Making Laws and Making Them Work

By Coulombe, Guy | Canadian Speeches, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Making Laws and Making Them Work


Coulombe, Guy, Canadian Speeches


Politicians need to learn not only how to make laws, but how to make them work. Legislation and public policy must also be more flexible to cope with demands of a faster-changing world. A ward acceptance speech at the Public Policy Forum 16th annual testimonial dinner, Toronto, April 10, 2003.

I had quite an exciting professional life in the rough and tumble of public management, and I enjoyed every bit of it!

To go from closing villages in the Gaspe, as part of a regional development policy, to planning a mega hospital, running one of the largest energy businesses in the country, managing a nervous provincial police force, and steering the newly created mega city of Montreal, has been exhilarating, but no picnic.

During those years, friends were constantly puzzled as they claimed I kept going to hell and back. To which I could only retort with one of Winston Churchill's quips: "If you're going through hell, keep going!"

These mandates, and others that I have held, were difficult enough and quite sensitive, as I had to take into account the rapidly changing values associated with the pursuit of Quebec's quiet revolution.

Despite their great differences, these assignments bore some similarities; most implied a high level of responsibility; most entailed uncomfortable public exposure; and they all had a bearing on the modernization of Quebec institutions.

As I reflect on these various responsibilities, on the occasion of the honor being bestowed upon me, I am struck in hindsight, by a phenomenon most probably familiar to those of you who have been active in public management.

I would describe it as the legislators' loss of interest in the establishment and operations of the policy implementation apparatus.

Too often, like politicians who take their speeches as reforms, lawmakers act as though voting in laws is all it takes for the supporting structures to then ensure coherent and effective application.

Contrary to private enterprise, in which strategic plans can be adapted to fit the circumstances, public managers with a mandate to "equip the laws" -- if I can use that expression--that regularly made arcane by the limiting nature of the legislation.

One understands, of course, the legislator's paramount interest in the panache and public exposure of policy making, as compared to the quiet, and often gloomy tasks of overseeing implementation.

Far from the flexibility of private business planning, public policy generally carries a set of constraints that can easily hinder management, affect clarity, coherence, scope, and eventually, costs of execution.

Flexibility in policy making is probably what I have most often wished for in my various incarnations.

What is needed, for the politician and public administrator as well as citizens, is an evolution toward a legislative framework that is smaller, lighter and more easily adaptable to rapid political and social changes. …

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