Strategies are not solutions

Water under the Rainbow Bridge.

Photo credit: “Water Under the Rainbow Bridge,” Flickr/Augapfel

Canwest’s Jack Aubry and Mike De Souza got hold of the briefing papers prepared for John Baird when he took over as Canada’s environment minister a year and a bit ago. These sorts of documents are always interesting because although they’re written in the full knowledge that reporters will be filing access-to-information requests for them, they sum up the state of affairs in the ministry the new minister is taking over and present the key problems that top officials are coping with. Sometimes they suggest what messes have been left behind by the previous minister, too.

In this case, it appears that Environment Canada really wanted the new boss to take up the subject of a “national water strategy.”

The briefing notes stress the importance of the federal government developing a national strategy to help guide the water management policies of provincial and municipal governments which have distinct powers and responsibilities on the file.

“The constitution is not clear on water,” said the document. “Roles are shared – collaboration is essential.”

The briefing notes also mention a federal water framework that was developed in 2004, which could be used to “focus all players on a common vision for water in Canada” through strategies and actions across all departments to protect people from health threats to water, improve productive and sustainable management of the resource and to protect Canada’s international water interests.

Now, governments really like strategies and frameworks, and few have liked them more than the government of Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, who was in charge in 2004. Creating them takes a lot of work, and when they’re done, they feel like major accomplishments. They aren’t, of course — agreeing on a plan is a whole different thing from actually doing anything about it, as the people who negotiated the Kyoto Accord could tell you. The more complex the set of problems you’re trying to address, the harder work the strategy or framework is. In this case, the problem of cleaning up water is a subject so complex and multifacected that devising a framework must have taken ages.

You’ve got oceans and lakes and rivers, you’ve got drinking-water treatment plants and sewage treatment, First Nations reserves and industrial pollution and agricultural runoff, trade and commerce questions. All kind of levels of government, from the UN all the way down to rural town councils. Many of them will have conflicting priorities and agendas, different degrees of democratic legitimacy and technical authority, and include politicians from opposing parties. Soon as one of the players changes, the whole deal might be shot.

Does it even make sense to roll all these things into one strategy, just because they all involve one substance? It does not.

Let the problems be complex. Address the sub-problems that are within your sphere of authority and leave the rest behind. You’ll get more done.

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