• Johal, S., Anthony, L., Dragicevic, N., Thirgood, J., Dockree, T. (2022) Navigating Complexity: Policy Making for an Evolving World. Canadian Standards Association, Toronto, ON.

Executive Summary

The policy environment in Canada is undergoing a fundamental shift. Longer-term challenges, such as climate change, and trends, such as increasing digitization of the economy and society, have converged with the once-in-a-century health, social, and economic impacts of a global pandemic to reframe the priorities of citizens and the ways Canadian institutions can and should operate.

The consequences of long-standing approaches to decision making – characterized by short-termism and inadequate prioritization of societal and ecological wellbeing – are increasingly apparent, whether in the unsustainable rise in global temperatures, the fraying of the social safety net, growing inequality, or persistent social injustice. At the same time, the swift pace of technological innovation, shifting demographics, the changing nature of work, and global economic shifts are challenging the navigation skills of policy makers in a landscape marked by declining trust in public institutions, increasing complexity, and growing uncertainty.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and, in some cases, accelerated these challenges and trends. As Canada emerges from the immediate pandemic response era, a new global order and questions about how to better support workers and citizens have also emerged. How can the Canadian economy maintain its foothold in an increasingly competitive landscape? How can Canadians live more sustainably?

The pandemic has seen the development and implementation of policies to support Canadians at a record pace while also underlining the shortcomings of processes and structures ill-equipped to deliver inclusive approaches for those most in need. Policy tools and processes that delivered results in the 1950s and 1960s are no longer fit for purpose in the face of changing public expectations, ever more complex and interconnected challenges, and the advent of new technologies.

This paper will explore how and why Canadian policy makers should consider, experiment with, and adopt new approaches to policy development, implementation, and service delivery to ensure policy frameworks are flexible and robust enough for an increasingly unpredictable world.

  • Section 1 explores 10 drivers of change and the pressures they are exerting on governments intent on securing economic prosperity and social wellbeing.
  • Section 2 examines how these drivers are combining to create a lower-trust, more complex, and increasingly uncertain decision-making environment, and identifies five opportunities to improve policy making.
  • Section 3 presents 9 categories of public administration practices that can help governments design and deliver programs and services more effectively.