Innovation: What a Minister Says, What the Media Write

I am always on the lookout for stories about public sector innovation, and I heard one last week. John McCallum, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, was on CBC radio news announcing that his department had introduced innovations to reduce the processing time for spousal immigration applications from two years to one. He mentioned that this was the result of a review of procedures that found, for example, that some steps could be conducted simultaneously rather than consecutively, and other steps were unnecessary.

That same day (December 8), McCallum announced this in the House of Commons and, as part of the announcement gave “a special thanks to the young officials whose tiger team led to a radical improvement in the processing guidelines for our new system, and I can tell the House that we will harness their skills to improve performance in other areas.” McCallum is an experienced and capable minister, and I commend him for giving full public credit to his innovative public servants.

I was curious if the print media would notice, so the next morning I looked for a story in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s English-language newspaper of record. Buried on page 14, I found an article by Stephanie Levitz of The Canadian Press – not a member of the Globe’s staff – entitled “Feds to drop wait times for spousal sponsorship applications to 12 months.” The lede attributed the reduction in processing times to “a multi-million dollar revamp.” The article then focused on the outputs – the change in applications processed and speed of processing – and only obliquely referred to “a new application process.”

The article concluded by referring to “a controversial plan” to close an immigration-processing office employing 280 people in the small town of Vegreville, Alberta and move its work to the nearby city of Edmonton. The author reported that Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs, who represents Vegreville, “read letter after letter to Mr. McCallum about what it will mean for them to potentially lose their jobs in an economy already feeling the sting of oil-patch job losses.” There is a certain irony to Stubbs’s position, as the Harper Government put great emphasis on cutting cost and improving efficiency, but the Conservative Opposition now focuses on preserving public service jobs.

My critique of Ms. Levitz is that she wrote not a word about the innovation that public servants put in place to improve performance. This unfortunately exemplifies a media meme of devoting attention to the cost of government and to public service jobs and ignoring public sector innovation.

I urge Minister McCallum to continue to talk about his innovative public servants, especially the “tiger team” of young officials. I hope the minister and the department will continue to publicize these innovations by entering public sector innovation competitions, such as the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s, and by submitting their story to the OECD’s observatory on public sector innovation. And, buoyed by their minister’s support, I hope that the tiger team continues its work, recognizing that a better Canadian immigration system is always possible. And I hope that they receive the public profile and recognition they deserve.

This is likely my last post this year. I wish my readers a relaxing holiday and happy and healthy New Year, and I look forward to continuing to post next year.

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