The drive to improve government service delivery has taken root among civil servants but has gained little visibility with the public or elected representatives, according to two politicians.
“We need a powerful political catalyst to break through the current situation,” Mayor Ann MacLean of New Glasgow N.S. told the Lac Carling Congress in a session on political leadership. When it comes to providing services, “citizens expect their governments to work together. The public doesn’t think about who is the service provider, it just wants the service.”
While the public wants more efficient service from government, it is hardly a top of mind issue, according to MacLean and John Milloy, parliamentary assistant to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. The reforms accomplished so far are “not registering in the public consciousness, so they don’t impact on the politicians.”
The only way to break this impasse is to find people willing to give the issue profile in the mainstream news media and with the public, they said. In part that means finding politicians willing to champion the issue. “We need to bridge the gap between the public servants and the politicians,” Milloy observed. “We need political leadership to get technical issues resolved.”
However Milloy agreed in a later interview that the profile exercise had to go further and involve men and women outside active politics who could devote the time required to promote the issue. If all the champions were politicians, one election could seriously derail the issue.
Milloy said many issues compete for the time and attention of politicians and improved service delivery must be presented in a manner that enables them to see clear economic benefits and public support. What politicians and governments hear most about from the public are mundane matters such as birth certificates, passports, health cards, drivers licences and permits, he noted. As well, most politicians are looking for the cost savings promised from improved service delivery.
One politician who is an acknowledged champion is Treasury Board President Reg Alcock. Alcock told the conference there is a clear need “to build some capacity on the political side.” Political support was important to ensure that real improvements were made in service delivery.
Alcock said politics is driven by public concerns, not management issues. “How do we make national service delivery sexy?” Dan Bader, Alberta Deputy Minister of Municipal Affairs and Co-Chairman of the Crossing Boundaries National Council (CBNC), commented that “we have to put the public services issues in the public eye.”
The Council is composed of 43 politicians and public servants who support the transformation of government service delivery. It could take on some of the champion role, Bader said: “We are trying to raise the profile of the national council.” It has held consultations across the country on improved government service delivery and accountability and is preparing proposals for a national discussion on the topics.
MacLean said the Council would present a report to 5,000 politicians, senior public servants and community leaders on ways to provide more efficient service delivery. She also reminded the conference that in any discussion on improved service delivery, protection of privacy and control over information on themselves will be important to members of the public, especially if the three levels of government participate in joint service initiatives.
“Citizens ought to control the information on themselves and decide how much of it government can have,” she said. “Government has to realize that it is the steward of public information when it is used in areas such as health care.”
Milloy suggested that the best way to overcome political resistance to federal-provincial-municipal collaboration in service delivery “is to get the public to demand it.” The Council is well positioned to take a lead role in promoting the issue and getting it discussed in the news media, which will help get it on political agendas across the country. “We have to engage the media to engage the political level. We need ongoing support from the public.” 053158
Alex Binkley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Ottawa freelance journalist.