Michael Presley

Over the years, Governments of all stripes around the world have tried to come to grips with the fact that their regulatory systems need to be refined if not overhauled.  Recognition of the importance of regulatory reform will only increase as time passes because it remains one of the most important aspects of public administration that has lacked strategic and sustained attention over the years.

Canada’s approach to regulatory reform could likely be best described as coming in “fits and starts”. From efforts to introduce “smart regulation”, to “streamlined regulation”, to “Canada-US regulatory harmonization/cooperation”, to “red tape reduction strategies” characterized by “One for One” controls on the growth of regulation, there have been many genuine and well intentioned efforts at reform. But through each of the above efforts there persisted a belief that reforms could be accomplished through a single overarching policy or governance change that would fix the problem once and for all. To date, this naïve search for a silver bullet approach to reforming Canada’s regulatory system has produced predictable results. For example, many governments’ efforts to create new wise centrally administered tough regulatory policy that is enforced through a powerful cabinet committee has not, as stand alone reforms, resulted in the improvements their promoters promised.

In Canada, the regulatory system is an underestimated asset to Canada. The Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada notes that in the 2016-17 fiscal year, sixteen of the most significant federal regulatory changes approved by the Treasury Board cabinet committee resulted in a net benefit to Canada of more than $9.6 Billion annually  (total costs were $7.0 billion and benefits were $16.6 billion).  But few Canadians understand how all the moving parts of the system work and these costs and benefits are born unevenly by Canadians.  Industry bears most of the costs and is generally vocal about the need to reduce those costs. Canadians who benefit are often not fully aware of the protection afforded by such measures and so are relatively inarticulate about their impacts.

Canada, like most jurisdictions, has focused at the federal order of government on getting its regulatory policy right and giving its cabinet oversight committee (the Treasury Board) the advice it needs to approve new regulatory proposals that are precise rather than blunt instruments. The regulatory policy is the “Cabinet Directive on Regulation” and it is an intelligent and well constructed policy that has evolved over the last ten years into a well regarded foundational element of a good regulatory system. It performs, however, a very limited role in refining the overall regulatory system. The reason it is limited in impact is because it primarily affects the design of new regulatory proposals and does not have much practical impact on how effectively they’re actually implemented and managed on an ongoing basis. Neither does it affect the vast majority of federal regulatory requirements that rarely come to the Treasury Board for review and updating.

Even the best designed and consulted regulatory proposal can prove ineffective if it isn’t well implemented and monitored for its impact. Every regulation is actually an experiment and only careful management, monitoring and adjustments will increase the likelihood that it will work as intended.

The good news is that the current Federal Government has introduced a reform strategy that relies less on silver bullets and more on solid ongoing regulatory management.  It seems to recognize that regulatory system reform is not a “one and done” task, but an ongoing effort that requires sustained attention, oversight and management throughout the regulatory life-cycle of each program.  The initial innovation and agility priorities of the Government are strategically focused on sectors of the economy where regulatory reforms could produce early wins. The thrust of the approach is on three sectors: agri-food and aquaculture; health and bio-sciences; and transportation and infrastructure. Road maps are beginning to look beyond design questions and towards reforming implementation approaches, inspection practices, and compliance and enforcement efforts.

Of course, the federal regulatory system reaches well beyond these three sectors: the lessons learned there will contribute to the remodeling of regulatory reform road maps emerging in other federal Departments and Agencies. Systematic reviews will be undertaken on the stock of regulations that are rarely critically evaluated. As a complement to these efforts, the implementation of ongoing stakeholder regulatory review advisory groups would give both Departments and Agencies the means to effectively improve regulatory management.

This process is still in its early days, but the philosophy that underpins this latest regulatory reform effort seems more likely to lead to lasting impacts than the “silver bullet” approaches of previous governments around the world.