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National Opinion Centre

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau recently vowed that if his party forms the next government, he will end the centralization of power in the PMO, a trend that started with his father, Pierre Trudeau.

As the Duffy trial has made clear, the culture of secrecy and control inside the PMO is now so pervasive that it threatens the integrity of our national government. Reversing this trend should be among our highest priorities.

To his credit, Trudeau has proposed some key reforms, which I think we should not only act on, but build around. So here is a modified list of 10 points, which I propose as a plan to end the PMO’s hegemony.

  1. Restore Parliament’s Role 

Over the years, good ideas have been proposed on every aspect of parliamentary reform. There is no need to re-invent the wheel. A special, all-party committee should be struck and given six months to review options and propose a plan to ensure that:

  • The independence and effectiveness of committees is restored;
  • Question Period produces answers;
  • Officers of Parliament have adequate authority to fulfill their mandates;
  • Clear criteria exist for the use of time allocation;
  • Measures are enacted to prevent or curtail omnibus legislation; and
  • An arm’s-length process is established for selecting Senators.
  1. Empower Ministers

No prime minister can manage all the important issues facing his/her government. Delegation is at the core of cabinet government. Mandate letters should declare and clearly establish ministers’ authority to engage their publics as needed; and to propose and defend at the cabinet table the measures required to accomplish the tasks assigned to them.

  1. Clarify the Role of PMO/Ministers’ Staff

Increasingly, political staffers play the role of unseen negotiators and enforcers in the policy process, acting on behalf of their ministers and, especially, the PMO. Their role needs to be far more clearly defined and subject to oversight. The next government should:

  • Establish a code of ethics and clear guidelines for the role of ministerial staff;
  • Provide authoritative and effective oversight to ensure guidance/compliance; and
  • Define reporting requirements to ensure policy-related activities are subject to public scrutiny
  1. End the Abuse of Government Communications and Advertising

Legislation should be passed to prevent use of the Government of Canada’s communications tools—especially public ads—for partisan purposes, including:

  • A clear statement of the objectives of communications materials, standards for accuracy of content, parameters for the use of public funds; and
  • An authoritative, independent mechanism to review communications materials and ensure compliance with the protocols.
  1. Reengage the Media

Media relations have deteriorated badly over the last decade and must be repaired, starting with reasonable access to ministers through:

  • Regular and unscripted press conferences by the prime minister and cabinet; and
  • Public announcements on the timing and location of cabinet meetings.
  1. Make Appointments Non-Partisan 

Justin Trudeau has committed to an arm’s-length process for appointments to the Senate. A new government should end patronage altogether by establishing a similar appointments model for all government institutions, agencies, boards and commissions.

 

  1. Test Public Investments

A new government should put an end to the inappropriate and often wasteful use of tax dollars to fund pet projects or support bad policy by subjecting such investments to four tests:

  • They must reflect public priorities;
  • They must be explored and implemented through an open and transparent process;
  • They must be based on evidence, expert advice and public debate; and
  • The impacts must be carefully tracked, measured and reported on.
  1. Make Government more Transparent and Accountable 

Last week, Canada’s Open Government community delivered an open letter to federal party leaders, informing them of the historic opportunity we have to push the transparency and accountability of government to a new level. A new government should:

  • Review the current federal protocols for Open Data to ensure they conform to the highest standards of Open Government.
  • Modernize the Access to Information Act by:
    • Providing the Information Commissioner with appropriate authority to ensure compliance with the Act;
    • Obliging government to use the principles of Open Government when deciding whether disclosure is in the public interest;
    • Ensuring the government proactively publishes information that is clearly in the public interest; and
    • Strengthening the responsibility of institutions to provide records in open, reusable, and accessible formats.
  1. Engage the Public Between Elections

A new government should provide the public with meaningful ways to participate in the policy process between elections through a new government-wide policy on public consultation that establishes a principled approach to:

  • Deciding where and when engagement processes are needed;
  • Deciding how they should be designed and delivered; and
  • Setting protocols for the provision and use of evidence to support decision-making.
  1. Renew the Public Service

Modern governments must be supported by a non-partisan, professional public service. The federal public service has fallen into serious disrepair and needs renewal. Fortunately, a sound plan already exists.

In 2013 – 14 the public service undertook the most extensive review of its role ever, beginning with Blueprint 2020, which defines a new vision to make the federal bureaucracy more open, networked, evidence-based and engaging. A second document, Destination 2020, contains practical recommendations to realize the vision.

Progress is being made, but full implementation of these recommendations will require dedicated support from the entire cabinet. A new government should make this one of its highest priorities.

Conclusion

Old-fashioned, top-down, command-and-control leadership may have worked well in the 19th and 20th  centuries, but the days of empires, traditional nation-states, and policy silos are gone.

Today, events reverberate around the globe at lightning speed, issues are increasingly interdependent and solutions are information-intensive. To respond effectively, governments need to be open, nimble and collaborative.

Ending the PMO’s penchant for secrecy and control thus is about much more than reclaiming our democracy; it is about fashioning the kind of government we need to prosper in this new environment.

The ten-point plan outlined above removes a huge obstacle from our path. None of the proposals are unrealistic or unachievable. Most could be delivered within a single mandate.

But to achieve this, the country needs a leader—Liberal, NDP or Conservative—who has the vision to see beyond conventional politics, the confidence to put Canada on a new course for the future, and the personal commitment to lead by example. How do the current candidates measure up?

That decision is now in the hands of Canadians.

 

Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. His recent projects include chairing an expert group on citizen engagement for the UN and the OECD; and chairing the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@Canada2020.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 
The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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