A Fork in the Road

Protesters with the Occupy Toronto movement gather in front of City Hall Nov. 19, 2011 (CP/Chris Young)
Protesters with the Occupy Toronto movement gather in front of City Hall Nov. 19, 2011 (CP/Chris Young)

The future of government's role in our lives

Audio: Metro Morning's Matt Galloway spoke to Mary Wiens about the series. Listen audio (runs 6:14)

In Ontario, the provincial government has hired a former bank economist, Don Drummond, to head up a commission to reform its public service for an era of tight finances.

Ontario isn't alone in having to remake itself for lean times ahead. Governments at all levels, the world over, are facing similar financial restraints. Low voter turnout suggests that many people don't have faith that governments can continue to deliver high quality public service, let alone resolve the big problems of our time, from climate change to obesity to traffic congestion.

But so far, much of the public debate about government's role has revolved around two polarizing questions; whether to cut services, or raise taxes.

But there is a growing movement among policy-experts, both within and outside of government, that the way forward must go beyond the debate over service cuts or maintaining the status quo – that in the future, governments must fundamentally transform themselves.

A new role for public service

Matthew MendelsohnMatthew Mendelsohn

Policy experts such as Matthew Mendelsohn, co-founder of the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, believes that public service is at a fork in the road and that the financial crisis facing Ontario's government is both a threat and an opportunity to transform government's role in our lives.

A series of reports, called Shifting Gears (3.3 MB pdf), by the Mowat Centre has helped inform the work of the Drummond Commission. Mendelsohn says those changes need to be accompanied by a new kind of conversation about the future of government.

"I don't think the public conversation has caught up yet," says Mendelsohn. "The public conversation - and we saw it in Toronto - is still very much framed as a choice between cuts to public service and the status quo. I just think that's a very 1990's conversation. I think the conversation that is going to emerge is how you do services in a better more efficient way, how you use technology, how you use data, how you use alternative service provision, how you respond to citizen's expectations to deliver public services even better with less money."

Collaborating on solutions

Don LenihanDon Lenihan

Don Lenihan, an internationally respected policy expert and a frequent speaker on public engagement and collaborative governance, believes that transformation must grow out of a more collaborative approach to governing.

"Governments can no longer govern alone, as they once did," says Lenihan. Rather government must learn to act as a convenor and facilitator, to include a broad range of civic groups and public institutions in developing solutions, rather than handing down decisions – and service cuts – from on high.

Don Lenihan is Vice-President, Engagement, of Canada's Public Policy Forum and the author of Rescuing Policy: The case for public engagement (1.7 MB pdf).

"I do believe we're at a fork in the road in terms of how we think about politics," says Lenihan. "Lots of people have drawn the wrong conclusion. They think that government is not reformable - that it's this wild, big, crazy, lumbering government out there and that the only recourse is retreat. I agree with this - that government has become a lumbering beast. And that if there's no alternative, they're probably right.

But here's where I think they're wrong. If they try to retreat, they're still doing government the same way we've always done it. 'What things can I do to use my powers as the mayor, or premier or prime minister to do 'x' and solve the problem?' What they're going to find out is that in an increasingly complex world, there are fewer and fewer and fewer problems government can solve from the top down because the world doesn't work that way anymore."

Engaging citizens, improving results

In his book, Rescuing Public Policy, Lenihan argues that by engaging citizens, business people, health and environmental groups – and the many other groups and institutions across the whole range of civic life – and giving them a say in and ownership of the solutions, governments will actually become more effective.

Matthew Mendelsohn also says the public needs to understand that reforming public service doesn't mean poorer service – that reforms can just as well lead to improved services, if government heeds the signals that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

"There are two signals, I think. There is the fiscal signal, which is, 'We don't have enough money'. But there's another signal, which is that more and more people are disengaged from government and don't have lots of confidence that governments are spending the money they send to government in a wise and effective manner. If you take two high profile areas, like healthcare and post-secondary education, where we spend enormous amounts of money to deliver public goods, the models are essentially the ones that were designed decades ago. And I think the conversation has to shift."

More to come

Mary Wiens will have more on this subject on Metro Morning during the week of January 30th. Please use the form below to post your ideas about our current approach to government, and potential solutions that you think could improve both services and civic involvement.