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uring a crisis, success in governance requires strong institutions, robust decision-making processes and the right people in the right jobs. In the security and intelligence world, secrecy inhibits real-time adaptation and accountability. Pandemic-causing viruses are threats to our safety and security, and they move around the globe quite freely. Thus, combatting a pandemic requires mobilizing intelligence: medical, economic, social and security intelligence. The key to success is in interagency and intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration that does not come naturally in the security and intelligence world and must be successfully developed.

The primary role of government is to keep its citizens safe. To perform this function well, governments must have strong public health intelligence and security institutions. Throughout all stages of a pandemic (for example, planning, crisis, recovery and new equilibrium), intelligence is key to inform decision making. Having strong, decisive, but open people in decision-making jobs will determine success.

Canada has strong public health and security and intelligence capacity; however, it can be improved upon.

Until the early 2000s, Canada did not have a public health agency, nor did it have a national security strategy. After the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, Dr. David Naylor, then dean of medicine at the University of Toronto, led a review (Learning from SARS: Renewal of Public Health in Canada, 2003) of the Canadian experience and recommended the creation of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) as well as the role of chief public health officer of Canada. Interestingly, it was the first national security strategy (Securing an Open Society: Canada’s National Security Policy, 2004) that actually implemented these two offices. While these functions existed in multiple departments, they were not integrated. Similarly, there was an implicit national security strategy, but it was never integrated and published in such a coherent fashion. 

Securing an Open Society positioned pandemics as a national security issue by noting “the increase in terrorist acts and the threat of rapid, globalized spread of infectious disease all challenge our society and the sense of security that is so critical to our quality of life.”

During a crisis, success in governance requires strong institutions, robust decision-making processes and the right people in the right jobs.

The architecture of Canadian governance requires strong and continuously adapting institutions. We have the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), created after the McDonald Commission (1981) exposed some of the inappropriate activities of the former Royal Canadian Mounted Police Security Service. This was a major institutional adaptation to reinforce the legitimate role of a security intelligence agency and to avoid the malign practices of the former service. 

With the creation of PHAC, it was possible to improve federal/provincial/territorial (FPT) information sharing, coordination and collaboration. The Council of Chief Medical Officers of Health plays this coordination role and, during the current pandemic, has provided a vehicle for the chief public health officer of Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam, to both gather information from her provincial and territorial counterparts as well as collectively share information and implement public health practices. Similarly, the Conference of Deputy Ministers of Health plays an important role in coordinating government policy positions, as do the virtual meetings of Canada’s ministers of health. In addition, the irregular virtual meetings of first ministers throughout the pandemic have allowed for information sharing, coordination and collaboration on pandemic issues among political leaders.

Internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO), flawed and imperfect as it is, has played an important role in, again, sharing information, coordinating action and providing some leadership. However, its own weak leadership and the political buffeting by member states have inhibited its effectiveness. The Global Public Health Intelligence Network is a vehicle for sharing information worldwide but has been in need of revitalization for years.

In a federation with distributed authorities, there is a clear need for a coordinating mechanism. The Pan-Canadian Public Health Network is just such a body; however, fragmentation and federal disputes inhibit its effectiveness.

The collection and assessment of intelligence in health issues requires both open and covert activities. Open intelligence is gathered by mobilizing a wide array of departments and agencies from diverse sources. In terms of covert collection, agencies could use statutory powers and, more importantly, other secret or confidential sources. The assessment of raw intelligence will then collate and integrate the various sources to draw conclusions leading to advice. 

In the pre-crisis phase, this intelligence gathering and assessment are most important. The security apparatus can play an important role in collection and assessment. PHAC can apply a public health lens to the intelligence, but CSIS, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and other intelligence agencies can strategically supplement the information available. However, as far as one knows publicly, there are no PHAC officers abroad, as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains, that could be useful sources of public health intelligence. Similarly, the US National Security Council had a desk on infectious diseases created under President Barack Obama and famously disbanded by President Donald Trump. 

In a Westminster parliamentary democracy, there are a few principles of executive performance and parliamentary accountability that are essential to promote effectiveness. To ensure that all the moving parts of government speak with one voice, it is necessary to bring together all the relevant or essential ministers to make collective decisions, rather than each independently taking actions that may conflict.      

Long advised to have a Cabinet committee on international and security issues, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien kept the role to himself. However, after the September 11 attacks, he agreed to establish such a committee chaired by the deputy prime minister and bringing together all the relevant ministers to coordinate and prepare Canada’s response to the attacks. This committee prepared the Anti-terrorism Act and managed the border and Canada/US relations.

In the case of COVID-19, the response infrastructure adapted over time. The government first relied on the Incident Response Group, chaired by the clerk and originally designed to deal with threats to democracy and terrorism security. However, it quickly became clear that the issues with COVID-19, although of a security nature, were much more significant, and the decisions no longer required simply mobilizing existing institutions, but rather changing the program and policy architecture. Therefore, on March 4, 2020, the prime minister established a Cabinet committee led by the deputy prime minister to coordinate and prepare the government response to the pandemic. The government quickly created more than 12 new instruments, such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, financial supports, loans, credits and so forth. This response involved bringing together ministers from public safety, finance and health; Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada; Employment and Social Development Canada; procurement; GAC; and other departments. The controversy over the WE Charity delivery of the government’s summer student program seems to be a process failure where the decision did not go through the appropriate due diligence assessment of other announcements.

Because of the need for physical distancing, the House of Commons has convened (on a limited basis) to deal with some pieces of emergency legislation, but it has not been adequately able to hold the government to account. The accountability role of Parliament in Westminster parliamentary democracies has been negatively affected by the advent of COVID-19. In response to the challenges posed by the pandemic, Westminster has used Zoom for its virtual meetings. Canada’s Parliament could well take a lesson from the mother of all parliaments.

Ultimately, the institutions and the decision-making processes used in government depend on the quality of the people behind them. The professional, non-partisan public service uses science and evidence as a guide to policy development. Moreover, seasoned public servants have been tested before with other crises (for example, the 1998 ice storm, September 11, swine flu [H1N1], cyberattacks, natural disasters and so forth). However, most ministers face a crisis only once in their ministerial careers; therefore, their reliance on the experience of a permanent, professional, non-partisan public service pays huge dividends in times of crisis.

The chief public health officer plays a crucial role, and their credibility with the public and with epidemiologists will determine their success. Their decisions were being made with imperfect information and, more problematically, in the presence of uncertainty. While information adequacy is important, it is inappropriate to judge performance based on the information available ex post.

The chief medical officers of health in the provinces and territories all have impeccable professional credentials, but several have performed far better than others. The most successful have shown professional and empathetic leadership. Their credibility does not flow from a white coat or stethoscope around their neck, but rather from the calm competence they displayed. These are difficult jobs at the best of times and during a pandemic, they are brutal.

On the security side, the director of CSIS and the head of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) tend to perform better when their careers have taken them outside of their agency, in particular if they have experience outside the traditional security world. Thus, they bring a broader perspective on security than simply a narrow security intelligence background. 

Similarly, the Clerk of the Privy Council, when they have experience in a variety of health, social policy, finance and security areas, brings bigger thinking to dealing with a pandemic. In all these circumstances, incumbents who demonstrate a deliberate, calm and collaborative demeanour achieve higher performance in crises.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Tam; Dr. Stephen Lucas, deputy minister of health; Ian Shugart, deputy minister of foreign affairs; David Vigneault, director of CSIS; Shelly Bruce, chief of the CSE; and their provincial counterparts, where they exist, have performed relatively well.

It is rare that a minister of health is also a doctor. In fact, an informed and adept layperson will often perform better in the role, bringing lived experience to the judgment required in weighing evidence and intelligence. This observation also applies to the minister of public safety, who usually does not have experience in law enforcement. However, Patty Hajdu’s experience in a non-governmental organization in Thunder Bay and Bill Blair’s experience as chief of police in Toronto have helped them meet the tests they have been put through.

Finally, some first ministers (such as Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) have risen to the occasion and put partisan political differences aside and shown real leadership.

Their credibility does not flow from a white coat or stethoscope around their neck, but rather from the calm competence they displayed.

So, in light of the importance of strong institutions, robust decision-making processes and having the right people in the right jobs, there are a few improvements that will make Canada a better place. 

First, we will need a comprehensive review of what went right (and there was much that did) and what could have been improved upon (of which there is yet more). Such a review will have to look at the evolution of the available information from domestic and international sources, including scientific, demographic and economic data. The review will have to go beyond health to look at the adequacy of our institutions, the processes and architecture of decision making, the quality of the people in key jobs and the effectiveness of communications. The review should be at an arm’s length of government and clearly non-partisan. Two models of such a review are the US Hamilton-Kean report after September 11 and the Naylor report after SARS.

Second, we need an authoritative and executive international agency to mandate action by governments. The WHO has been effective in information exchange and coordination; however, it has failed to take executive action against member states. The WHO has been buffeted by political demands and sensibilities and intermember state political dynamics that have hobbled its effectiveness (see China and the United States). If an executive health agency is required, it has been suggested that perhaps a health stability board analogous to the Financial Stability Board in Basel may be warranted. 

Third, Canada should increase its foreign intelligence capacity but should not create a new foreign intelligence agency. The various arguments relating to taking capacity from CSIS, confusing CSIS with law-breaking authority, and how to supervise and review such an agency all come into play. Similarly, PHAC should develop a foreign intelligence capacity.

Fourth, the informal FPT relationships should be institutionalized through formal secretariats and coordination bodies. A move to formalize executive federalism can lead to improvements in decision making. We have such institutional arrangements in Environment and Climate Change Canada and elsewhere and could adopt an increasingly formalistic arrangement for first ministers and other ministers.

Fifth, the Cabinet committee on COVID-19 should be turned into a standing committee on emergencies. In less than two decades, we have experienced SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, Ebola and H1N1. Being prepared for the next natural disaster, terrorist act or health crisis is the objective. The committee would ensure the planning function gets done during quieter times and the emergency response is robust during crises.

Sixth, the Privy Council Office (PCO) should have a security-based capacity on health issues. The Intelligence Assessment Secretariat within the PCO should establish such a capacity to integrate public health and security intelligence, and it would also ensure interdepartmental and interagency coordination in planning for and during crises.

Seventh, the public communications during this pandemic were not always optimal. There is a time when communications should be left to public health professionals. There is a time when first ministers should leave the microphone to others after months of daily exposure. Similarly, there is a time when first ministers should provide true leadership through communications, conveying the seriousness of the issue, prompting or requiring a response, and instilling that optimal balance of fear and calm and manifesting those elusive elements of confidence and trust.

Eighth, Parliament should innovate and find new ways to continue to function remotely. Avoiding Parliament is anti-democratic. Technology can help Parliament hold the government to account — imagine a chief technology officer of Parliament.

Ninth, the old Guide for Ministers, now called Open and Accountable Government, should be revised to account for ministerial responsibility during crises. And the lessons of COVID-19 for the appointment of ministers should be reviewed. Performance is determined by ministers having the right background but also by their character and how they set priorities and perform in a crisis and whether they have good judgment.

Finally, the relationship between the professional, non-partisan public service and the political decision makers must be established and elaborated before we need them to function smoothly in a crisis. One of the great strengths of a Westminster parliamentary democracy is this relationship; it cannot be built during a crisis but must be called on as an asset of governance. Again, the guide outlining responsibilities should specify this relationship more explicitly.

Regardless of how one deals with the issues above, it is imperative that in the post-COVID-19 world, governments institute a comprehensive review of capacity and performance in the four phases of this pandemic.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • Mel Cappe is a professor in the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.