Canada’s public sector moved rapidly and effectively during the pandemic and now needs to sustain that momentum, a panel discussion in Toronto has heard.

The discussion, sponsored by Nous Group, was part of the 2022 national conference of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC), which marked the institute’s 75th anniversary.

The September 8 discussion was on the topic “A little less conversation, a little more action: How to be an Elvis-style government”. The speakers were Ontario’s Chief Digital and Data Officer Hillary Hartley, Service Canada’s COO Lori McDonald and Nous CEO Tim Orton. The discussion was chaired by Nous’ Government Sector Lead for Canada, Kelly Rowe.

Ms McDonald told the forum the pandemic had forced Service Canada to “turn ourselves on our head in terms of service delivery”, sometimes needing to meet needs that changed daily. She said Service Canada faced headwinds as it made the change, including a workforce forced to work from home, systems not designed to handle the change and a spike in cases to process.

Creativity was essential to the organization’s response. Ms McDonald said that to achieve the change, Service Canada removed layers of governance and simplified approval processes. It also partnered with other parts of government such as the Canada Revenue Agency to be able to issue payments to citizens who suddenly could not work due to the pandemic.

The outcome was that Service Canada could make changes to payments within one month that might normally take several months.

Ms Hartley emphasized that establishing multidisciplinary teams and empowering people to act is critical. This requires upskilling teams through a teach-to-fish model, in which central teams are deployed to instill rapid-delivery methods in teams focused on particular tasks. There is also a case for rethinking role definitions to empower teams to work in modern ways.

Ms Hartley called on governments to invest in teams rather than in products. “Government has to turn the corner from a planning and investment perspective … and establish durable teams that can build and provide these services,” she said. This requires building capability in government teams, while relying on vendors where appropriate.

Ms Hartley added: “Governance needs to be revamped – we’re not set up to enable true customer centricity. … We need to be able to plan in months but execute in days.”

Mr Orton said that organizations looking for global inspiration should “think small and think big and look at the best practice across jurisdictions rather than at a particular jurisdiction”. Canada’s public sector could learn from experiences in Australia and the United Kingdom, where Nous has worked with government agencies to support service delivery. Similarly, there are opportunities for these jurisdictions to learn from Canada.

He said it was important to get the governance right, so it is lean, purposeful and iterative. “Governance should always be designed for a purpose depending on what you want to achieve in the program,” Mr Orton said.

Summarizing the discussion, Dr Rowe argued political buy-in was important to drive transformation, noting a minister with a mandate to make government more service-oriented could be a catalyst to improvement.

“Leaders in government need to be the ‘pointy end of the stick’ to keep the momentum going and set that expectation and norm,” she said, reiterating a sentiment from Ms Hartley.