Canada’s new government: An innovation-free zone?

By: Sandford BorinsOne of the conclusions I've drawn about innovation in the U.S. federal government is that Democratic administrations are much more likely than Republican administrations to support innovations coming from the career public service. Republicans tend to believe that, as Ronald Reagan put it, government is the problem; Democrats tend to believe that government is the solution.

Democratic political appointees usually have more expertise and identify more strongly with the agency's mission than their Republican counterparts. The classic example of an unqualified Republican appointee was former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administration Michael Brown, about whom President Bush uttered the immortal compliment, “Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job,” a few days before firing him for his incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina.

Finally, Democratic political appointees are more likely than Republicans to give public servants the resources, recognition, and cover necessary to innovate.
Is the situation comparable in Canada? Are governments of the left more supportive of innovation than those on the right?

The Globe and Mail's political columnist Lawrence Martin last week wrote that the Harper government displays little policy innovation, probably less than any previous Conservative government. This is not surprising, given the emphasis Canada's “new” government has put on tax cuts and tax expenditures, as opposed to new programs.

By the way, a search on the Canada site reveals that 28 months into its mandate the rubric “Canada's new government” has appeared a total of 1833 times, most recently a month ago.

I was at a seminar in Ottawa last week where a former deputy minister cited Martin's article as summing up the situation accurately. The point was also made that the Conservatives' emphasis on detailed accountability, compliance with webs of rules, and extensive risk management all tend to discourage innovation.

A second former senior public servant took a different tack. Even if the Conservatives don't want an innovative policy agenda, there is scope for an innovative management agenda. A great deal of work needs to be done to modernize the federal government's financial and human resource management systems as well as shared support services.

Certainly getting on with a management innovation agenda would be a good thing. From the viewpoint of a minority government, the problem is that management reform has big upfront costs but its benefits are neither immediate nor particularly visible to the electorate. Finally, if these initiatives create savings, the politicians will want to scoop them, while public servants would want to redeploy them.

In contrast, one academic colleague at the seminar made the point that if you are looking for an innovative Canadian government, turn your eyes west to British Columbia, where Liberal premier Gordon Campbell has so many new ideas on the go that the question is whether the public service can keep up with him. Now there's a challenge many Canadian public servants would embrace.

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