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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

A More Civil Service

Fear not your government

Alex Himelfarb

Take a Number: How Citizens’ Encounters with Government Shape Political Engagement

Elisabeth Gidengil

McGill-Queen’s University Press

248 pages, hardcover and softcover

None of us will emerge from these months and months of plague unchanged or unscathed, whether by personal suffering and loss or by the realization that we need to do better, be better. For decades, we were sold the idea that self-reliance and competition trump interdependence and cooperation, that government, rather than being the expression of our common will, was best viewed as a necessary evil — as overhead to be kept as small as possible. COVID‑19 has revealed the huge, even fatal costs of allowing our collective tool kit to atrophy. It has shown what happens when we neglect the so‑called care economy, which includes everything from public health to nursing homes, child care to education, worker protections to income supports.

But in the wake of what might be a solidarity renaissance, as we recognize that we need each other and are stronger together, government seems to be making something of a comeback. Even the Financial Times believes now is the time for big change. “Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table,” the paper’s editorial board wrote earlier this year. “Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure.”

How long this resurgent solidarity will last is an open question. Big change is always hard, and a government revival will be at best rocky, contending as it must with vested interests, ­inertia, and distrust. Decades of war on government have profoundly eroded political trust while fuelling doubt about the value of democratic participation. As the American pundit Anand Giridharadas recently put it, what’s needed today is an equally vociferous war to restore the idea of government, not as something foreign but as the expression of our common will in pursuit of the common good. We know, of course, that it’s far easier to break trust than to win it back. Restoration won’t come through grand promises, nor will it be quick. If ever there has been a time to under-promise and over-deliver, this is it. To win back trust, our leaders will have to come up with the goods.

With Take a Number, Elisabeth Gidengil offers some important advice for governments looking to do just that. She makes the case that most of us come to know government through our interactions with the care economy, as we seek help or information about the benefits we’re entitled to. It matters how programs are organized and how we are treated by the service providers, not only for our well-being but also for our belief in democratic engagement and the efficacy of government writ large.

Gidengil, who was the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship in Montreal, summarizes international, largely American research, which has found that negative experiences with government are profoundly disempowering. Being asked to wait in endless lines, finding it impossible to get through on the phone, and being treated with indifference or rudeness — these are all more than inconveniences or irritants. In fact, they can damage democracy by leading people to view their governments as unresponsive and irrelevant to their needs and, therefore, to see political action as pointless. The gathered evidence shows how means-tested and ­conditional benefits can be particularly stigmatizing, often leaving participants feeling devalued, disrespected, and powerless.

Yet Gidengil’s own research, including the first major study of these issues in Canada, reminds us that it’s always dangerous to graft U.S. findings onto the Canadian experience. In an extensive survey, she asked Ontario residents to rate their experiences with “street-level bureaucrats.” Her data suggests that, in the most populous province at least, negative experiences with government, though not infrequent, are not the norm here; when they do occur, they seem less disempowering than in the U.S. In fact, negative experience with service providers or having to jump through the hoops of conditional programs can lead to greater interest in politics and more political activity. This is especially the case for women and young people, who seem to believe that they can help make things better. (That said, older Canadian men generally react much like their American counterparts.)

Gidengil speculates that one reason for this difference may be that Canada has a social democratic party, which may offer hope to those who are disenchanted with how things are, while change is not something that most Americans associate with their two big-tent parties. In any case, her findings suggest that the trust problem is not as deep here. Even when we are disappointed, we are not quite ready to throw in the towel on the idea of government or the value of democracy.

Gidengil’s highly granular study deserves the attention of those who design our social programs, and one of her most troubling findings is around the take‑up of services and benefits: those who most need support are the least likely to access them. The data doesn’t allow a detailed analysis of why that’s the case, but it seems likely that government communications don’t reach those in greatest need (we have seen this with COVID messaging among some immigrant communities). It’s also possible that negative experiences or the prospect of having to fill in forms or repeatedly prove one is eligible for conditional benefits can discourage some from even trying. Take a Number offers several practical recommendations for enhancing access and countering stigma, including more outreach, enlisting local leadership, and simplifying procedures.

As Gidengil recognizes, though, we have to be careful about how we generalize or apply her research. It would be particularly inappropriate, for example, to take her findings on means-tested or conditional programs as justification for choosing targeted over universal services. When settling on one approach or the other, decision makers ought to take into account the potential impact on attitudes to government and politics, but also on self-worth and social solidarity. Here the Swedish researcher Bo Rothstein’s work on the social costs of means-tested benefits and the effectiveness of universal programs is instructive.

With its careful discussion of research methodology, the limits of the findings, and potential avenues for future research, Take a Number is written for researchers and academics. But it has opened up a neglected area of research important to all of us — and at just the right time. How we organize programs matters. The details matter. Public administration and how public servants deliver services matter. They matter not just for efficiency, which has been the driving objective in recent times of austerity, but for fairness and dignity and the quality of our democracy.

COVID-19 seems to have created the conditions for a government comeback. Whether that lasts or is fleeting will depend in large part on whether governments seize the moment — and prove their worth.

Alex Himelfarb was previously clerk of the Privy Council and Canada’s ambassador to Italy.