Policy Advice in a New Era

We all recognize that policy challenges are becoming increasingly complex. To attempt to resolve policy issues within a single unit, in isolation from other departments, seems like a frivolous exercise that is unlikely to yield a positive result. That being said, many groups are intimidated by the idea of consulting broadly. How do you decide who to consult? How to you balance competing interests? At what point do you bring in the private sector?

These questions are just a sample of the challenges that any manager faces when moving forward with a broad initiative. To answer those questions, public servants need to have a strong lay of the land and be able to thing long-term with regard to the implications of the project that they are undertaking and have a deep understanding of the complexity of the issues. Rather than shying away from complexity, or trying to simplify problems, we need to embrace the complexity and realize that our solutions will be more effective through that understanding.

How does one go about dealing with complexity? Luckily, the Clerk has already started to answer this question:

To meet these many challenges, the Public Service must get better at dealing with complexity. This will require new approaches to creative and collaborative problem solving. It will mean working with other levels of government, the private sector, civil society and citizens themselves. All of these players are demanding a larger role in public policy and in the design and delivery of programs and services. 

One of the ways in which we can effectively consult is through better learning to put together frameworks through which we can view problems. Departments may attack problems in ad hoc ways, with seemingly little consistency in terms of principles, or beliefs in how the long-term may pan out in a specific policy area. There is a risk that a group may create an idea, and shop around that specific idea, rather than looking for honest feedback and alternative solutions.

I would propose that the first thing a unit should do when tasked with a large problem is to create a framework through which to view the problem. The framework ought to identify:

  •         What are the likely long-term trends in this policy area?
  •         What principles are we abiding by?
  •         What is the ideal outcome?
  •         What are the key factors that are likely to impact this policy area?

This does not mean coming up with a solution – but it does mean narrowing the realm of solutions that may be helpful. From there, if you open up discussion to the rest of a department, government, or the public, people are aware of what sort of principles are at play and are better about to frame solutions in a way that can be evaluated in a consistent manner.

In adopting such a solution, we recognize the advice from the PM’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service, which states that:

It must be recognized that one of the Public Service’s most important functions is maintaining a capacity for strategic thinking and policy advice.

This means that getting advice from outside sources is great – indeed, we need to harness all the great ideas that are being thought of inside and outside of government. But the role of the Public Service is not simply that of a communicator between elected officials and the various think tanks/NGOs/etc. There is a key policy function that needs to be played by the bureaucracy itself.

The role of the Public Service is to be able to objectively evaluate ideas against a reasonable set of criteria, or alter/merge ideas to better suit the needs of Canadians. It is a role that the Public Service is uniquely situated to undertake in the preparation of advice for our elected officials. Being able to provide that advice is one of, if not the most, important function performed by the Public Service.

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