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Governing in crisis, and not snapping back after
At the big COVID conference, thoughts on the state of... all this
At the big conference on “Learning from Canada’s COVID-19 Pandemic,” many participants expressed a feeling of catharsis: they had been so worried and busy from 2020 until now that it was a relief simply to share their impressions with other veterans of the battle against a virus that had never paused to ask anyone’s opinion.
This was the event I mentioned in a previous post. Organized by the Institute for Research on Public Policy and the Institute on Governance, it brought together public servants, academics, current or former politicians, and others for two days of discussion about the pandemic, Canada’s response, and the lessons that might be learned for a next time, however next time might be defined.
Many of these people aren’t used to expressing their opinions in front of crowds of strangers, so the event was held, as is common, under the Chatham House Rule: “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.” I’m not revealing anything if I list some of the participants in a conference agenda that the organizers published. They included Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer of Canada; several federal deputy ministers including Graham Flack (Treasury Board), Stephen Lucas (Health) and Isabelle Mondou (now at Heritage but she played a senior role in the COVID response); Erin O’Toole, shortly after his farewell speech as an MP; and many others.
In the nature of such events, the conference was low on narrative: it didn’t try to decide anything or set any course of action. It resembled a night at the pub after a softball league game more than a planning meeting. So don’t assume anything I write here is any organization’s official position.
Ottawa needs a lot more such amiably chaotic events. It used to have more. In the cursed land of strategic communications we all inhabit, far too many people decide what they’re going to say before ascertaining what they know or think. This is why I lately think of “conversation” and “communications” as near-antonyms, and why I think that’s a problem, and not a small one.
That also means this conference was very far from being the formal stock-taking exercise I suggested in that earlier post. Participants at the IRPP/IOG conference weren’t polled on my suggestion. But several people approached me on Tuesday and Wednesday to tell me they agree strongly that a broad after-action report is needed. This, too, is the sort of thing that used to be obvious and routine, but now seems a relic of another time because governments, by which I mean this one and, incidentally, this one, are more eager to avoid trouble than to prevent catastrophe.
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At the COVID conference, heard several speakers mention the risk of “snapping back,” which would mean returning to old habits instead of applying lessons learned. This isn’t just a real danger, it happens all the time. Most of Canada’s public-health apparatus was built after the Toronto SARS outbreak of 2003, yet by 2020, one participant said, “We clearly were not prepared for this magnitude event.” It wasn’t for lack of effort in the late innings. The big lockdowns started around March 13, but a federal-provincial-territorial working group on the novel coronavirus, consisting mostly of chief medical officers, had been holding virtual meetings three times a week for two months, since early January.
The shift from an environment of wary concern into overdrive happened very quickly. “When the PM’s wife got sick, that made it real,” one provincial official said. “At the provincial level, we were waiting for federal guidance.” Within the federal apparatus, others noticed other hard-to-miss signals, as when word went out that meetings of every Cabinet committee were suspended indefinitely, except the ad-hoc committee on COVID and the full Cabinet.
Once the crisis was upon us, one obstacle to quick response was outdated tech. Of course. “I’ve been told all my life that you don’t get votes from investing in technology,” one person said. With predictable results. “The system that delivers OAS [old-age security] to my mother will be eligible for OAS in three years,” another said. That doesn’t just mean the flowchart or the idea of public pensions. Much of “the damned code” that runs the production and distribution of OAS cheques is in COBOL, a programming language that predates BASIC or, for that matter, me.
To roll out CERB and CEWS, which allowed millions of workers to stay home and thousands of firms to stay solvent with no business, departments had to “trick” their ancient data servers into believing things that weren’t so. Standards of accountable government went by the boards in the crisis, a move I endorse and would advocate in any similar public-health catastrophe, but it doesn’t sound like it was pretty.
What does sound useful — the sort of emergency behaviour that should be kept after the emergency ends — was an immediate increase in the amount of frank conversation among departments and between different levels of government. To get things done, officials had to bust silos and tell one another what was actually happening. “This superpower that we could be using all the time was the honest transparent exchange of information,” one official said. “We could do this in peacetime.” And then, piling one audacity on another: “We also need to encourage governments to talk to opposition parties. The polarization we are seeing today is not healthy for democracy and it's not healthy for public services.”
And if elected governments insist on being machines for the delivery of their talking points, another person said, public servants need to be repositories for other ways of thinking. Just in case those other ways are needed when things get weird. “We need to get away from [only delivering] our governments' platform commitments. And we need to talk about trade-offs. And we need to have these conversations… in private, in trustful relationships.”
Already I can hear some commenters saying, Aha, here is the deep state, subverting the democratic will, and on and on. Sure, if you like, or maybe it’s this: It’s as silly to imagine your favourite political party can see the future as it is to assume you or I can. A government might change its mind. It might find itself living in a world it never expected. And if it does find itself whipsawed by events, it will not be well served by a bureaucracy that’s been wearing the same set of blinders. Again, this wasn’t a consensus view at the conference, but I was glad to hear one person try to put it in words.
At times the conference seemed like a festival of aphorisms.
“Humility is a capability.”
“Adding complexity to policy design builds rigidity into policy delivery.”
“You can't get attention unless something breaks and it becomes a problem. That's not a complaint. Democratic government just works that way.”
“If I had told [public servants] before the crisis they would have been able to work from home one day a week, they would have built a statue to me.”
“Are we ready for the next thing when we don't know what the next thing is? That doesn't mean working harder. And it certainly doesn't mean reacting haphazardly.”
Let me close with a bit of a curve ball. There was more conversation than you might expect about the fact that a portion of the Canadian public thinks governments handled COVID-19 terribly — and, in some corners of public opinion, that there never was a deadly virus, or that vaccines didn’t really help, or that the whole thing was a made-up vehicle for advancing global socialism. I hear such things from some of my readers. Hi to the old acquaintance who wrote to ask me about “the genocide created by the plandemic,” with an “l” in “plandemic.”
I want to be clear. There was essentially unanimity among participants at this week’s conference that the people who entertain these theories are seriously misunderstanding what happened. The discussion was about what to do about the fact that such opinions are held.
Because I’m on Substack, a platform some people use to peddle conspiracy theories and half-baked contrarianism, and because this newsletter is sometimes recommended by some people whose politics are well to my right, I think it’s best for me to state plainly that I am quite sure COVID-19 is a naturally-occuring virus that is not yet done killing a hell of a lot of people. Part of the danger it presented was that it had very little effect on many people, beyond making them vectors for its transmission. That made it an interesting high-stakes test of solidarity: people were asked to accept harsh restrictions on their movement even though the risk to most of us, personally, was low. And I also believe the rapid development and distribution of vaccines was a miracle of science and a stupendous feat of government action. Finally, I know the people who disagree with all of this do not believe themselves to be low-information victims of a disinformation campaign. They believe they are in possession of extra information that the rest of us refuse to consider.
Most of the preceding paragraph makes me a poster boy for conventional wisdom on COVID. I’ve thought myself to be less orthodox in my belief that, in trying to push broad consensus to unanimity in the late stages of the vaccination drive, the Trudeau government make a drastic policy mistake for cheap political gain with little concomitant increase in public safety. I’m referring, broadly, to the measures the government implemented after the 2021 election, measures that were largely dismantled by the spring of 2022. The stuff that gave rise to, or was the main pretext cited by, the so-called Freedom Convoy.
This is the argument I raised, tentatively, in this old column, and a little less tentatively in a recent book. It’s the argument I believe Liberal MP Joël Lightbound made in what remains one of the most extraordinary interventions I’ve ever seen any MP make. It’s a sentiment Marc Garneau expressed in the exit interview he gave me: “I’ll be very candid. I don’t think we handled it as well as we could have…. I think there was a sense that, ‘We’re not going to talk to you people. You’re just a bunch of troublemakers.’”
It’s in the nature of an off-the-record conference that I can’t give much detail about this, but I was surprised by the number of voices I heard at the IRPP-IOG conference who agreed that the late 2021-early 2022 mandates and restrictions had at least as much to do with partisan advantage as with health promotion. This was hardly a unanimous opinion. I had no mechanism for polling the audience on this question. One person spoke with strong emotion about how the vaccine mandates were backed with truth and facts, and the opposition to such mandates was (here I paraphrase) essentially medieval. I’m sure that person had at least as much of the room on her side as I had on mine. I’m just amazed the question was even raised, and that reservations about the Trudeau government’s behaviour in and after the 2021 election were voiced at all.
The question remains: what’s to be done, in some future crisis of public health, about people who don’t accept a broad scientific consensus about the facts of a virus, and who don’t accept a broad social consensus in favour of mandated limits on free movement, association and commerce? Obviously in the case at hand, that opposition was trivially limited in the pandemic’s early days, and manageably small at the end. So maybe the correct answer is, to hell with ’em.
But these things are path-dependent. I’m quite sure that in the hypothetical event that a COVID-23 with different characteristics descended upon us at the end of this year, tolerance for new restrictions would be lower and less durable. Especially in Ontario, where a lot of people have noticed that British Columbia imposed nothing close to the school lockdowns and store closures that Ontario mandated in 2020-22.
In my slim book An Emergency In Ottawa, I included a brief 120-year history of vaccine skepticism to demonstrate that it has always been with us and to suggest it always will. This has policy implications. Should public authorities simply roll over such people? I mean, maybe. Or should public authorities explain themselves more patiently, acknowledging occasional error but accepting the need to make their case again and again, even in the face of incomprehension or rejection?
One of the challenges COVID-19 presented was to the assumed agreement that’s the basis of so much public communications these days. In the early stages of the lockdown, consent for unprecedented restrictions on free movement was needed, largely taken for granted, and widely consented. Later it was enforced with measures that drew broad public support. Still later, that support started to fray. How will those social and political dimensions play out in some future crisis? That’s a very big question. One that governments are understandably reluctant to contemplate. Here as in other areas, they should be encouraged to step outside their comfort zone.
I had intended to talk about the conference’s keynote address, by the political scientist Alasdair Roberts, but I’ll have to get to that in a second instalment. It’s about how governments “retain authority and legitimacy in a turbulent and often dangerous world.”