Hopes are high among many Canadians that 2019 will be the year that this country finally gets a national pharmacare program.
If there was a theme to the changes to Trudeau’s ministry on Monday, it was that service delivery is hard — especially for the federal government.
Paying veterans, providing services to Indigenous Canadians, even meeting payroll for public servants — all were massive headaches for the former ministers in charge of veterans’ affairs, Indigenous services and treasury board, and likely will remain the same for the new people who were put in charge of those departments on Monday.
With that rather dismal reality in mind, just imagine how well Ottawa would do with a brand-new national program, requiring another try at mass service delivery; in this case, helping Canadians pay for the cost of prescription drugs.
“We know there are two areas in which the federal government has direct-delivery responsibility,” he said. “That’s for our veterans and for Indigenous peoples. That is where we are putting tremendous emphasis as a government.”
Another area of “tremendous emphasis” (read: tremendous vexation) is the debacle known as the Phoenix payroll system, so ravaged with problems since it was rolled out a few years ago that thousands and thousands of public servants have been radically underpaid, overpaid or not paid at all.
Though fixing this fiasco has been largely assigned to Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough, new Treasury Board president Jane Philpott has been handed responsibility for the federal civil service, with all the damage that Phoenix has inflicted on morale, recruitment and even the livelihood of the nation’s bureaucrats.
“We are all concerned about the impact that the Phoenix pay system has had on literally thousands of people across this country and it has been extremely unfortunate that they have been affected in such a way,” Philpott said when she got her turn to talk outside Rideau Hall.
Note: on this significant day in the life of this government, the nation’s top politicians were talking about problems in meeting payroll.
For many Canadians who aren’t veterans, public servants or part of the Indigenous community, the main, direct contact with the federal government is Canada Revenue at tax time. But the auditor-general has issued a couple of scathing reports in the past year or so about dreadful service there too.
In a 2017 report, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson documented how millions of calls by citizens to Revenue Canada were going unanswered and how even when the calls did go through, incorrect information was being provided about one-third of the time.
“I keep delivering the same message — that the government doesn’t understand the results from the citizens’ perspectives,” Ferguson said when he handed down that report.
Perhaps inspired by that finding, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business did its own, more recent audit of government service to small business and found similarly concerning results. Using “mystery shoppers,” the CFIB set out to determine how well Service Canada provided information to callers with small-business questions. Over two months, these shoppers placed a little over 200 calls to Service Canada’s line for general inquiries and the employer-contact centre. Here are the results, announced in a CFIB news release:
“The study found that 41 per cent of all calls were redirected to another government agency, requiring callers to hang up and go through the waiting process again, without the assurance that they will receive the information they need. Only 34 per cent received complete and correct information on their first call.”
Trudeau’s newly reshuffled cabinet starts meeting on Wednesday in Sherbrooke, Que. Unlike the earlier retreats, the schedule doesn’t seem to include any guest appearances by “deliverology” gurus. With three years of hard-earned experience, ministers probably don’t need any more lessons in how hard it is to deliver — especially when it comes to services.
A federal pharmacare program would be another severe test of Ottawa’s service-delivery capability, already creaking under its own weight.
So keep those hopes checked on prospects for pharmacare — the federal government may want to get into drugs, but its main need at the moment might be the performance-enhancing type.
Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt