Opportunities on the ‘cutting edge’

Carol Stephenson, Richard Ivey School of Business dean, was named recently to the newly formed Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services.

The commission will be chaired by Don Drummond, Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy, Queen’s University. Appointed along with Stephenson were Dominic Giroux, Laurentian University president, and Susan Pigott, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health vice-president, communications.

The commission plans to examine ways the government delivers services to people. On the table are issues like programs no longer serving their intended purpose that could be eliminated or redesigned; areas of service overlap that could be eliminated; as well as areas of value that could provide a greater return on investment.

The findings will be reported to Finance Minister Dwight Duncan in time to inform the development of the 2012 Budget.

Western News editor Jason Winders sat down with Stephenson to discuss the appointment, along with the challenges and opportunities that arise from being on the government’s ‘cutting edge.’

Knowing you, and your schedule, I am guessing fitting another committee in took a bit of work. Why this committee? Why now?

Stephenson: I have always believed that we have a duty to perform public service if you have the ability to contribute. My father taught me this many years ago. Although I am busy, I could hear his voice saying, “Never say no to your government if you can help.” The timing is based on providing advice to the government in time for the 2012 budget so we need to start now.

Given your extensive background in the CEO’s chair, as well as standing among Canadian business schools, it would seem your selection is a no-brainer. What does that perspective offer you when it comes to examining government operations?

I have a broad perspective given my background. This helps me to analyze issues and understand the impact of decisions through the lens of both the private and public sectors. At Ivey, we teach from a cross-enterprise perspective. This means that you have the ability to analyze and solve problems across silos. This will be necessary for us as we examine the fiscal situation in Ontario.

Eyeing efficiencies is an interesting mandate. Sounds much easier than it is. What sort of process do you personally engage in when looking at the efficiencies of large-scale operations? Simply stated, with something this complex, this big, how and/or where do you start looking?

You start by learning everything you can about what is being done, what has been considered, and you seek input from experts. My view is we should start by looking at the areas that are large and growing.

While business acumen has its advantages on a task like this, government is not a business. It’s not about profit, but about people and services. How do you balance the two seemingly conflicting purposes in these deliberations?

You are right, government is not business. It has economic and social imperatives. However, good management is necessary for both.

Is it best to consider these decisions in a vacuum away from the pressures of partisanship, politics and history or do those items better inform your decision on what to eye for cuts?

I don’t believe you should make decisions in a vacuum. Your decisions are always better informed if you have diversity of opinion and understand the environment.

I found it interesting the government was quick to point out that increases in taxes as well as privatization of health care and/or education were off the table for the committee. That’s a lot of big, expensive pieces ruled ‘no touch.’ Does this hands-off mandate limit your ability to recommend the changes that need to be made?

These are policy decisions the government has made. It doesn’t mean you can’t find efficiencies or innovations within these areas without changing the basic policy.

Have any other guidelines been offered? Or does the committee have carte blanche to poke its head into any corner of the government it wishes?

We have been encouraged to explore any areas that we think should be examined.

Given the outcry over austerity cuts, or any cuts for that matter, in the United States and across Europe, are you worried about any personal backlash to being on this committee?

I think I have been asked because of my experience and expertise. This is not personal.

How do you define success at the end of this process? Is it just a number or something else?

It will be up to the government to define success. If we can offer some solutions to the fiscal challenges that will be implemented, I think this will be successful.