"How It All Broke": A Groundbreaking Report on Fixing Social Policy Governance in Canada

Jesse Donaldson
March 19, 2024
The recently released report, "How It All Broke: Fixing How Government Manages Social Policy in New Brunswick," by the province's Child, Youth, and Seniors' Advocate, has brought to light a critical issue that resonates far beyond the borders of New Brunswick, delving deep into the systemic failures of social policy governance.

Exposing the Cracks in Canada's Social Policy Foundation

The recently released report, "How It All Broke: Fixing How Government Manages Social Policy in New Brunswick," by the province's Child, Youth, and Seniors' Advocate, has brought to light a critical issue that resonates far beyond the borders of New Brunswick. The report delves deep into the systemic failures of social policy governance, revealing five key flaws that have hindered the effectiveness of social programs not just in New Brunswick but across Canada.

  • Lack of effective human resource planning: The report exposes a disconnect between human resource planning and the actual needs of social programs. Too often, staffing decisions are based on immediate vacancies rather than long-term trends and service standards. This shortsightedness leads to chronic understaffing, high turnover rates, and a lack of expertise in important areas, ultimately compromising the quality of care and support provided to vulnerable populations.
  • Budgeting process detached from objectives and reality: The budgeting process for social programs is often based on the previous year's allocations, with little consideration for the actual outcomes achieved or the changing needs of the population served. Fiscal targets are set without adequate modeling of the social consequences, resulting in arbitrary cost-cutting measures that strain the system and undermine the effectiveness of programs.
  • Emphasis on following rules over achieving results: Front-line workers in social programs are often constrained by rigid, rule-bound systems prioritizing compliance over problem-solving and innovation. The widespread use of Lean Six Sigma training in the public sector has further entrenched this focus on uniformity, stifling creativity and adaptability. As a result, staff need more support in responding to the unique needs of individuals and families, leading to suboptimal outcomes.
  • Lack of data collection, analysis, and follow-up: The report highlights a glaring absence of hard outcome targets and consistent tracking of results in social programs. Without robust data collection and analysis, policymakers and program managers lack the evidence base necessary to identify areas for improvement, allocate resources effectively, and hold themselves accountable for the impact of their decisions.
  • Tendency to fund crises while underfunding preventative solutions: Governments often prioritize funding for "Got-To" programs, which are demand-driven and reactive, while neglecting "Ought-To" programs that could prevent crises from occurring in the first place. This imbalance perpetuates a vicious cycle of underfunding prevention, leading to more acute problems and placing an even greater strain on emergency services.
  • These governance flaws are not confined to New Brunswick; they are pervasive across Canada, contributing to a range of persistent social challenges such as poverty, homelessness, mental health crises, and inadequate support for vulnerable populations. By shining a light on these systemic issues, the report serves as a wake-up call for policymakers and leaders at all levels of government to confront the cracks in our social policy foundation and work towards meaningful, evidence-based reforms.

The Real-World Impacts of Governance Flaws on Social Programs and Lives

The governance flaws identified in "How It All Broke" have far-reaching consequences for social programs and those they serve. The report provides a compelling case study of how these issues have played out in New Brunswick's long-term care system, offering insights that apply to other social programs and jurisdictions across Canada.

  1. Seniors languishing in hospital beds due to a lack of long-term care capacity and poor human resource planning, many seniors in New Brunswick are forced to remain in hospital beds long after they no longer require acute care. This situation not only compromises the well-being and dignity of the elderly but also places a significant strain on the healthcare system, leading to overcrowding, increased wait times, and higher costs.
  1. Waitlists and urgent care strains The underfunding of preventative care and community-based services has resulted in growing waitlists for long-term care and increased pressure on urgent care facilities. Seniors and their families are left in limbo, facing prolonged uncertainty and stress. At the same time, emergency departments struggle to cope with the influx of patients whose needs could have been met more appropriately elsewhere.
  1. Rule-bound systems failing to meet individual needs The rigid, rule-bound nature of many social programs, coupled with a lack of flexibility and discretion for front-line workers, has created a system that fails to respond to the unique needs of seniors, families, and children. This one-size-fits-all approach leads to suboptimal outcomes and a failure to provide the person-centered care and support essential for promoting well-being and independence.

These challenges are not unique to long-term care but are echoed across various social programs. In child protection, for example, the underfunding of prevention and family support services has led to an increased number of children being taken into care, placing enormous pressure on the system and leading to poor outcomes for vulnerable youth. In social assistance, a focus on rule-following rather than results has trapped many individuals and families in a cycle of poverty, with little support for building the skills and resources necessary for achieving self-sufficiency.

The education system, too, has been impacted by these governance flaws. A lack of resources and flexibility to address diverse student needs has contributed to widening achievement gaps, increased rates of school disengagement, and a greater reliance on other social services to fill the gaps.

Across all these program areas, the failure to invest in prevention and early intervention has created a self-perpetuating crisis management cycle, with ever-increasing demands placed on emergency services and a growing burden on public finances. Addressing these challenges will require a fundamental shift in our approach to social policy governance.

A Roadmap for Reforming Social Policy Governance in Canada

The report is more than just a critique of the status quo; it offers a comprehensive set of recommendations for reforming social policy governance in New Brunswick and beyond. While directed specifically at the province's Executive Council Office and Department of Finance, these recommendations provide a valuable roadmap for change that can be adapted and implemented by governments at all levels across Canada.

  1. Create a dedicated social policy branch: One key recommendation is to establish a dedicated social policy branch within the government's central decision-making bodies. This branch would be responsible for setting clear outcome targets, supporting evidence-based policy development, and fostering a culture of innovation and continuous improvement across all social programs.
  1. Launch a "Reinventing Government Initiative:" To shift the focus from rule-following to results-based management, the report calls for a "Reinventing Government Initiative." This initiative would prioritize accountability, collaboration, and decentralized decision-making, empowering front-line workers to respond flexibly to the unique needs of individuals and families while still maintaining clear performance standards and outcome measures.
  1. Require social policy impact assessments and long-term HR planning: The report recommends mandatory social policy impact assessments for all major initiatives to ensure that policy decisions and resource allocations align with desired social outcomes. Additionally, it calls for developing long-term human resource plans based on service standards and anticipated future needs rather than short-term vacancies and budgetary pressures.
  1. Promote interdepartmental collaboration and decentralized decision-making: Breaking down silos between government departments and promoting collaboration is essential for addressing complex social challenges. The report recommends using incentives, shared performance measures, and removing barriers to information sharing to foster a more integrated and coordinated approach to social policy.
  1. Partner with non-profits and communities on service delivery: Finally, the report highlights the importance of leveraging non-profit organizations' and community groups' expertise and local knowledge in delivering social programs. This can include using social impact bonds, outcome-based commissioning, and more flexible funding arrangements that prioritize results over outputs.

Implementing these recommendations will require a significant shift in how governments approach social policy, but the potential benefits are immense. By aligning resources with desired outcomes, empowering front-line workers to innovate and problem-solve, and fostering collaboration across departments and sectors, governments can create a more responsive, effective, and sustainable social safety net that truly meets the needs of their most vulnerable citizens.

The insights and recommendations in "How It All Broke: Fixing How Government Manages Social Policy in New Brunswick" have the power to transform social policy governance not just in New Brunswick but across Canada. By learning from the province's experiences and adapting the report's roadmap to their own unique contexts, policymakers and leaders at all government levels can build a more equitable, evidence-based, and person-centered approach to social policy.

Never miss a beat.

Stay updated on current and upcoming products, new blog posts, and webinars with our newsletter.