A litany of disastrous government decisions in Canada have sometimes cost lives and definitely many billions of dollars.
The list is long:
- effectively cancelling the Global Public Health Intelligence Network;
- the failure to implement the pandemic preparedness protocols developed by the federal government’s public health officer;
- the Alberta government’s disastrous ‘investments’ in the Keystone XL pipeline;
- the gargantuan black holes of the BC Hydro Peace River Site C hydroelectric dam project;
- the Manitoba Hydro Keeyask and Bipole III projects;
- the Nalcor Energy Muskrat Falls project;
- the cancelled Ontario gas plants that were ill-sited;
- the failure of the federal government to make firm purchases of COVID-19 vaccines;
- slow adoption of early warning systems to detect wildfires;
- unwise dependence on China;
- and the dubious and irrevocably committed mass purchase of costly F-35 jets by Ottawa.
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What they all have in common is a lack of independent oversight, analysis and evaluation before the bad decisions were made. Parliamentary oversight, federal or provincial, has been ineffective and retroactive.
These mistakes can cost billions of dollars and damage or end hundreds of lives.
An independent, entirely separate government branch might help. It would have knowledge of existing government programs, processes and decision-making, and planning procedures. Moreover, it would be capable of evaluating changes, and examining the effects of new programs, projects, agencies or regulations on finances, the economy, individuals and groups.
Some entities deal with such things: the Privy Council, the auditor general, the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, the parliamentary budget office, the Justice Department and the RCMP. The provincial governments have similar entities.
A number of steps should be taken to structure and task such an important body. Its responsibilities should include:
- being aware of all the current and incipient public policy issues and challenges that may face decision-makers;
- fully describing and delineating what the new programs or new agencies are, what they’re intended to do, whom they will affect, how much they will cost and how they will be paid for;
- who will be tasked with running or overseeing them;
- and establishing metrics for the results and near-term milestones.
This organization should be staffed with an adequate and highly knowledgeable staff, including lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers, accountants, financial analysts, businesspeople, data and IT professionals; and cultural and social anthropologists. They should also be able to call upon such specialists as needed for specific issues.
This body must be independent of the regular civil service and government. Its governance and senior executives must also be independent, chosen from a pool of voluntary applicants attracted by its mission and a highly competitive remuneration and command structure.
Top officials could also be voted on by the public.
High prestige and power should be accorded this institution – and high standards.
Citizens can no longer depend on traditional decision-making processes, which have given us such horrendous messes.
Strong, proactive and independent scrutiny, analysis and judgment must be applied by highly competent and informed outsiders. Otherwise, the disasters will continue.
Ian Madsen is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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