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In praise of our professional public service

March 18, 2020

“…what we’re seeing is basically 4-D chess of public policy. International, federal, provincial and municipal coordination and massive coordination across departments at each level.”

When you’re watching the news today and see a Cabinet minister or political leader announce a new relief policy or a border closure, I hope you think about the hundreds – likely thousands – of people who have been working around the clock to arrive at comprehensive policy and the means to deliver it – at lightning speed – while at the same time shifting their own operations to work from home wherever possible.

These announcements would be incredibly fast even if they only had to contend with one department or one level of government; but what we’re seeing is basically 4-D chess of public policy. International, federal, provincial and municipal coordination and massive coordination across departments at each level – not to mention coordination with labour unions, the private sector and other stakeholders in many cases. When we hear the policy announcement – health, economy, borders, etc. it may seem simple but public servants – people like you and me – have been sweating the details. Here is a gross oversimplification of what they are trying to figure out – while at the same time activating their own business continuity plans:

  • what is the policy objective?
  • what is the most effective policy approach?
  • who is the ideal beneficiary of the policy (employers to keep people working? people directly? other levels of government?)
  • what is the best policy instrument? (grants, tax breaks, inducements, declarations, regulation… should it be something new or an enhancement to something already in place)
  • what are the financial impacts?
  • what are the upstream and downstream impacts?
  • what are the impacts on other levels of government, if any?
  • which agency is the best one to deliver it?
  • what are the regulations and the details around it?
  • what IT systems can support the delivery? This is critical.
  • What tangible locations, materials are required? Additional supports?

There are usually rounds and rounds of analysis, meetings, considerations, professional expertise to narrow down the options, prioritize and decide. Multiply that by “n” if it involves aligning international decision-making, like closing a border for non-essential travel.

Once these and other considerations are determined

  • what is the communication strategy? timeline? copy for websites? lay-out? Q&A? advertising campaigns? translation? etc…
    • Just think for a moment that the simple form you fill out has to be very clear, easy to use, capture all the required information, link to appropriate data-bases to trigger the action you intended. It has to be in plain language and accessible. It has to have sign-off from a number of departments, including legal.
  • are the partners prepared?
  • do people at the call centre and IT have all the information they need to answer questions and trouble shoot?
  • Are the tracking systems in place? They have to be able to track and audit for transparency and accountability.
  • on and on and on…

So be kind when you hear a policy announcement that doesn’t have every single regulation nailed down. These are accountants, lawyers, doctors, scientists, economists, admin, IT, communication, policy analysts, front-line service people, designers, translators, etc. who are working their tails off and doing their best professionally and personally to get this far – in record time- for the public good. For you. To keep you safe. To keep some cash in your pocket. To keep the economy afloat.

So rather than say: “They missed this detail,” maybe think “Wow, that is an incredible amount of work in so little time” or “Thank God for policy analysts, government economist and the folks in IT.” Thank you to our professional public service.

I know I have missed so many steps, considerations and roles of people involved. Please feel free to add your praise for professional public servants in the comments below.

With sincere thanks. Merci du fonds du coeur.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Shawn Murray permalink
    March 19, 2020 6:24 pm

    You make a number of excellent points Dominique. Your characterization of this as 4-D public policy chess is very accurate. Canadians should take pride and some solace in the degree of professionalism, commitment and diligence of its public servants across all levels of government in the face of unprecedented challenges. The deputy prime minister has used the term alacrity – I had to look it up, again! – and it is also an apt description of how this is being taken on.

    Thank you once again for your astute observations and perspective, and your own public service.

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