Perhaps, Minister

The previous column in this series argued that, in an era of digital government, a new managerial ethos must be forged on more proactively transparent and inclusive models of decision-making. Even as promises from new governments offer some hope in acknowledging the necessity of change, the structures and cultures of the public sector are not so easily adaptable.

The Internet may well represent the set of pressures demanding this new ethos. But, as with any organization or institution, leadership ultimately determines whether a new approach to governance takes hold. The capacity for innovative action, in other words, rests with those elected to lead, meaning that political action is the key determinant.

Currently, public sector reform is stymied by a widening disconnect between the operational and political layers of government – and how governance is adapting (or not) within each sphere. On the one hand, senior public servants regularly promote horizontality and consultation. Meanwhile, cabinet ministers meet secretly, answer directly and individually to the public for their specific domains, and compete with one another for limited resources and prestige.

E-government is not the sole cause of this rift, but it has done much to expose such schizophrenia. Senior public servants heading up e-government programs preach organizational transformation predicated on citizen-centric and seamless governance processes. Indeed, “horizontality” is now ingrained in the decision-making apparatus of all governments, consuming ever widening amounts of time and energy.

Yet the payoff is weakened, and will continue to be weakened, by our minister-centric model of governance. While presumably supportive of internal transformations led by their public servants, Ministers operate in accordance with 19th century customs and forums. Cabinet secrecy and ministerial accountability are paramount and all-encompassing. Horizontal management is, accordingly, often an exercise in frustration.

In government, there is merit in stability and tradition; resistance to wholesale change is therefore understandable. Yet, as a new slate of leaders takes the reins at all levels of government, it is crucial to lay the groundwork for a realignment of political structures, to better reflect and respond to new circumstances.

At the macro-level, government leaders must begin to create a meaningful public space for redesigning or adapting our democratic institutions. All too often, public engagement is sought only on the technical merits of specific policy choices or the priorizing of spending (and, by extension, cutting). Even here, the public has well-grounded doubts on the nature of this consultation and its ability to influence decisions – as a minister-centric regime often fuses consultation and communication, willingly or not.

The time has come to begin to engage on more profound questions of democratic purpose and process. Those seeking a return to an era where Parliament (or the Legislature) is sacred and admired across the land are doomed to perpetual disillusion. In a digital and interdependent world, knowledge and power cannot be contained, and this reality does not bypass our public institutions – as attested by voter turnout rates and the languishing influence of political parties.

Although such dialogue will not yield a blueprint for overnight reform, the message sent to both public servants and the citizenry would be one of openness to change. Young people in particular must find their place as future voters, politicians and public servants. This demographic divide is particularly urgent, as budgetary crises and hiring freezes do little to spark interest in public service, either democratically or professionally. What, then, might be done in the short term? Working incrementally, ministers could make an important contribution by opening up cabinet processes and working collectively in a more open and collaborative fashion. The two are inter-linked, as few people care about the number and composition of cabinet committees if their work remains cut off from public view.

In the Internet age, cabinet secrecy must be the exception and not the norm. To engineer such a transition, cabinet can no longer be the exclusive political forum for horizontality. In order to transcend silos, ministers must do so both privately and publicly. Key policy agendas such as health, the environment or e-government could be each assigned a task force of ministers with collective responsibility for both planning and results. Budgetary processes, modern comptrollership and technology planning must transcend departmental boundaries, facilitating alternative and shared governance mechanisms. Much of this groundwork is now being now developed. In order to be truly transformative, however, horizontal governance must become both politically visible and meaningful, co-existing with a necessary element of functional hierarchy rather than succumbing to it.

Finding a new balance will not be straightforward, but immediate innovation and longer-term reinvention are intertwined. If the latter is given discursive space and public legitimacy, the shared learning that results will translate into higher degrees of freedom for governments to deviate from tradition. Twenty-first century government may eventually be the result.

Jeffrey Roy ([email protected]) is an Associate Professor of Governance and Management at the University of Ottawa.

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