At the height of the pandemic lockdown, the federal Liberals and the public service had a good thing going.
In April, as COVID-19 was ripping through long-term-care homes and the everyday world of work and socializing had evaporated, politicians and bureaucrats were focused like a laser on doing “whatever it takes” to float the Canadian economy through the confinement.
They collectively and quickly decided that the best recipe for that was to flow tens of billions of dollars through the simplest channels possible, directly into the hands of those most vulnerable.
It worked until the politicians decided to get fancy.
The $900-million student program that was eventually contracted out to WE Charity was anything but simple and direct. It was so laden with boxes to check and layered with multiple policy goals that it rivalled any boutique government program in the best of times.
Even the most benign explanations for the complexity of the Canada Student Service Grant raise questions about the Liberals’ judgment ordering the public service to stand up the program with such haste.
In House of Commons committee testimony last week, deputy minister of youth Gina Wilson described the task handed to her.
They had to move fast so students would receive support in time for their summer break. They had to engage the not-for-profit sector, which was struggling under the weight of the pandemic. They had to design something that was easily accessible for all types of students – under-represented demographics, minorities, rural, urban, from all parts of the country.
Senior official Rachel Wernick went further, spelling out even more policy objectives that had been put on her list. There had to be a volunteer component, with financial rewards to help students pay their tuition and with built-in incentives to attract young people to the program.
It had to enhance their workplace skills. It had to be set up to keep students safe from contagion. It needed oversight and support and resources. It had to take other government support funding into account so it wouldn’t distort other programs.
The prime minister had a keen interest in the file, as was obvious from testimony on Tuesday from the clerk of the Privy Council who briefed Justin Trudeau a few times on its progress.
And it all had to be ready to roll in three weeks time.
“It became quickly evident that there was high ambition,” Wernick said, referring to the politicians’ instructions.
But think about what Wernick’s department, Employment and Social Development, was doing at the same time.
On March 16, just as the lockdown took hold, the department processed about 9,000 employment insurance claims – a perfectly normal day, according to the deputy minister, Graham Flack, in a recent public discussion.
On March 17, they processed 71,000 claims – almost double the record from the worst day of the great financial crisis just over a decade ago. By March 24, that had risen to 267,000 claims in a day.
Thousands of civil servants were supporting the processing, working from home and using a 46-year-old Cobalt computer system that usually takes nine months to adjust to even minor policy changes.
So at the beginning of April, the government scrapped the old system, started up the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which used existing Canada Revenue Agency systems to reach millions and millions of suddenly unemployed Canadians.
The effort was astounding, and despite some overpayments that will have to be cleaned up over the next few months, it was largely successful in terms of keeping poverty at bay.
When the dust settled, Flack spoke in June about how they pulled it off.
The key, he said, was to keep policy as simple as possible and focus instead on what they were actually capable of delivering from an operations point of view.
He had some words of warning for those policy-makers who dream up interesting solutions to public challenges without taking into account whether they can be effectively implemented with the tools at hand.
“Every time we are putting forward policy ideas, I want all of us to say: is this operationally feasible? Have we equipped our operations people with the tools that can actually successfully deliver this?
“And I think that’s something that we as a policy community have abysmally failed over the years to do – not to our credit.”
Great advice, except just a couple of days later, the prime minister announced that the incredibly complex program that he had ordered up in April was finally ready for launch, and would be administered by the high-profile, well-connected WE Charity – the only organization, his government said, that was capable of delivering.
We all know how that turned out. The prime minister and the finance minister are now the subjects of ethics investigations, the contract for WE Charity was cancelled, Parliament Hill is in a partisan uproar and students don’t have their volunteer program yet.
Even if you reject the opposition criticism that Trudeau meant to line the pockets of his friends with the contract, and instead believe that the Liberals had the best of intentions when they set up the WE-run volunteer system, they clearly took leave of their senses on this one.
They abandoned everything they had just learned about useful policy in a pandemic.
Heather Scoffield is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.