When the Liberals were first elected in 2015, one of their hallmark reforms was a new commitment to communicating results and government impact to Canadians, coined ‘deliverology’ after the approach pioneered in the UK under Prime Minister Tony Blair. Fast forward to 2020, and the picture appears quite different.
While the Trudeau government continues to deliver on its promise to publish ministerial mandate letters – as recently as December – that’s the easy part. The more difficult challenge is turning those commitments into a measurable results-based framework and pushing departments to produce a self-assessment on progress, referred to as the Mandate Letter Tracker. The government is still signalling publicly that a new Mandate Letter Tracker will be published in Summer of 2020, adding another item to the to do list for an already unusually busy summer on the Hill.
However, what shape this forthcoming tracker takes will provide a big indication to how the government intends to move forward on its deliverology agenda with its chief architect – Matthew Mendelsohn – having left the public service in March of this year. Though the official government position is that the deliverology approach will continue, it’s not clear what shape the renewed approach will take as an official successor to Mendelsohn has yet to be appointed.
There’s also the question of how deliverology progresses in a post-COVID-19 context. Even before this crisis, many senior bureaucrats in the government were skeptical of the continued relevance of the approach, and the resource intensive reporting requirements it has added for many line departments. With the pandemic response leaving the government already stretched, it’s easy to imagine how ‘delivering on deliverology’ could fall down the pecking order of priorities. There are also rumblings that many provinces could reset with a new speech from the throne and/or cabinet shuffle to reflect the new operating conditions for governments. It wouldn’t be surprising to see something similar at the federal level, which could mean new mandate letters and a further delay of the publication of the tracker.
2020 also looks much different than 2015 in that there are also new structural and political challenges to contend with for the governing Liberals. A majority parliament provides a nice round, 4-year mandate to set measured performance goals (especially when you only lay down one Speech From the Throne). Laying out those objectives and achievable timelines becomes much more difficult in a government with an uncertain expiration date. For the Liberals, who based on the current dynamics of parliament, will most likely have a good deal of say in when Canadians head back to the polls, there’s definitely something unappealing about setting timelines for objectives and timelines you may take flak for missing should you try to seize upon a politically opportune moment by calling an election.
There’s also the question of how does a government grade itself when it doesn’t control its own parliamentary agenda? It’s all well and good in a majority when platform promises can become law relatively easily, but does a government dock itself points for not being able to advance legislation in a minority parliament? Or is there an acceptance that politics often requires moving the goal posts – something that doesn’t reconcile easily with long-term performance measurement. Then there is the more Machiavellian question of how much honesty is too much. A minority parliament certainly creates more disincentive for honest self-critique in a politically sensitive and unstable environment.
All of this gets at the fundamental tension between transparency and politicking. There were many who scoffed at the Trudeau Liberal’s notion of “we can do it better” when it comes to governance. This summer will be a good test of whether when the rubber really hits the road, the old ways prove best.