Academics and political and public service leaders have increasingly recognized that traditional approaches to problem solving and policy development have not been flexible and adaptive enough to tackle long term and seemingly intractable policy challenges in areas such as mental health issues, homelessness, long-term unemployment, and domestic violence. In view of the personal and societal costs associated with these challenges they have taken on new urgency for political leaders. As these issues moved above ground and assumed the status of political priorities, two things became clear: first, none of them can be tackled by any one ministry or agency developing policy or designing delivery mechanisms alone; and secondly, addressing them comprehensively is beyond the capacity of government, even if it manages to operate as a fully integrated enterprise – which remains a stretch goal.
A comprehensive approach to tackling big policy challenges requires deep collaboration and joint working among several ministries as well as non-governmental organizations – some of which can be powerful domains in their own right. This is tough enough when there is a joint interest in addressing the needs of similar clients (for example, in social and children’s services), but can be a greater challenge when there are perceived divergent interests between ministries (for example between ministries responsible for business growth and those responsible for environmental or labour regulation).
Jocelyn Bourgon has noted the shift from government’s role as hegemonic policy maker to “one of co-creation and co-production of public goods with citizens.” Political and public service leaders, policy think tanks, non-profit organizations, and social enterprises have concluded that governments don’t have the capacity and resources to tackle big social issues in a monolithic way, especially not through command and control approaches to policy-making and delivery, and almost certainly not through traditional consultative mechanisms. The unprecedented wealth of information and the speed of its transfer through digitization has democratized policy-making. This has enormous implications for citizens, consumers, marketers, and political leaders.
Digitization has also been a driver in transforming public expectations about transparency, and access to information. There has been a steady move towards reporting on the quality and outcomes of public services. Easily accessible information on hospital wait times and student achievement are good examples.
Are public services ready for this? The answer is mixed. Top-flight policy-making in the turbulent and unpredictable world of government requires that policy professionals have the right training, skills, and resources. Within government, policy-making is considered to be at the peak of the professional skills hierarchy, but until the fairly recent infusion of a new breed of well-trained graduate students emerging from policy schools, most policy professionals have grown their skills on-the-job. In view of the challenges facing governments and citizens, public service leaders must turn their minds to the skills required for successful policy-making and ensuring that these are reinforced and communicated to policy professionals.
In particular there should be a sustained focus on building capacity for tackling complex and cross-cutting policy challenges with a focus on “boundary-spanning skills”). The skills of emerging networked public policy professionals should include the ability to comfortably network and collaborate with stakeholders, service users, front-line professionals, academics, and consultants. They should be adept at negotiation and problem solving, building and managing transitory project teams, collaborating across professional and organizational boundaries, and seamlessly integrating policy, strategy, implementation planning, and delivery. In view of the importance of data and evidence in policy-making and service delivery, there must also be an understanding of the importance of signalling the need for priority-based research and data outwards to the academic and broader research community, and to ensuring that resulting research is effectively translated before reaching government. Given the growing number of sources of data and advice, policy practitioners must be adept at sorting through multiple sources of data, validating them, and quickly translating them into advice for decision-makers.
The good news is that we have many public servants with these skills right now – and they are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to use them. We are going to need a lot more of these professionals in a hurry, particularly in Ottawa. This is one of the things I emphasize to students in my graduate seminars at U of T’s School of Public Policy and Governance.
But let's go back to the top, Accelerating more open, inclusive and collaborative policy making is going to require sustained leadership from political and public service leaders. Trudeau has provided an important clarion call. He should stick to that message and public service executives should recognized the opportunity and jump on board.