Canada's Unique Presence in North America:
Why Better Than Ever Is Not Good Enough

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Notes for an Address by

Mel Cappe
Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet

at the

Opening Plenary,

November 30, 2000

Check against delivery


  • Over the past four years, I've been impressed by the development of the Policy Research Initiative. Yet, even I was surprised to discover that this year's conference was titled I was surprised because the Policy Research Initiative managed to convince the all-powerful gnomes who distribute domain names to give them the rights for "" This is clearly no ordinary conference and I would like to congratulate the organizers.
  • As I'm sure you appreciate, this is a busy time for me. But Canada's place in the world is a topic of passionate interest, so I wanted to be here to share some thoughts - and share some concerns - about our treatment of this challenging topic. Whether I'm speaking to the Prime Minister or this audience, this issue remains top of mind and important.
  • The organizers asked me to make some remarks on globalization. What they don't know is that I see my role as directing the discussion towards the hard, if not impossible, questions. If you control "," you've got to expect a bit of static.

Globalization: A Policy Challenge Across the Generations

  • In other presentations, I have referred to the process of globalization as being a pervasive challenge for Canadian society - the standard by which our society will be measured.
  • But, at the risk of spoiling the surprise for the winter episodes of Canada: A People's History, I would like to underline that globalization has always been a central feature and policy driver for Canada.
  • As Harold Innis has shown, globalization is not something new and scary for Canada. It's something old and familiar. As much or more than any other country, Canada has been forged by global developments, whether the fur trade or communications.
  • Today, I would like to build and elaborate on this theme by addressing three areas:
  • first, I can't help but comment on the concept of globalization, including some of the misleading representations of it;
  • second, I would like to share some thoughts on assessing Canada's performance in the world; and,
  • third, I would like to share with you my thoughts on Canada's globalization challenge - that of ensuring a unique Canadian cultural and social reality in the northern half of North America, a Canada where all parts of society thrive amid strong economic integration and rapid change.

Globalization: Slippery Concept, Slippery Slope

  • To start, I think globalization is an awful term. As a descriptor, it has become content-free and vacuous. Perhaps to compensate for its slippery meaning, we sometimes resort to the blur of big numbers to make our point. It's $X trillion of this, and Y terabytes of that and, more recently, Zed billion cubic tonnes emitted.
  • The problem is that big numbers can distil out the human element. What we see is a parsed view of the universe; what we lose is the human perspective.
  • It was said of Keynes that he never met a human being, but he had one described to him once. I say respectfully that unless you're as good as John Maynard Keynes, you need to pay close attention to globalization's human face.

Campfire Stories and Lullabyes

  • If numbers can be bad, the globalization narratives can be worse. Now, everyone loves a good story, but many of the globalization storylines make vast unsupported claims to support vast unsupported theses.
  • It's as if war, poverty and the gap between haves and have nots never existed before and as if peace, prosperity and democracy never existed either.
  • Globalization narratives tend to be of two sorts.
  • Let's call the first type campfire narratives. These are essentially ghost stories where the monsters speak in American accents and the good guys say "eh" a lot.
  • Now, of course, the United States should loom large, very large, in most Canadian discussions of globalization, but they are not the whole story. Don't be so easily convinced that globalization speaks in an American accent or even that it speaks English. The globalization dynamic is far too complex for such easy categorizations.
  • The second type of story is the wish fulfillment narrative. These are more like lullabyes that tell of a mythical realm where everyone has a Palm Pilot or a BlackBerry. They know how to use it, and all the world's difficulties disappear by throwing a few gigabytes of RAM-based pixie dust at a problem. This world only exists in Microsoft commercials. We need to delve deeper if we are to stay relevant to the problems facing Canadians in their daily lives.

In Praise of a Complex Story Line

  • There's a saying from the French poet, Paul Valéry, that speaks to the challenge posed by globalization's complexity: "The simple is always false; the complicated is unusable."
  • As a policy community and as a society, we have to get better at understanding and listening to complex storylines that are truer to real life.
  • For instance, we have all felt pressure to find facts to fit a storyline. Of course, this is backwards - the storyline should be made to fit the facts.
  • And when it comes to facts keep the following in mind: Facts that confirm the conventional wisdom are useful. Those that refute it are precious.

Government at the Speed of the Public Interest

  • As Clerk of the Privy Council, a particular concern of mine revolves around the governance challenge embodied in the dichotomy between fast and slow. Our era of accelerated change has been compared to a 100-meter dash that is run over and over and over again.
  • Bill Gates described the globalization challenge of the private sector as "business at the speed of thought." The parallel for us is what I have called "government at the speed of the public interest." Let me explain what I mean.
  • There are times when the speed of the public interest must be more deliberative - slower in real time - than private sector deliberations. There are usually more interests at stake in public sector issues, more people to be brought along and a more subtle, or at least different, calculation than the private sector's bottom line. Decisions are typically hard to reverse and there is intense pressure to get it right the first time.
  • Governance in a democracy takes time - even if you don't stop to recount the chads. But there are instances when it cannot be otherwise and still remain a democracy.
  • Before you think that I'm defending sluggish or unresponsive government, let me stress that time is a valuable factor in the policy development production function. Throughout the policy development process, time is becoming an ever more precious commodity - no one is making more of it.
  • Speedy, agile government is particularly important for the delivery of public services. And when it comes to service delivery we need to promote Government On-line and all the tools at our disposal to ensure that services are being delivered quickly and efficiently.
  • And we need to consider the broader issues of democratic and responsible government in moving from Government On-line to E-Government.
  • We have to be acutely aware of the marginal value of time and make sure that we optimize it. As a society, we cannot afford the wasteful delay that results from logjams, confusion and intransigence. We cannot accept the error message: "Please wait . still downloading." As practitioners, we need to be as sensitive to this issue as our harshest critics.
  • Time-optimizing, decision-making processes would be easy to design and use, if we had perfect foresight. Of course if we had perfect foresight, we wouldn't need researchers, analysts, advisors or conferences.
  • In the absence of a crystal ball, to quote Alan Greenspan, "It is the joining of ideas and data that drives policy in the face of uncertainty."
  • That is why we need fonctionnaires sans frontières who are able to work effectively across barriers of jurisdiction, region, department and scholarly discipline. They excel in uncertainty by keeping Canadian values and the public interest foremost in their considerations. They know that modern government is inclusive and integrated; and they consider it a challenge to understand the complex storylines that help us address the real issues facing real Canadians.
  • Finally, fonctionnaires sans frontières know that the art of public sector management in the 21st century lies in understanding government at the speed of the public interest - where prudent deliberation is often a precondition to fast and effective service delivery.

Why Better Than Ever is Not Good Enough

  • I would like now to spend a few moments on the subject of Canada's position in the world - a subject that should be of great interest to all of us.
  • The contemplation of national performance is fraught with dangers. It's like the old Québecois saying: "When I look at myself, I'm devastated; When I compare myself with others, I'm consoled."
  • Lately, when I've thought about policy development in Canada, I can't help but sense that in some fields - not all - we're in danger of becoming complacent, of thinking that we have all the answers, that there is nothing left to improve on.
  • I think that our attitude has to be the complete opposite: "When I look at myself, I'm consoled; when I compare myself with others, I'm devastated."
  • Along many - if not most - dimensions, Canada is doing better than ever. But better than ever is not good enough. Absolute improvement isn't the standard; relative improvement is. And when you look around at what other countries are doing, there's plenty of reason for pause.
  • And I'm not just referring to those incredibly industrious folks south of the border. Our challenge is to outperform all countries. For instance, I predict that we're going to be hearing a lot more from Mexico - as friends, rivals and competitors.
  • And who saw Ireland, Finland or India becoming important players in high technology? For instance, Ireland has had the vision to remodel itself into a Celtic tiger, thanks in part to some very prudent government policy.
  • And there are plenty of other would-be tigers out there. For instance, I just participated in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development colloquium on governance systems. There, I learned that Estonia can lay claim to having the Cabinet decision-making system that is the most connected in the world. Estonia!
  • Societies today need to bring the fullest range of problem solving to bear on policy questions. Those that succeed in doing this have an advantage over those whose policy solutions are narrowly conceived and closely held. We need to engage with academics, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and all Canadians, now more than ever.
  • Why is this so important? The Canadian public sector is in a competition for ideas. And as they say in the mutual fund industry, "past performance may not reflect future returns." We can't simply extrapolate the data. We have to continue to earn our privileged position in the world.
  • I'm concerned that we're not demanding, developing and applying ideas fast enough. That's part of my job. It's part of yours too.
  • Here are some of my concerns:
  • How do we benchmark Canada's performance?
  • How do we know if we've got our policy mix right?
  • And, perhaps more importantly for our future, how do we know if we have our public innovation systems right?

Canada's Comparative Advantage: Diversity

  • Within the public service, we have to ensure that the public sector will be an employer of choice for the next generation. That's why I've made recruitment, retention and learning a priority, and it's why I support the important work of the Learning Advisory Panel on Policy.
  • The Learning Advisory Panel on Policy is working to build a stronger knowledge capacity for the federal government by improving recruitment, learning and mobility in the policy community. Thanks to the voluntary efforts of a group of already busy public servants, the Learning Advisory Panel on Policy is launching a suite of products to help researchers and analysts develop their skills. Their work is displayed in the Exhibition Hall. I commend it to you.
  • To complement these efforts, we also need to look at organizational fundamentals by ensuring that the public service is an ideas-friendly work environment. I would like to see more critical thinking that challenges our assumptions and brings the conventional wisdom under critical scrutiny.
  • Perhaps this is because we're all quiet and polite Canadians, but I find that there is not enough challenging of the received wisdom. We need to make our organizations friendlier to alternative perspectives and constructive questioning. On this, managers need to set the example by being enthusiastic demanders and users of policy work. After all, there's no point joining ideas and data in the face of uncertainty if nobody cares. I challenge you to demand more and better research.
  • A diverse and representative workforce will also be essential to our success. Diversity is a source of new ideas and ways of doing things. As a result, it provides a built-in reality check to the status quo. By ensuring that the Government of Canada welcomes new ideas and is willing to test them out to find the truly brilliant ones, we will be creating a tremendous advantage in the race to the New World of tomorrow's ideas. That's one reason why we need to ensure that the public service is representative.

Deep Thinking from Michael Pitfield

  • Before I started my job as Clerk of the Privy Council, I met with my predecessors. It's a process that I found highly stimulating and beneficial.
  • One of the pearls of wisdom that I carried away with me (and I got pearls from each of them) came from Michael Pitfield. He said that it is the highest duty of the public service "to think things through."
  • What does Senator Pitfield mean by the "duty to think things through"? I think he means that we should vigilantly test ideas, challenge the established wisdom, and consider the implications of policy choice from a broad perspective. As Senator Pitfield said: "There may only be one piece of advice at the end of the day, but it needs to be grounded in knowledge and careful consideration."
  • Getting that one piece of advice right requires a spirit of inquiry, a spirit of humility. Government sometimes conducts itself as if it has all the answers. Not only is this transparently wrong and profoundly irritating to our partners, but this false assurance curbs the spirit of inquiry, the essential doubt from which wisdom springs.
  • The duty to think things through exists regardless of policy fads and fashions. We all know that the incubation period of that one piece of crucial advice is highly variable. It can be measured in moments, months or years. Sometimes, it draws on a career of experience. Other times it depends on the inspiration of a fresh perspective.
  • What we do know is that when the wheel turns, it's too late to commission a study or even to read a report. Our homework has to be done ahead of time or it won't be done at all.

Ensuring a Unique Canadian Presence in North America

  • To conclude, globalization has become an overused, almost meaningless term. But it points to a reality of profound significance - one that has motivated generations of Canadians.
  • Canada's destiny has always been that of an open and outward-looking society. This has served us well in the past, and it will serve us well in the future. The transition continues.
  • Our great challenge over the next decade is to ensure Canada's unique cultural and social presence in the northern half of North America at a time of rapid economic integration and change. A world-leading society for the duration of the 21st century is within our grasp; it also needs to be within our vision and aspirations.
  • Robert Browning once wrote, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for."
  • To succeed, we must be prepared to remake ourselves - to challenge the received wisdom and think deeply about the human face of policy and programs. It is a complex and multifaceted task, requiring a public service of fonctionnaires sans frontières of exceptional quality and determination.
  • We have that now. We must make sure that we keep it and extend it.
  • The good news is that there's no end of work for those willing to undertake the challenge. And I guess that's the bad news too.
  • I wish us all the best of luck.