Redoing federalism via service delivery

When you think of Canadian federalism, what comes to mind? If you said “the Constitution” or “fiscal imbalance” or “mind-numbingly long meetings” – congratulations, you’re a normal Canadian.

However, we bet you didn’t say “services” or, especially, “citizen-centred service!” Really, who talks about services when someone mentions federalism?

Actually, we do. We think that citizen-centred service should be a key term in any informed discussion on the future of our federation.

The basic idea behind it is that governments should organize their services around the citizen. For example, when researchers in Halton County asked what was involved in getting a restaurant licence there, they found that applicants had to visit a string of government offices, involving all three levels of government, and fill out a frightening number of forms.

Citizen-centred service asks why these governments don’t get together and reduce the number of forms – to three, say, or two or one – and then make the licence available from a single service counter or Web site.

But, while this is a great idea, it is not as easy as it sounds. The forms reflect the various governments’ commitments on, say, food or fire safety. These can and do differ. When they do, reducing the number of forms means that governments must sit down and agree to harmonize some of their standards to find an alternative they can all accept.

As anyone who has ever been involved in intergovernmental negotiations will tell you, this can be difficult. When federal and provincial governments have genuine differences on such issues, they are often reluctant to let go of them. The result can be a tug-of-war that goes on – and on.

Notwithstanding these issues, however, the point we really want to make here is just that integrated services takes us deep into how government can work together. It is the new window on federalism. Governments are busy collaborating on many such projects, sometimes with considerable success.

At the same time, new technologies are making it possible to develop ever better ways to promote citizen-centred service, such as the use of “system-navigators” or case managers.

Finally, service organizations such as Service Canada and its provincial counterparts in British Colombia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick are blazing a trail. Their efforts to create single window service are leading them to look well beyond their jurisdictional boundaries.

So what does all this mean for federalism? At a minimum, it means that citizen-centred services lead to a more co-operative or collaborative form of federalism. The further we go, the more it pushes us in this direction. That, in turn, will change how we practice federalism.

But if this sounds ominous, it is not. On the contrary, we are entering a new era in government. We should really be asking how this new window might change the way we look at some of the long standing questions over federalism. Does it give us new ways of coming at old problems?

Over the next few months, the Crossing Boundaries National Council will explore this possibility through a new project entitled Citizen-centred Federalism: Rethinking Canada for the Information Age.

The project will be co-chaired by one of us – John Milloy – and our Crossing Boundaries colleague Rona Ambrose, the new federal Minister of the Environment. It will conclude in a volume of short papers by five experts on how the transition to the information society is affecting Canadian federalism and will be published in the Crossing Boundaries Papers series next spring.

In conclusion, let us say that, while we continue to regard the constitutional division of powers as an authoritative guide to roles and responsibilities, there is no denying that the move to citizen-centred service introduces a dynamic into government that would likely have confounded the Fathers of Confederation. Yet in our day, as the modern mothers and fathers of Confederation continue this dialogue, it seems self-evidently right.

What happens as this principle works its way beyond services and into federalism is an open question. We should approach it with an open mind. 068644

John Milloy ( is MPP for Kitchener Centre and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in Ontario; Maryantonett Flumian ( is Deputy Head of Service Canada and Associate Deputy Minister of Human Resources and Social Development Canada. Both are members of the Crossing Boundaries National Council (

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