Blog: Five big ideas for Canada, but one is the biggest

by Don Lenihan. Posted March 3, 2015


This column was first published on the National Newswatch website on February 28, 2015


Last Thursday, Canada 2020 invited five thought leaders to Ottawa to give TED Talks on a Big Idea for Canada’s future. While I loved them all, for my money, one speaker stood out. No, it wasn’t astronaut Chris Hadfield, but a retired bureaucrat named Morris Rosenberg.

Rosenberg is a highly respected, former deputy minister of Justice, Health and, most recently, Foreign Affairs. He now heads the Trudeau Foundation. If his talk stood out, it was not because he is a smarter or more engaging speaker that the rest. (As a speaker, Hadfield beats them all, hands down.)

Rosenberg’s edge comes from his long experience as a deputy minister, whose job is to connect the machinery of government to the political leadership. This makes him an expert on the one issue that trumps all others: governance.

That was evident from his talk, which was peppered with terms like “complexity,” “collaboration,” “emergent properties,” and “risk-management.” Pretty wonkish stuff.

Especially when compared with, say, Tom Rand from MaRS, who argued passionately that climate change is the issue of our time. If we don’t get CO2 emissions under control, he warned, everyone on the planet is in serious trouble.

Now, the end of the world as we know it is a tough act to follow, but Rosenberg made a convincing case that one issue is more serious and urgent: a policy process that is foundering so badly that it can no longer even respond to such a threat.

According to Rosenberg, our governments were designed for a time when issues were thought to have clear boundaries and good solutions had well defined objectives.

That worked pretty well before globalization, the digital revolution and population explosion. Then suddenly the world shrank. Issues became way more interconnected and a lot more complex.

Today, an issue like climate change is not just an issue, but a diffuse constellation of issues that stretches out across policy space, linking the environment to transportation, urban planning, health, education, agriculture, Aboriginal issues and so on.

As a result, an effective strategy to address climate change must mobilize and align different departments, governments, members of the business and NGO communities, and even ordinary citizens. In a word, it requires collaboration.

Moreover, such issues are never “solved.” They are always with us, and always mutating. Good policy aims at managing them. And here we got a glimpse of what it must be like to be a deputy minister today.

That’s not what’s happening, said Rosenberg flatly. Politicians like issues that are clear and solutions that are permanent. They dislike processes with too many players in the field and too many links to other issues. It’s too easy for something to go wrong.

As a result, our politicians have become very reluctant to tackle Big Issues; and so the Big Ideas to solve the Big Issues rarely get beyond the testing stage.

You don’t have to read between the lines to get the point: A vicious circle has formed inside government where the riskiness of the policy process is making the leadership increasingly risk-averse—to the point where we are not even trying to develop the processes, skills and knowledge needed to respond, say, to the prospect of calamitous environmental change.

In short, governance is in big trouble and if we don’t fix it all the Big Ideas in the world will get us nowhere. To underline the point, let’s take a quick look at those proposed by the other four speakers, starting with Hadfield.

He made a convincing case that space travel is on the verge of a major breakthrough. Within a few years, reusable rockets could dramatically cut the cost of putting satellites into orbit.

That, says Hadfield, would revolutionize our use of these space technologies by making it cost-effective to use them for all kinds of purposes, such as extending internet service to the 60% of the world’s population that doesn’t yet have it.

As for Tom Rand, having made the case that with climate change we are sleepwalking our way to disaster, he contended that the only real solution is to put a price on carbon and use it to promote rapid development of alternative energy sources.

Jacline Nyman, President and CEO of the United Way, spoke movingly about the huge cost of poverty to Canadians. Not just in terms of the taxes to support social services, but the loss of human capital that comes with poverty. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a strategy that invests in people, she asked?

Finally, Jennifer Keesmaat, the spirited Chief Planner from the City of Toronto, showed how the infrastructure needed to support suburban living is simply too costly to keep building. But with creative thinking and leadership, she claimed, it could be refurbished to transform how communities work and how people live.

All are inspiring ideas and worthy of deeper discussion and experimentation. But if Rosenberg is right, not one of them will be achieved without the right kind of political leadership, backed up by effective policy processes.

So here’s the big lesson I took away from Five Big Ideas for Canada: Leadership and process are two sides of the same coin. Good leadership must be supported by governance machinery that can turn a good idea into a good policy, and a good policy into a good initiative. Increasingly, we have neither.

We may have entered a new policy environment, but our political system is stuck in the past. The question now is: What are we going to do about it? Will we do anything at all?

Now that’s what I all a BIG ISSUE.



Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020. 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 his alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@Canada2020.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan