The importance of government and the critical work of Canada’s public servants is never more visible than during a crisis and we are seeing this clearly in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Behind the crucial work of front-line medical professionals, disease control experts and hospital support staff are legions of provincial and municipal public servants working mostly from home, often around the clock, and in close co-operation with their counterparts in other levels of government.
Collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries has never been more important and has likely seldom been better. Public servants who have invested in reaching out to counterparts across boundaries in calmer times will have formed relationships that will deliver dividends in this crisis — while others, more comfortable “playing at home,” will have had some distance to make up.
The close co-operation between levels of government during this pandemic is also unprecedented. Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister and federal minister of intergovernmental affairs gets along well with Premier Doug Ford. And the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) created following the 2003 SARS outbreak centred in Ontario has been working seamlessly with its provincial public health counterparts.
Public servants working at Ontario’s Ministries of Health, and Long Term Care, are in the eye of the pandemic storm. So is Public Health Ontario, the province’s public health agency and key point of contact with both PHAC and Ontario’s local public health units.
As COVID-19 sweeps through Ontario’s long-term care homes and the province struggles to increase testing for infections, the government may be looking in the rear-view mirror and wondering about earlier decisions to carve long term care away from the oversight of the Ministry of Health, and to dismantle Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs), which might have enabled a more organized approach to testing. While no one saw this pandemic coming, the fragilities associated with privatization, low wages and thin staffing in long-term care homes have been evident for years and we are now seeing some of the tragic consequences of this.
On the plus side, I’m told that former hospital CEO Matt Anderson, the new CEO of Ontario Health (the LHIN’s successor organization), has been a key player in the government’s response to the virus. He has established a new five-region governance and delivery model with close collaboration between health system leaders and their public service counterparts.
Other ministries playing a crucial role are Community and Social Services, which is focusing on the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable Ontarians; the Ministry of Finance is weighing economic supports and their impact on the province’s debt; the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, led by veteran DM Giles Gherson, is working flat-out on developing partnerships with Ontario companies to produce crucial medical supplies and equipment as well as chasing down supplies on the global spot-market; and the Ministries of Education, and Colleges and Universities, are working to support students to complete their academic year. Ontario’s beleaguered teachers are shuttling between schools and working from home to deliver online courses and support their students. Credit to Nancy Naylor, the deputy minister of education, who has been the driver in getting the online learning strategy implemented.
Municipal staff in EMS and land ambulance services will also be stretched, as will public health units, especially in the areas of testing and disease tracking. Social services staff are continuing to provide support to vulnerable and homeless Canadians, moving some into hostels and hotels; police services are reassigning officers to monitor social-distancing requirements; essential workers continue to staff water treatment plants; and sanitation crews are emptying our bins.
Also in the mix of the pandemic response will be the leadership and system knowledge of hospital CEO’s such as Michelle DiEmanuele, the CEO of Trillium Health Partners (and former OPS Deputy Minister), Anthony Dale, the President of the Ontario Hospital Association (a former senior political aide), and David Lindsay, President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities (a former deputy minister and principal secretary to premier Mike Harris) – all of whom are likely to be asked to offer advice to the most senior levels of government.
Premier Ford has surprised some of his critics with his deft handling of the tricky intergovernmental aspects of COVID-19. He has been an effective “Team Canada” player, mostly supporting the federal government’s initiatives and refusing to be drawn into some of the drama on offer from his Alberta counterpart. The premier has steady support in this role from Lynn Betzner, the seasoned deputy minister responsible for intergovernmental relationships.
Ford’s Chief of Staff James Wallace, a former media executive drafted in following the departure of his predecessor, Dean French, has brought some calm and civility to a job that sets the tone for the premier’s staff and their relationship with Cabinet Secretary Steven Davidson and the public service. Wallace’s job involves managing a daily flurry of incoming missiles, often with little time left to manage broader and longer-term strategies. He will do well if he can find a balance between these competing demands.
And while Canada’s public services are working hard to manage risk and ambiguity while making the best decisions possible in unique circumstances, it’s not going to be perfect. This will be followed by a period of review, reflection and opportunities to learn from the experience.
In significant crises like this one, most people want to know what they can do to help, and it’s obviously best if everyone is hearing consistent advice. In this case our political leaders have followed the advice of scientists and medical experts based on what is known about the nature of COVID-19 and the advice of senior finance officials about measures to sustain the economy and the financial system in a period of unprecedented stress. This has resulted in clear and consistent advice and direction across the country about the importance of social distancing and quarantine protocols, and keeping economic damage to a recoverable minimum. We all know what to do — and it seems to be working. Let’s keep it going.
Tony Dean is a Senior Distinguished Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He is a former Head of Ontario’s Public Service and was appointed to the Senate of Canada in November 2016.