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Monday, December 23, 2013

Top Ten Public Policy Non-Stories of 2013



David Mitchell of the Public Policy Forum recently published his list of the Top Ten Public Policy stories of 2013. If one were to consider just these events, then one would risk missing the forest for the trees. The big stories may have been reported, but all too often they don’t get the serious attention they need. These are the top public policy stories that didn’t make the headlines or only in a marginal way. These are the big public policy concerns that Canadians are not talking about.

10. Ottawa’s e-government failure - the Auditor General of Canada issued a scathing report on the state of e-government in Canada, noting the lost opportunities for reducing expenses and increasing efficiencies as well as the complete absence of strategic vision. Given the billions already invested Canadians deserve better.

9. The TPP Blackout - the near total lack of public discussion regarding the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement that is quietly setting about to establish a supranational body to guide national policies and enforcement including new policing measures, with far-reaching implications for individual rights, civil liberties, publishers, internet service providers and internet privacy, as well as for the creative, intellectual, biological and environmental commons.

8. A “growing tide of surveillance and censorship,” that, according to Internet founder Tim Berners-Lee, is threatening the future of our democracy. It was most prominently illustrated in the revelations of Edward Snowden and the exposure of the NSA’s electronic eavesdropping operation, PRISM, on US citizens but then was quickly linked to CSEC’s snooping on visiting diplomats and on foreign governments on behalf of Canada’s resource companies.

7. The Decline of Canada’s Not-For-Profit sector - starved for resources, overwhelmed by imposed bureaucracy, fighting amongst themselves, attacked by government, Canada’s not-for-profits are teetering on the brink. At the same time professional, expert-driven community organizations are abandoning people. The sector is in a major transition, but to where?

6. The erosion of Canadian civic culture - due to a well entrenched culture of entitlement and rights that has been designed to immunize Canadians from the vagaries of circumstance, Canada’s civic culture is suffering from a decline in ownership and responsibility towards events and community conditions.

5. The rise of a culture of fear and mutual distrust among the Canadian Public Service and our elected officials. Politicians no longer value the knowledge of public servants to guide their decisions, tending to favour a process of decision-based evidence making instead.  On the other hand, public servants are increasingly casting themselves as Canadians’ last defence against the arbitrariness and ideological excesses of politicians. One group wraps itself in the cloak of elected all-knowingness, while the other wraps itself in unelected expertise. What gets lost is the focus on citizens and the need to learn our way out of problems together. What remains is institutional expedience where the most important ethical value is loyalty upwards (and not to the public) and where leaders, politician or public servant, are the arbiters of what those values might be.

4. The decline of Canadian political culture, most clearly illustrated in the antics of Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford, that is increasingly dominated by populism, of the divisive kind that pits one group against another, and opportunism, that shows a complete disregard for either principle, tradition or decorum. Facts no longer matter and opponents are no longer viewed as legitimate members of a shared community but are painted as ‘enemies’ to be ignored or eliminated. Political debate has been further reduced to a parody of a conversation. Canada’s political culture is degenerating into a “hoser” culture or worse.

3. The Trivialization of Collaboration and Partnership. A recent survey found that "collaboration tops the list in the trends taking center stage” in government at all levels. Many of the Canada’s biggest policy concerns – sustainable economy, resource exploitation and depletion, population growth, climate change, diversity, equability – all require significant cooperation among diverse arrays of stakeholders, each of whom may hold a piece of the knowledge resources or power necessary to resolve the issue. However, despite all the rhetoric around collaboration, government still lacks the frameworks, knowledge, skills and mechanisms to work with others effectively or even to work across their own internal institutional boundaries.

2. Crime Nobody Cares About - cyber crime is widespread (costing $3.1 billion in 2013 and affecting 42% of Canadians), federal government privacy breaches are common place (over 1 million federal government privacy breaches revealed in 2013) and identity theft is huge, involving tens of thousands of Canadians each year according to the RCMP, but nobody seems to care. CSIS has also warned that cyber threats could overwhelm Canada within two years because of an exponential growth in counter intelligence and cyber attacks.


1. The Erosion of Leadership -“The level of distrust in our key institutions is reaching toxic levels” according to the Ottawa Citizen. Over the year leadership has been continuously undermined; whether by the Charbonneau Commission, the Senate Scandal, the robo-call affair, the arrest warrants for SNC Lavilin’s CEO Pierre Duhaime and former SIRC Chair Arthur Porter, Peter Penashue’s campaign spending, etc., etc., etc.. It probably came as a surprise to many, that after seven years of clearly saying he was in charge, Stephen Harper now claims, in his response to the Senate scandal, not to be in charge of the PMO and that somehow it operates without his direction. Generally, leaders are no longer trusted as being ethical and / or they are seen as incompetent and ineffective in policy arenas where knowledge, resources and power have become widely distributed. With an decline in the legitimacy of leadership, how do organizations and governments steer themselves? 

These are issues of public policy are more fundamental than those identified by Mitchell and they demand attention, yet there appears to be little pressure from citizens to attend to them, and no taste among the governing circles to even acknowledge the need to deal with them. While government leaders may be aware of the challenges, avoidance is in vogue, either for ideological reasons or because there is little political capital to be gained from issues you can’t control.