Governing a nation or a province is a complex challenge for any political parties. While legislating and being accountable in the legislature is a key visible part of the democratic process, the day-to-day operations of government include many tasks and employ an army of civil servants.
In Canada, some 300,450 people are employed by the federal government and this total does not include the armed forces, which number 95,000.
Those civil servants are spread out across the nation doing a multitude of tasks within various departments and special agencies. The staffing, administration and overall management of that work force is a challenge that must be fulfilled by an extremely complex mix of skills in two official languages,
While many of the tasks are common to virtually all offices in most departments and special agencies, some positions have unique skill or training requirements and it may be difficult to find individuals to perform these jobs in the location with vacancies. Not everybody wants to live in the far north — or in a small town or a big city — and many otherwise qualified specialists may not have adequate language proficiency.
Another problem with specific skill requirements is the nature of the work involved. For example, consider the management of water purification systems in communities urban and remote (primarily a provincial government responsibility) or the provision of a national response to a health pandemic such as COVID-19.
The managers of such operations have to determine just how large their organization should be and what qualifications personnel need at all levels of the professional staff. Normally, the workload facing workers in these specialized jobs is fairly stable, but occasionally a crisis occurs and the capacity of the system to deal with it can be overwhelmed.
Unless the risks involved are well understood, too few or the wrong kind of staff may be hired and the organization is left unable to meet the demands of a major crises — such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The results can reflect badly on government. A recent report, Lessons Learned from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s COVID-19 Response, prepared by the Office of Audit and Evaluation in Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada provides information that should help staffing and assignment of responsibilities in future, not just in Public Health administration but in similar organizations with highly specific skill requirements and potential sudden demands for assistance.
As the study illustrates, knowledge of public health issues and methodologies for dealing with crises was limited in the senior levels of the agency. I assume this was, in part, the result of an assumption that such specialized knowledge was not essential for senior management positions. But the people in these positions are those who have to apprise cabinet of the consequences of failing to address public health issues as they arise.
How do such situations arise? In periods when budget restraints are required, special agencies seem like obvious places where cuts can be made without adverse consequences. And that’s true until a crisis arises and expanding quickly the cadre of people with the needed skill sets is not possible.
Dealing with a pandemic is akin to waging war. Troops (epidemiologists and logistics experts) are required and so is equipment (ventilators and PPE) and timely, reliable information about the spread of the disease. Knowledge about who is most subject to infection, the rate of recovery and the effectiveness of treatments must be assembled pronto.
Public Health Canada was ill-prepared for war in many cases. Once the pandemic is under control, there will need to be a major rethink as to the size of the operation and its skill requirements. The agency will also need to stockpile basic equipment and develop a more effective and flexible information system.
Dedicated Public Health personnel at both the federal and provincial levels of government have struggled to fulfilling their tasks, but at an enormous cost in burnout and fatigue. We need to devote time, funds and expertise to making sure we are better able to deal with emergencies in the future. It is in doing so that government proves its value.
David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.