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The repair job at Immigration
The department's top bureaucrat answers a critical report, with rare candour
Seven months ago Neil Yeates, a retired former deputy minister of immigration, submitted a report on the organization of the department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to the current deputy minister, Christiane Fox.
Yeates’s 28-page report was blunt, plainspoken, critical but constructive. It said “the current organizational model at IRCC is broken.” At a time of global upheaval and dizzying growth in immigration levels, the department that decides who gets into Canada was no longer “fit for purpose,” he wrote. It was time for “major change.” When? “[T]he advice is to proceed now.”
On Thursday, a copy of Yeates’s report landed in my email inbox.
On Thursday night, Christiane Fox told me she is implementing many of Yeates’s recommendations, and described for me her plans for the department with a level of detail and candour I almost never see in today’s Ottawa.
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Copies of Yeates’s February IRCC Organizational Review Report have been floating around Ottawa because the department began implementing big changes this week. Some of the nearly 13,000 people who work in the department have asked for the rationale behind the changes. Yeates’s 28-page report makes the case succinctly.
Yeates was a top civil servant in Saskatchewan before moving to Ottawa in 2004. He held senior positions in three other departments before becoming deputy minister at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the department now known as IRCC, where he served from 2009 to his retirement in 2013. That means he was Jason Kenney’s deputy minister for all of Kenney’s time at Immigration, but he was also a Trudeau Foundation mentor if you want to get excited about that instead.
His report’s purpose, he wrote, “is to provide strategic advice to the Deputy Minister on how the department can become a more efficient and effective organization.” After interviewing 36 people inside and outside the department, he decided it was a mess.
'“[T]he current organizational model at IRCC is broken but is being held together by the hard work and dedication of staff,” he wrote. “At IRCC today department-wide planning is limited and some interviewees suggested it has in fact disappeared completely . There is no multi-year strategic plan, annual plans are not in place consistently across the department and consequently reporting is seen by many as haphazard.”
What the department did have going for it was a decent work environment: “In talking to senior managers at IRCC the culture was universally seen as ‘committed,’ ‘collaborative,’ ‘supportive’ and so on.” The senior managers Yeates interviewed saw this culture as “helping to overcome the shortcomings of the current organizational structure and of the weakness of the governance and management systems.”
The immigration department has always been the main portal between a messy world and an anxious nation. Lately the world had grown messier, Yeates noted, and the demands on the department were starting to hurt. “[T]he operating environment, both nationally and internationally, has grown ever more complex, unstable and frenetic,” he wrote.
In response, “the department has grown exponentially,” from 5,217 staff when Yeates left it in 2013 to12,721 this year, an expansion of 144%. The “Ex complement,” the department’s management cadre, grew from 135 to 227 over the same period, a smaller increase of 68%. That might explain why the department’s managers are so stressed, Yeates speculated. At any rate, the department’s structure was conceived for a much smaller staff and caseload.
To catch up, Yeates proposed big reform in four areas: Organizational Structure, Governance, Management Systems and Culture. He cautioned that tinkering with only one or a couple of those areas wouldn’t have the effect that a “Big Bang,” however difficult, would achieve.
The big problem in Organizational Structure was that the department isn’t organized along business lines: that one of the world’s leading destinations for asylum and humanitarian immigration doesn’t have an assistant deputy minister for asylum, for instance. The obvious challenge was that in a hectic world there will certainly be more crises, like those of recent years. “Should IRCC have a permanent ‘response team’ in place? The short answer is no.” Between crises that team of experienced trouble-shooters would just be twirling their thumbs. Instead Yeates proposed better contingency planning, including lessons learned from other crisis-management departments such as National Defence.
Under Governance, Yeates found a proliferation of over-large committees sitting through endless presentations and not really sure, at the end of each, whether they had decided anything. “Most of the actual decision-making occurs in DMO/ADM bilats,” he wrote, referring to meetings between the Deputy Minister’s office and a given Assistant Deputy Minister.
The section of Yeates’s report that deals with Management Systems reads like a parable of contemporary Ottawa: a “series of periodic crises” that somehow nobody anticipated, “descend[ing] into ‘issues management.’” What’s needed is much better planning and reporting, he wrote. When he was running the department barely a decade ago, every part of the department was reporting on progress against targets every three months. That system has fallen by the wayside. A department that’s obsessed with its “priorities” or with the to-do items in “a minister’s mandate letters” is “inherently limited” and guaranteed to be side-swiped by events intruding from the real world, he wrote.
The upshot of all this tunnel vision was that the department was expecting to “lapse,” or leave unspent, $368 million in projected spending for the year underway, even as passport-related spending was projecting a $238 million deficit.
Yeates’s report closed with the sort of plea that’s traditional in this sort of exercise, essentially pleading not to be ignored. “IRCC is at a crossroads and as Yogi Berra famously quipped ‘when you come to a fork in the road, take it,’” he wrote. Change is hard, but a “substantial majority” of the people he interviewed told him it was overdue.
And that’s where the report ends. I had to decide what to do with it. First, always consider the possibility that you’ve been handed a fake report, or the first draft of something that was later amended beyond recognition. I emailed the office of Immigration Minister Marc Miller looking for comment. They handed me off to the civil servants in the department’s communications staff. But I also emailed Christiane Fox, the deputy minister, offering her a chance to comment. This is the sort of chance that people in Ottawa usually don’t touch with a barge pole.
But Fox called me on Thursday night and responded in detail. I asked: was the conversation on the record? She thought out loud for a few seconds, working her way up to a “Yes.” I don’t want to belabour this, but that answer is very rare these days.
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Christiane Fox had been the DM at Indigenous Services for all of 22 months when she was sent to run IRCC in July of 2022. The new job “felt like crisis”: the department was sending weekly updates to an ad hoc committee of ministers whose job was to fix months of chaos in airports and passport offices.
“They felt like they were under duress,” Fox said. “Everyone was exhausted.” New staff were just “tacked on when there was a problem,” including the creation of an entirely new sector for Afghanistan. Fox talked about this with some of the most experienced public servants in town, including Yeates and Richard Dicerni, Fox’s former DM from her days as a young public servant at Industry, who passed away this summer and whose contribution to public life in Canada is hard to measure.
“I kind of said, ‘We’ve got to make some changes. And I don't want to do it overnight. But I also don't want to spend two years figuring out what a new model could look like.’” Yeates, whom she didn’t know well but who knew the department’s history, seemed like solid outside counsel.
While Yeates was doing his thing, Fox and the previous immigration minister, Sean Fraser, were consulting — with “business leaders, academics and clients” — about the department’s future. By June of this year, she had a plan, based on Yeates’s report and those consultations. She’s been rolling it out since then, from top managers on down, and on Wednesday, by way of explanation for the changes that are coming, she sent the Yeates report to enough people that I got a copy. A department-wide meeting is scheduled for this coming week.
What’s changing? “The model is now just more of a business-line model,” she said, reflecting Yeates’s first big recommendation.
So there’ll be a stronger crisis-planning sector. In a world that keeps producing humanitarian crises, the goal is to learn lessons for next time from Ukraine, Afghanistan and elsewhere. “Most importantly, we’ll have a group dedicated to thinking about these issues, planning for crisis.” It won’t eliminate the need to “surge,” or quickly add new staff when something flares up. “But in the past, we ended up surging so much that all of our other business lines suffered every time there was a crisis.” The goal now is to get better at anticipating so the department’s regular work doesn’t suffer.
“Asylum and Refugee. There was no Asylum ADM,” she said, reflecting another Yeates critique. “This is probably the thing that causes me the most heartache, in terms of, how are we going to deal with this as a country, globally? What are some of the tools that we have? How do we support the most vulnerable? How do we have a system that is fast and fair? So Asylum and Refugee will now be a sector within the department.”
In addition, there’ll be a sector focused on Economic Immigration and Family. “The business community didn't really feel like we were actually talking to them about labour shortages, about skills missions, about what is the talent that the country needs.” And a sector on francophone immigration, identifying French-speaking sources of immigration and taking into account the needs of French-speaking newcomers.
“Other sectors remain kind of consistent. Like, we’ve always had a focus on border and security, but we will now have a team that’s really migration integrity, national security, fraud prevention, and looking at case management in that context.”
Fox said she’s working on more of a “client focus” in the department’s work. “When I joined the department I remember, my first few weeks, thinking, ‘Everybody talks about inventory and backlog and process.’ But I didn’t feel clients and people were at the forefront.” This may sound like a semantic difference. But anyone who’s been treated as inventory and backlog can testify to the potential value in any reform that restores a measure of humanity to recipients of government service.
I’ve been arguing for months here that simply acknowledging problems and identifying possible solutions is better communications than the happy-face sloganeering that passes for so much of strategic comms these days. Here, quite by accident, I’d stumbled across somebody who seems to have had similar thoughts. (There’s an irony here, because Fox’s CV includes a long stint as a director of strategic communications in the Privy Council Office.)
“There will be things that will come up,” Fox said, “that may not be as smooth a transition as we thought, or maybe a bit clunky, that we need to rethink. What we've told the employees is, it won't be perfect. We needed to change, we're going to change, but there's going to be room for conversation around issues that arise as we go through this process.”