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Governance Through Social Learning

Gilles Paquet

Part III - New Directions

Chapter 13. Distributed Governance and Transversal Leadership1

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  • 1 This chapter also appeared in Trent, J.E., Young, R., Lachapelle, G. (editors). Québec-Canada: What (...)

The obverse of hope is trust.
– James O’Toole

1Québec-Canada constitutional carpentering has become a national cottage industry. For years now, aficionados have met in different forums in different weeks of the year to debate slightly different versions of the same basic scenarios. After a while, these ballet-like exchanges have ceased to generate excitement because they are the re-enactment of the same constitutional charades. Yet failure at this game is exacting a heavy toll on the country, and there is a danger of fatigue syndrome among the citizenry.

2For the sovereignist camp, the way out of this stalemate is through hope. The separatist movement, however flimsy the basis on which it is constructing such hope, is providing permission to dream. For a large number of Quebeckers living in regions where the unemployment rate is oscillating around 30%, the dream of a future where things might not be as bad, of a future that will materialize magically the day Quebec is free from the bondage of Canada, is an attractive proposition. This is not unlike a modern version of the “cult of the cargo” or “some day my prince will come.” Passively and effortlessly, the present dreadful state of affairs will be cured by separation.

3So far, the federalist camp has either fantasized about instant constitutional reform or been satisfied to try to puncture separatists’ hope. It should be clear by now that no magic constitutional refurbishment will materialize and that one cannot expect to win over the hearts and souls of Quebeckers by dashing their hopes. Nor can one expect to win them with promotional brochures about how good Quebeckers have had it within Canada over the last 130 years.

4The only way out for the federalist camp is to find ways to rebuild trust. This calls for refocusing the debates on the best use of the nonconstitutional route and for new, principled but pragmatic leadership along that road. This, in turn, requires a refurbished notion of governance and a renewed notion of leadership rooted in earned confidence based on the accomplishments of the leader as servant. This sort of governance and leadership is feared not so much by the have-nots (who are often uninvolved and passively hopeful), but by the haves who have invested so much in the status quo (status, beliefs, values, power) that they are unlikely to allow change to perturb their comfort and security.

5Challenging this collective myopia of the haves and their “somnambulistic certainty” about the rectitude of the existing governance process and the sort of leadership in good currency is the task facing those who want to earn trust (Mannheim 1936; O’Toole 1995).


6Governance is about guiding: it is the process through which an organization is steered. Fifty years ago, in Canada, governance was debated in the language of management science. It was presumed that public, private, and social organizations were strongly directed by leaders who had a good understanding of their environment, of the future trends in the environment if nothing were done to modify it, of the inexorable rules of the game they had to put up with, and of the goals pursued by their own organization. Those were the days when social sciences were still Newtonian: a world of deterministic, well-behaved mechanical processes where causality was simple because the whole was the sum of the parts. The challenge was relatively simple: building on the well-defined goals of the organization to design the control mechanisms likely to get the organization where it wanted to be.

7Many issues were clearly amenable to this approach, but as the pace of change accelerated and the issues grew more complex, private, public, and social organizations became confronted more and more with “wicked problems” (Rittel and Webber 1973; see Chapter 2) requiring a new way of thinking. The governance system evolved accordingly, and rather smoothly over the last decades. However, what is not always understood is that it has been transformed as a result of a number of rounds of adaptation to provide the requisite flexibility and suppleness of action. The ultimate result of these changes is a composite governance system built on unreliable control mechanisms in pursuit of ill-defined goals in a universe that is chronically in a state of flux. This composite governance process has emerged in four stages of increasing complexity (Boisot 1987; Paquet 1994b).

8At first, when organizations were relatively small and under the direction of autocratic leaders, governance had a fiefdom quality: information flows were very informal, and they were strongly focused on a small group around the leader. But as problems grew more complex, this pattern of governance faltered. More elaborate structures and more formal rules had to evolve to meet the organization’s changing needs, but these formal rules remained the preserve of those at the top of the hierarchies. From these emerged the more-or-less standard bureaucratic forms of organization that played an important role during “les trentes glorieuses années” between the 1940s and the 1970s.

9As the pace of change accelerated, problems became ever more complex, less easily structured and ever-changing, and the bureaucratic system, with its inability to transform quickly enough, began to show signs of dysfunction. This led to efforts to partition private, public, and social bureaucracies into smaller self-contained and more flexible units that were likely to be more responsive to clients. This market-type governance, built on the price system, had the benefit of being more inclusive, for price information is widely shared. In the private sector, large companies began a process of segmentation, creating a multiplicity of relatively independent profit-centred organizations likely to be more attentive to the changing needs of the clients and to be more adaptable to evolving circumstances. After a lag time, public bureaucracies went the same route with, for instance, the creation of executive agencies in the United Kingdom and special operating agencies in Canada. Organizations came to be governed — to a much greater extent than before — by the “invisible hand” of the market.

10But information flows in market-type organizations are anonymous and highly stylized; thus, the price-driven steering mechanism often proved to be less than perfect. For instance, it was insensitive to third-party effects and external economies and incapable of appreciating either synergies within the organization or the various forces at work in the external environment. More important, the myopia of the market led to short-term opportunistic competitive behaviour that proved disastrous for organizations. As a result, an effort was made to establish or re-establish, within the decentralized units, the informal cooperative links — les liens moraux — that might give an organization a sense of shared values and commitments. Corporate culture acquired a new importance as the sort of social glue that enabled organizations to steer themselves better through better use of informal moral contracts based on shared values.

11Although private-sector organizations were quick to develop these new informal channels of communication, public organizations were much slower to recognize the central importance of these clan-type relations. In Canada, the Public Service 2000 exercise was perhaps one of the first occasions when these issues gained prominence.

12This shift in the centre of gravity of the governance system is captured well in Max Boisot’s (1987) information space in which he identifies the different types of governance schemes that correspond to more or less codified and more or less diffused information flows (Figure 4 in Chapter 1). Although earlier forms of governance continue to persist and endure, the whole organizational architecture has come to be dominated less and less by the sort of centralized formal decision-making and hierarchical control that characterize the governance of fiefdoms and bureaucracies, and more and more by informal and distributed governance systems like those of markets and clans. Within a complex and multifaceted governance process, the center of gravity of Boisot’s information space has been shifting broadly from a bureaucratic focus to a market-cum-clan focus over the last decades.

13When the ground is in motion, organizations can only govern themselves by becoming capable of learning both their goals and the means to reach them as they proceed, by tapping the knowledge and information in the possession of active citizens and getting them to invent ways out of the predicaments they are in. This more decentralized governance intervenes strategically as an animateur and a catalyst. Such a governance system deprives the leader of his or her monopoly on the governing of the organization. For the organization to learn quickly, everyone must take part in the conversation and bring forward each bit of knowledge and wisdom he or she has that has a bearing on the issue (Webber 1993; Piore 1995; see also Chapter 11).

14The new governance structures (more modular, network-like, and integrated either by the invisible hand of the market or by informal moral contracts) are only one half of the learning process. The other half is the work of the leader as animateur. Instead of building on the assumption that the leader is omniscient and guiding autocratically, a distributed governance process builds on social learning and on the capacity of the leader to listen and to lead through a critical dialogue with the stakeholders to ensure that everyone learns about the nature of the problem and about the consequences of various possible alternatives.

15In this manner, the citizenry and clienteles learn to limit unreasonable demands, managers and administrators learn to listen and consult, and other stakeholders learn enough about one another’s views and interests to gauge the range of compromise solutions that are likely to prove acceptable. As a result, the distributed governance process predicated on social learning builds on the answers to four questions posed to all stakeholders in this variety of meso-forum: Is it feasible? Is it socially acceptable? Is it too destabilizing? Can it be implemented? (Friedmann and Abonyi 1976).


16In a context of rapid change, the best learning experience can be effected through decentralized and flexible teams woven by moral contracts and reciprocal obligations negotiated in the context of evolving partnerships (Nohria and Eccles 1992; de la Mothe and Paquet 1994). According to this gauge, the Canadian governance system would appear to suffer from learning disabilities. There seems to be a strong institutional residue from the fiefdom and bureaucratic eras. Indeed, some might suggest that those elements still dominate much of the Canadian governance landscape.

17For the federal government, the challenge of distributed governance is important. It calls for the definition of a new role for the central government, one that depends to a great extent on its capacity to earn the trust of Canadians and to explain the manner in which it can play its role of animateur and leader within the new governance system.

18To effect a transition in our governance system likely to rekindle the commitment of the citizenry and to regenerate trust in the federal government by the population of all regions, three major and difficult tasks must be undertaken: a reframing exercise, a retooling exercise, and a mobilization exercise.

19Reframing: The reframing effort entails a shift from debates on government to debates on governance. This will refocus discussions away from the fight between coalitions trying to seize power and establish their hegemony toward an examination of the best way to design the system so that it learns faster and more effectively. Our socio-politico-economic system is like our immune system: it is bombarded with new bacteria and viruses continually and it has to learn, develop, and transform to cope effectively with them. Focusing on governance requires that we reflect on the required changes in our governance system. This raises a meta-problem: the question of the rules that are to be used when changing rules.

20Some of this reframing has already been initiated at the federal cabinet level. It has been suggested that a meta-rule could be provided by the principle of subsidiarity (Burelle 1995; Janigan and Fulton 1996). Such a principle or philosophy of governance leaves completely open the precise allocation of responsibilities; it simply suggests a set of principles to help decide who should do what.

21It is difficult to imagine any party refusing ex ante to enter a debate on governance based on this principle. Indeed we have reason to believe from statements of endorsement from such staunch sovereignists as J.F. Lizée (on the back cover of André Burelle’s [1995] book) that such an approach would even be acceptable to Quebec. This approach also has the merit of putting the responsible citizen at centre stage; underpinning a division of labour not only between Quebec and the rest of Canada but among the private, not-for-profit, and public sectors based on efficiency and proximity; and undergirding a distributed notion of governance and a transverse notion of leadership.

22Retooling: The retooling effort needed to support the reframing strategy sketched above entails the development of political and administrative instruments to ensure that the transformation of the governance system is effected in an orderly manner. First, at the symbolic level, one requires a sketch of an inspiring political vision of where the governance system might be heading if a subsidiarity strategy were adopted. A plausible beacon might be Switzerland, but there might be other models. Although such a broad fuzzy objective is vague and most certainly not meant to be binding in any way, it would have the advantage of providing the citizenry with a reference point. It is very difficult to understand how trust could be regained by the federalist camp without such a vision. Yet, there seems to be quite a bit of diffidence on the part of federal public officials in providing any vision of where their strategy might lead.

23Second, at the realities level, one requires a sketch of the administrative means through which the reallocation of responsibilities will proceed. The obvious administrative routes might well be Program Review (in a refurbished format) and the Efficiency of the Federation Initiative (in a rekindled form) as leading instruments to establish beyond reasonable doubt the degree of seriousness of the federal government in proceeding with a streamlining of its own operations in keeping with the philosophy of subsidiarity. This would entail massive devolution with compensation.

24Mobilizing: The mobilization exercise calls for a proactive strategy to neutralize the dynamic conservatism of those in power and to expose the various stratagems to derail the process of change. But one must also find ways to elicit a strong commitment to the new philosophy of governance. Education, information, and communication must play an important role in this effort. Central to this process is the recognition of the power of the ideology of comfort and the importance of a new form of values-based leadership mobilizing the positive freedom of the citizenry.


25At the core of this mobilization process, one finds social learning and transverse leadership. To cope with a turbulent environment, organizations must use the environment strategically, the way a surfer uses a wave, to learn faster, to adapt more quickly. This calls for expropriation of the steering power from the top managers. There must be constant negotiation and bargaining with partners. Managers must exploit all favourable environmental circumstances and the full complement of imagination and resourcefulness in the heart and mind of each player. They must become team leaders in task force-type projects, quasi-entrepreneurs capable of cautious suboptimizing in the face of a turbulent environment (Leblond and Paquet 1988).

26This sort of strategy calls for lighter, more horizontal and modular structures, networks and informal clan-like rapports (Bressand et al. 1990) in units that are freer from procedural morass, empowered to define their mission and clienteles more precisely, and to invent different performance indicators. Not only in the public sector, but also in the private sector, the “virtual corporation” and the “modular corporation” are the new models (Business Week 1993; Tully 1993).

27These new modularized private and public organizations cannot impose their views on clients or citizens. Like the state, the firm must consult. Deliberation and negotiation are everywhere: away from goals and controls, deep into intelligence and innovation. A society based on participation, negotiation, and bargaining is replacing one based on universal rights. The strategic organization has to become a broker, a negotiator, an animateur: in this network socioeconomy, the firm and the state are always in a consultative and participative mode (Paquet 1992a).

28In these forums that cut across bureaucratic hierarchies and vertical lines of power, fraught with overlapping memberships, personal ties, temporary coalitions, special-task organizations, “the organizational structure of the future is already being created by the most as well as the least powerful” within the new paradigm (Hine 1977). Indeed, to the extent that middle-range regional and transnational networks and forums are cutting across usual structures, the interactions distill in an evolutionary way an always imperfectly bounded network.

29The new competencies that are going to be essential in this world have not been fully documented yet, and there would be much disagreement in any discussion about what should be on any priority list. But one may draw a provisional list from the work of Donald Michael (1980, 1988a,b) and Gareth Morgan (1988). These new competencies fall into four general groups: contextual competencies, interpersonal and enactment skills, creating an effective corporate climate, and systems values. This last group is particularly important as it draws attention to the new ethic driven by interconnectedness and interdependence: “our values still emphasize rights and autonomy while the actual circumstances of life make imperative the acceptance of obligations and interdependence” (Michael 1988a). This ethic is one that forces a redefinition of leadership: away from leaders as generals to leaders as leaders of leaders — those removing obstacles that prevent followers from making creative and effective decisions themselves (O’Toole and Bennis 1992).

30For the social system to adapt (i.e., to learn) as much and as fast as possible, some basic conditions must be realized: the conversation between leaders and followers must be conducted with tact and civility; and within a context where the ethos is sufficiently rich and supportive to make possible the avventura comune. These are conditions for transversal leadership.

31Tact would appear to be a very limited requirement for the conversation to yield social learning. Indeed, many have felt that it cannot be a sufficient condition. Yet, Gadamer (Kingwell 1995) defines tact as “a particular sensitivity to situations, and how to behave in them, for which we cannot find any knowledge from general principles.” This is a screening not at the level of the types of problems or issues to tackle, but at the level of permissible arguments. It embodies the basic condition for the conversation to continue — a dual requirement of not saying just anything that comes to mind and of keeping a certain openness vis-à-vis the arguments of others.

32With regard to the sort of “communautarian” fabric likely to support a fruitful conversation, it is also difficult to establish precise conditions for its emergence. It may originate in various ways and be woven according to quite different logics. It is clear, however, that the conversation is much more fruitful in a “contextualist” world of multiplexed relations of mutual interdependence and caretaking, of group-oriented social relations. In a network society like Japan, the contextualist culture has been shown to facilitate greatly conversation and social learning on a large scale (Kumon 1992).

33Leadership is the leavening force that is required to ensure effective social learning. Effective leaders lead change by reflecting the values of their followers after having done much listening. For effective leaders are principled but also pragmatic. They tend to bring their followers beyond their limits, but not unreasonably fast and not unreasonably beyond such limits.

34To be followers, team members must first respect their leader and be persuaded that their welfare is the leader’s objective. The burden of office for a leader is, therefore, first a requirement to listen and to “refine the public views in a way that transcends the surface noise of pettiness, contradiction and self-interest” (O’Toole 1995:10–12). The leader must earn the trust of the followers by persuading them that he or she has their needs and aspirations at heart. The leader’s ability to lead is a by-product of the trust he or she has earned by serving the followers (O’Toole 1995: 28).

35Transversal leadership cannot function unless the leader and the followers develop a capacity to appreciate the limits imposed by their mutual obligations. This form of leadership does not depend on a matrix where vertical-functional and horizontal-process rapports are supposedly keeping one another in check. Rather, processes are dominating and the reaction to external challenges is for the different stakeholders to coalesce laterally to create informal links and multifunctional teams capable of promoting faster and more effective learning (Tarondeau and Wright 1995).

36Transversality is built on a multifunctional esprit de corps that provides fertile ground for social learning. It is based on the existence of a social capital of trust, reasonableness, and mutual understanding that facilitates debate and generates a sort of basic pragmatic ethic likely to promote interaction and synergies among the many partners in the organization. Transversal leadership is based on the ligatures among functions effected by individuals or groups that have accepted the distributed nature of governance and are building on new modes of cross-functional coordination. Although much of this new coordination is fuzzy and built on moral contracts, it must be clear that it represents the only effective way to guide the organization and nudge it in different directions (Putnam 1995).

37What is at stake in leadership is “the ability to stay the course while ‘rocking the boat’ to enhance organizational readiness and competitiveness in an unpredictable environment” (Vicere 1992). This ability cannot be imparted effectively except through experiential and action learning.


38Leadership is first and foremost a moral issue. It is based fundamentally on a conversation between leader and followers in which the burden of office of the leader entails listening carefully and taking responsibility. In that sense, the leader is a servant. The official is

A person with duties and obligations, not merely an insatiable center of gigantic appetites, a person with things to do that may be the death of his private self, that may make the office seem less an opportunity than a burden. And sometimes, even without the aid of flaws, a tragic burden. In fact, if we do not understand the office and its burdens we may not understand about tragedy. [Tussman 1989: 15]

39The nature of the burden of office of the transversal leader is best illustrated by Jan Carlzon (1987), the CEO of Scandinavian Airlines and author of Moments of Truth. When he had occasion to explain how he had chosen to empower his employees and to make them totally responsible for the 50 million “moments of truth” that occur annually when an employee of the company has a direct one-on-one contact with a customer, he was often asked how many of these moments of truth had gone sour. Carlson always readily confessed that there had been half a dozen serious instances of costly errors in approximately six years. When asked how the employees responsible for costly errors had been punished, he would answer,

Punish them? Why should we have punished them when it was our fault? We believe the task of leaders... is to articulate the values of the organization, to create a system in which people can be productive, and to explain the goals that the system was established to achieve.... If we in top management had done those jobs properly... those few errors would not have occurred. That is why we went back to evaluate our own communication skills. [O’Toole 1995: 59]

40When a group is demoralized, when junior officials have lost their trust in their leaders, as is the case in Canada now, we are faced with a form of vertical solitude. In the case of the Canadian public service, this phenomenon has been gauged very precisely through surveys (Zussman and Jabes 1990), but the phenomenon goes much beyond this group. In most cases, surveys reveal the lack of trust of citizens and junior officials in their leaders, but the leaders are quite satisfied to ascribe such results to extraneous circumstances, to the flaws of their subordinates, or to the ignorance of the citizenry.

41Our experience suggests that there are systemic reasons for the lack of trust and for the political stalemate in Canada. These reasons fall into three general categories: the existence of a centralized mindset, the development of the adversarial syndrome, and the burden of envy and resentment inherited from our egalitarian tradition of the last 50 years.

A Centralized Mindset

42Over the last 125 years, circumstances have often endangered Canadian prosperity. Canada has had to learn ways and means to cope with these challenges in a manner that reconciled the geotechnical and sociopolitical constraints it operated under with the values, plans, and idiosyncrasies its diverse population had given priority to at the time. A habitus has evolved: a system of habitualized dispositions and inclinations to use certain institutional devices or stratagems that appear to do the job of reconciling all those constraints most effectively.

43The economic culture that has evolved in this fashion has underpinned the governance of the Canadian economy over the last century and has been based on two fundamental elements: the extensive use of public enterprise and interregional redistribution of the economic surpluses (Hardin 1974). These two root stratagems have been used repeatedly from the very early days of the federation and at most stages in the country’s first century of evolution.

44Recently, both these tenets of the Canadian economic culture have come under attack. There has been a massive disengagement by the federal government from its public enterprises, and large-scale interregional redistribution of resources has been questioned. This has come about for many reasons. Disenchantment with guidance from the centre has led to decentralization. Many public enterprises have been privatized or have ceased to play a central policy role, and the weakening of the central government’s financial capacity has eroded its ability to make massive interregional transfers.

45But this has in no way diminished the extraordinary propensity to centralize that has come to characterize Canada. This is not only a Canadian trait; it is a widely shared bias. Mitchel Resnick (1994) has analyzed the bizarre travers that explains that, in an era of decentralization in every domain, centralized thinking is remaining prevalent in our theories of knowledge, in our ways of analyzing problems, and in our search for policy responses. “Politicians, managers and scientists are working with blinders on, focusing on centralized solutions even when decentralized approaches might be more appropriate, robust, or reliable” (Resnick 1994: 36).

46This centralized mindset appears to be stronger in Canada than elsewhere, and the strategies to immunize the traditional centralized mindset from challenges and erosion have been very sophisticated. These have gone through many phases. First, there was the denial posture. Using public spending patterns as benchmarks, many have argued that Canada is one of the most decentralized countries in the world. The fact that spending at the subnational level was commanded by conditional transfers appears to have been ignored.

47A second line of defense suggests that further devolution might well balkanize the country, which would be disastrous (McCallum in McKenna 1995). But Migué (1994) has shown rather persuasively that centralization — and not decentralization — is the source of balkanization in Canada.

48A third defense is that the glue that binds this country together is the egalitarian economic culture of redistribution. National standards are the fabric of this country, so central control cannot be reduced. Moreover, the central government must retain the role of enforcer because of international agreements that Canada is party to (Banting 1996; Leslie in McKenna 1995). This would appear to be the Queen’s defense, and we have shown elsewhere that it is not very potent (Paquet 1996c).

49A fourth argument is that decentralization is necessary, but it must be postponed until we have uncovered “Canadian core values” that might be used in determining the nature, extent, and character of “acceptable” decentralization (Maxwell 1995).

50These arguments are often mere sophistry when they are not explicit devices to slow down the process of change, but they constitute in toto a most effective strategy for resisting change, and this sort of strategy is explicitly propagated by those officials who have most to fear from massive decentralization.

The Adversarial Syndrome

51The conflict between the centralized mindset of Canadian leaders and the forces underpinning the dispersive revolution has directly generated some resistance to change, but it has also catalyzed the coalescence of a national adversarial system in Canada (Valaskakis 1990). This regime has developed less as a matter of design than as a result of (1) adversarial relations becoming the modus operandi and the new underlying philosophy and (2) conflictive equilibria (situations where nothing can be resolved except by cooperation, but collaboration appears extremely difficult if not impossible) in government–business–society relations, in the labour–management world, but also within each sector (private, public, and social) as between large and small firms, between the federal and provincial levels, or between various environmental groups.

52One should not unduly malign competition nor excessively lionize decision-making by consensus, but it seems that Canada is fractured by those re-enforcing adversarial systems to the point where the public policy forum has not hesitated to blame them for much of the erosion of Canada’s competitiveness. The adversarial syndrome has undoubtedly been the source of some paralysis in Canada’s wealth-creation process as a result of the multiple stalemates it has engendered, but it has also contributed significantly to the reduction of the surplus potentially available for redistribution.

53This adversarial syndrome corresponds to the strong taste for competition in the Anglo-American space (Choate and Linger 1988), but it also echoes a profound social decapitalization in North America (Putnam 1995, 1996). It has thrived on the loss of civic engagement based on networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit, but it has also accelerated the process of social decapitalization.

54According to Hollingsworth (1993), this civic disengagement has triggered a weakening of the sociocultural underground on which cooperation is built for firms and public and social organizations. It has also contaminated the core of the basic values on which our sociopolitical system has been built. This explains the difficulties in generating the requisite processes to solve the challenging problems of coordination created by the new world of distributed governance.

Egalitarianism, Envy, and Resentment

55A third general set of forces has contributed to a “climate of unreasonableness” and a sociocultural underground that has proved more likely to generate division than cohesion. It has its roots in the promotion of egalitarianism as a basic value and a democratic dogma in a world more and more segmented along ethnocultural lines. This has generated a heightened degree of tension and envy at the intercultural interface (Laurent and Paquet 1991).

56The nature of these jealousies and the deep resentment created by the propaganda about egalitarianism in a world where differences are omnipresent have been suppressed, but the profound public sentiment that one cannot be “equal and different” has prevailed and remains prevalent in all recent interprovincial deliberations and all constitutional forums throughout the country.

57It may well be that nothing less than a new social contract built on the principle “different but united” can accommodate the requisite separateness, complementarities, and hierarchies and reduce envy and contain violence. But we are still far from willing to confront the demons of egalitarianism and the social capital of envy and resentment that has been accumulated by top-down efforts to force acceptance of terms that seem to attempt to square the circle of “equal and different.” They have not only generated much social anomie, but they are also responsible for the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. Moreover, they still represent fundamental mental blocks to much-needed discussion about the possibility of any viable asymmetric regime.

58This has fueled much social decapitalization and reinforced the intransigence of egalitarians demanding a new drive for centralization capable of guaranteeing the necessary renewed powers of redistribution to ensure standardization. Although the likelihood of a “different but united” social contract may appear Utopian, the proposed alternatives for managing this intercultural interface (separateness and encapsulation) appear unpalatable (Laurent and Paquet 1991: 177–178).


59The bells and whistles of constitutional conferencing usually overshadow the more pedestrian way of addressing difficult issues using the administrative state, i.e., the decisions of public officials. A most divisive and explosive issue like universality has been handled in this manner in Canada. Canadians knew very well that addressing this issue head-on would be too politically destabilizing, so it was adroitly handled by the administrative state. Universality has now all but disappeared, and new arrangements have come to take its place without a major national confrontation.

60Many of the real concerns (as opposed to the symbolic ones) over which the various parties agonize could be handled in this manner. Indeed, no less than 70% of what Charlottetown and Meech were trying to achieve could be accomplished through administrative rearrangements. The Efficiency of the Federation Initiative, introduced late in 1993, and Program Review in 1994 were promising instruments to effect much of that work. Their minimal success so far should not be interpreted as an indication of a congenital flaw in these processes. Their failures are ascribable much more to the centralized mindset of the government in power than to any other force (Paquet 1996b, Paquet and Shepherd 1996).

Social Learning

61Most of the high-level constitutional debates get bogged down in posturing, in negotiation through the media, in extraordinarily intricate and unfortunate wording that proves to be cast in stone as soon as it hits the street. This generates important learning disabilities. It is much less difficult to proceed through a major reframing of issues or to negotiate important compromises when one is not in Macy’s window. This is the reason why we have had such a long tradition of successes using the administrative route.

62One can point to the social learning by all parties that has marked decades of negotiations of the Tax Structure Committee or generations of anonymous committees of public officials who have been particularly effective at reframing issues and have allowed the federation to evolve quickly and fruitfully over the last century.

63Social learning may materialize in the constitutional debate, although there are reasons to feel pessimistic, as any group of malcontents may cause the whole process to crash. In dealing with high-profile, symbolic issues, no other channel can provide an easy resolution of disputes at this level. The “distinct society” conundrum is a good example of such issues. But, for most substantive issues, the administrative route is much more promising because of its capacity to generate faster learning and its greater probability of being successful in reframing issues. This road holds the promise of rapid progress, whereas the constitutional route appears to be paved with bad intentions.

Social Learning Through Panic

  • 2 As of early 1999, as we are going to press, the federal-provincial social union discussions are emb (...)

64There has been a slow, but irreversible, awakening to the new realities as a result of the October 30th (1995) referendum. This has triggered new thinking at the federal cabinet level, if one is to believe the revelations about the famous “master plan” calling for devolution of 25% or more of federal program activities in the very near future (Janigan and Fulton 1996). But, given the schizophrenic mind of the federal cabinet on this front, time is of the essence. The panic effect might easily fade away and the original good intentions may be squashed and derailed by the not inconsiderable group of federal public officials who still adhere to the view that nothing would be more disastrous for Canada than the erosion of Ottawa’s power.2

65Not all social learning is a feed forward process. One might suspect that those most opposed to a transformation of the Canadian governance system also feel a sense of urgency. Their rear-guard action will not take the form of counterproductive inflammatory denunciations of the devolution process. In all likelihood, it will consist of a broad focus on alternative program delivery and a quality service-centred federalism. Such a strategy might be a genuine way out of the constitutional conundrum, but it can equally well be a decoy and a thwarting maneuver designed to give the appearance of transformation of federal governance without any substantial reduction of the federal hegemony. In this dark scenario, a multitude of federal special operating agencies and a focus on quality of service might even succeed in getting Ottawa’s central agencies to increase their power base.

66On the other hand, a more optimistic scenario of a rekindled administrative route to change in the governance system might help the parallel work along the constitutional highway. Such a scenario would call for a reframing of perspectives along the lines suggested by Burelle (1995) and others: a vision of Canada that would proceed comfortably toward decentralization à la Switzerland, a general philosophy of governance based on subsidiarity (i.e., a strong push toward the responsibilization of the citizen and a recognition that one can best attend to citizens’ needs at the level closest to the citizens), a renewal of the notion of citizenship replacing the entitlement mentality with a sense of mutual obligation, and a move away from the state’s heavy top-down omnipresence toward a light-handed strategic state ensuring bottom-up and more distributed governance (Paquet 1994b; Burelle 1995).

Toward a New Deal

67If the federal “master plan” is to be carried out at all, it must be implemented quickly. It would call for a rejuvenation of the Efficiency of the Federation Initiative and for a refurbishment of the Program Review. The explicit objective should be to achieve, through administrative negotiation over the next six months, so much progress toward the reallocation of responsibilities among the federal government, the provinces, the not-for-profit sector, and the private sector, that it would be impossible for the crusaders on the high stage of constitutional talks not to acknowledge that there has been a reframing of the central issues.

68Then one might be able to focus on some fundamentals that are, for the moment, drowned by ideologic harangues. These fundamentals are (1) the extraordinary interregional economic interdependence that still exists in Canada and that one would not wish to destroy lightly (Helliwell and McCallum 1995), but also (2) the recognition that Canada is, fundamentally, a “community of communities” much like Switzerland and that attempts to homogenize it unduly and to thrust national standards on these diverse communities can, at best, balkanize the country and, at worst, fracture it (Migué 1994).

69Decentralization does not entail breaking the economic union or balkanizing the social union: it simply means forcing local and provincial governments to provide the level of services they can afford. If anything, by foisting onto provinces standards they could not afford, past efforts at decentralization have, in fact, distorted prices, diminished provincial responsibility, and prevented interregional adjustments of human and financial resources. Indeed with the dead weight impact of equalization payments, the provinces are put in an ignominious position: “the more inefficient the provinces are, the more they are compensated by the central authority” (Migué 1994: 117).


70There is no hope of our getting out of our present stalemate by focusing all our efforts on the constitution. We must be ready to recognize that, to cut through this mess, our political scissors need two blades: a constitutional one to deal with symbolic issues and an administrative one to deal with substantive issues. Moreover, it is only when the second blade is sharp that the first can really come into play.

71There has been much skepticism about the effectiveness of the administrative route. Public officials in Ottawa have feared that route from the very beginning; so much so, that they have successfully derailed many genuine efforts to make good use of it (Paquet and Roy 1995; Paquet and Shepherd 1996).

  • 3 The ethnographic evidence available would appear to show that while much pessimism is in order at t (...)

72The panic social learning triggered by the referendum results provides a unique window of opportunity to revive the administrative strategy before it becomes re-encapsulated by the forces of dynamic conservatism.3


1 This chapter also appeared in Trent, J.E., Young, R., Lachapelle, G. (editors). Québec-Canada: What Is the Path Ahead?/Nouveaux sentiers vers l’avenir. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1996, pp. 317–332.

2 As of early 1999, as we are going to press, the federal-provincial social union discussions are embroiled in controversies, and it would appear clear that the federal government is intent on reconditionalizing federal–provincial transfers for medicare. The panic effect has faded away, the centralized mindset looms large, and social learning has gone awry.

3 The ethnographic evidence available would appear to show that while much pessimism is in order at the level of political negotiations, much optimism is permissible when one focuses on the federal-provincial discussions at the bureaucratic level.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1999

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