Challenging Real-World Public Management Problems

I’ve always believed that the questions on a final exam should be as challenging as the problems managers face in the real world. This year in my public management course, I came up with five such problems, and asked the students to solve any four. Here are the questions and my comments.

First, how would you implement the merger of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) in terms of both organizational structure and resource implications? I was looking for answers that recognized the complexity of merging two big and distinct organizations. Would it be a complete merger, in the sense that CIDA people right up to Minister Fantino blend into the DFAIT structure (for example Canadian embassies having development officers working with political officers and trade officers) or would it be a merger in name only? Possible resource implications involved savings from reduction in staff in either or both organizations and reductions in foreign assistance.

Second, how should Justin Trudeau go about writing a new red book of Liberal Party policies prior to the 2015 Election? I reminded students that Trudeau’s predecessor Jean Chretien issued his first red book in 1993, slightly before the Internet age. Perhaps in response to that hint, most answers emphasized social media and polling. But they were often unclear on who would do the policy development work. I was looking for answers that realized Trudeau won’t have time to write it himself, and must establish an organizational structure to produce his red book. Two groups that must not be overlooked – but often were overlooked in the answers – are the Liberal caucus and the Liberal party.

Third, which criteria should a prime minister use to appoint directors of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board? A short description of the organization – a Crown corporation whose mission is to ensure that fund maximizes returns without undue risk – elicited a response from most students that directors should have expertise and experience in investment management. Many students stopped there, without recognizing a role for any other factors. Given the pool of people with those skills, the expert board might end up composed entirely of older white guys living in Toronto. The challenge to the prime minister and his advisors is to find some people with the necessary expertise but who display some diversity: women, minorities, and people based elsewhere.

Fourth, assume that in the next election campaign, NDP leader Tom Mulcair promises to review and end most of the Harper Government’s now elaborate set of income tax credits, which he criticized as elitist, because they can be used only by people who pay income tax, and expensive, because they total up to a loss of income tax revenue of $1.5 billion (professorial confession: I made that number up). Mulcair promises a speedy review that will decide which credits to keep, which to terminate, and which to replace with other policy instruments.

The protagonist in the question is the deputy minister of finance, who should be preparing for the possibility of a Mulcair Government. A good answer included analytical criteria for reviewing each tax credit, for example: the number of taxpayers who use it, revenue foregone because of it, characteristics of the taxpayers who use it, such as their average income and geographical distribution. It also included political criteria, such as the interest groups that champion it, and who could be expected to protest if it were cancelled. Finally, the question called for some thought about the organizational structure the deputy minister should use. He should start with an internal review team to do the analytic work, but should he prepare for public consultations after Mulcair takes office?

Fifth, what should Canadian Ambassador to the US Gary Doer be doing to persuade President Obama to sign on to the Keystone Pipeline? My question assumes that Obama will not meet with Doer. Several answers mentioned advertising and social media campaigns, other answers mentioned meeting with whomever in the West Wing, State Department, or EPA would be willing to meet with him. One answer mentioned Mitt Romney. Many students missed the broader notion of looking for allies: American organizations or groups who (would) support the pipeline and answers overlooked lobbying Congress.

Overall, while the answers had lots of good analysis, one area of weakness was in thinking about organizational structure, the groups of politicians and/or public servants who would have to be put in place and given a mandate to make something happen. Maybe this is because undergraduate students are not sufficiently familiar with large organizations to think on those terms. But I’m not sure of that, because they do take organizational behaviour and amny have had co-op assignments in large organizations. I’ll have to think about how to make the point that implementation requires organizational structure more forcefully when I teach the public management course next year.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe by email

If you are interested in my weekly blog posts about politics and political narrative, as well as updates about my research and teaching, please enter your email address below to receive a free subscription.


Previous Posts