believe that the largely successful transition to remote work by so many of the 120,000 officials located in the Ottawa region this past year means that many could probably work from elsewhere permanently.
Berdhal advocates spreading government offices across the provinces and territories. Ibbitson envisions more telework.
The two identify a similar set of benefits to decentralization:
- Potential cost savings (from selling expensive Ottawa real estate);
- Reduced critical infrastructure vulnerability (by limiting the concentration of government functions in a single geographical space);
- Decreased cynicism towards government (by bringing services physically closer to more Canadians);
- More widely-distributed private sector economic spin-offs (from the new concentration of government offices in different regions);
- Stronger regional voices in government; and
- More equitable access to government for regionally-based advocacy groups.
They also acknowledge some of the challenges that such a move would entail:
- Many Ottawa residents wouldn’t want to, or wouldn’t be able to, relocate;
- Those who do leave the capital would incur significant up-front moving costs; and
- Recruiting bilingual workers might be difficult in parts of the country where speaking French is less common.
I am intrigued by Berdhal’s argument in particular, but I am also concerned about potential second- and third-order effects.
Most important to me is that disbursing official Ottawa across the country will likely make it even harder for certain groups of Canadians to become senior public service executives.
Presumably, for national security reasons, no matter how decentralized our government becomes, one would have to keep a number of departments in the capital, beginning with the Privy Council Office (PCO), known in other countries as the Department of the Prime Minister.
Officially, the PCO “helps the government in implementing its vision, goals and decisions in a timely manner.”
More specifically, among its many duties, the PCO lets the government know if “line departments” are working at cross-purposes. (This is part of what is known as the "challenge function.")
Since most of the issues that face the federal government today cannot be solved by a single department or agency, the office has become absolutely critical.
Consider the National Water Agency that Ottawa recently pledged to create.
Natural Resources Canada and the Department of Agriculture are running the consultation process to launch its development, but Indigenous Services Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans also have a stake in the outcome.
The International Joint Commission should be engaged, and I suspect that both the Navy and the Coast Guard could be, too.
The public servants who ultimately lead the agency will need to build relationships with a variety of stakeholders, and it has long been recognized in official circles that the best way to gain the necessary perspective is to spend time working in the PCO.
Indeed, in Canada today, it is all but impossible to reach the highest levels of the bureaucracy without at least a year or two of experience in one of Canada’s central agencies.
It follows that if federal departments are scattered across the country, the top public service jobs will be limited to individuals who are willing to relocate multiple times over the course of their career.
In this context, cultural and gender inequities are likely to prevent a number of Canadians who would otherwise make great public service leaders from acquiring the experience necessary to move up.
There are ways to minimize this challenge, but few really good ones.
So let’s build back better, but let’s do so carefully, and prudently. Otherwise, for every problem we solve, we risk creating another.
On how the Canadian government works, check out the indefatigable Alex Marland and Jared Wesley’s The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada. Marland’s latest book, Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada, was just shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.
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