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Is it time for the government of the Northwest Territories to take more risks?

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As he outlined his government's plans for the next four years on Thursday, Northwest Territories Premier RJ Simpson made a statement that would not be out of place in a wedding vow.

He described the need to be “flexible, have the courage and compassion to take risks, have the humility to trust and learn from each other, and have the willingness to work together in true partnership.”

Flexibility, trust, cooperation? Certainly. And the risk?

This is not the first time Simpson has spoken about this. Back in 2018, when he was still an MP, he described the GNWT as “overly cautious and risk-averse”.

This week we asked the Prime Minister to define what risk means to him now that he is in government.

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“Sometimes we have to give residents, the aspirations of an Indigenous government or an industry a chance,” he told Cabin Radio after releasing the GNWT's mandate.

“We have been very resistant to this in the Government of the Northwest Territories,” Simpson continued, “and that is why I want to restore the authority to officials – and indeed to ministers – to take policy actions and to deliver services that do not place a premium on the risk to the Government of the Northwest Territories.”

“If we want to provide a service, the goal should be to provide that service as well as possible, not to minimize the risk to the government.”

What this will mean in practice is not yet clear. The Prime Minister could not give any immediate examples.

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But when asked this week to expand on another of his points – that the GNWT needs “a move away from the status quo” – Simpson elaborated on the kind of approach he is talking about.

“I want to confront this government by attacking the things we are always criticized for: that we are not flexible enough and that we do not give officials the flexibility to serve citizens in the way they need,” he said.

“We are often criticised for providing services in a very specific way. Well, maybe a citizen needs that service in a different way. We want to open up the public service to that.

“We are also looking at service integration. That means we are not just creating a program within one department that helps someone, but we are also involving other departments in it – we are creating transitions to other services in other departments.

“The problems are the same, they will always be the same. Housing, the economy. But how we tackle them will be different. We can set up a program that runs for a few years and then it's over and that's it. But if you change the way government works, it creates lasting change.”

Some of those changes – and perhaps some of those risks – are evident in this week's budget, which includes nearly $50 million in cuts. We know that some items on the list include closing the Fort Smith men's prison and abandoning plans to expand the territory's midwifery program. Dozens of jobs are also slated for elimination, although, importantly, nothing will happen on that front unless lawmakers reach agreement in the coming weeks.

What we don't yet know are the exact actions Simpson's administration will take to bring about lasting change.

Most of these measures have so far been written into governments' mandates. When Caroline Cochrane became prime minister, the mandate for her government ran to more than 30 pages of detailed timelines and action points. (Much of this had to be jettisoned weeks later when Covid-19 struck.)

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On paper, Simpson's government has a mandate four times smaller, peppered with declarations of intent rather than measurable commitments.

Take housing construction, for example.

In its mandate for 2019-2023, Cochrane's government pledged to build 100 new homes and enable 100 individuals or families to become homeowners. It set out five options, with timelines for each, and eight metrics by which progress could be judged.

In the mandate for 2023-27, Simpson's government lists five key points. They are reproduced here in full. The GNWT is committed to:

  • increase housing supply for all residents by working with partners to fill gaps in northern housing supply, including additional transitional and supported housing;
  • work across departments and with partners to support vulnerable residents, prevent and reduce homelessness and promote self-sufficiency;
  • work with Indigenous, federal and local governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to ensure sustainable housing financing now and in the future;
  • Promoting private investment in housing by reducing administrative and regulatory barriers to housing construction and by implementing clear processes to increase the amount of land available for housing in communities; and
  • support residents in acquiring craft skills and training through a range of programs and partnerships.

There are no exact details, no timelines, no numbers or metrics.

“The last few mandates have essentially been long lists of projects and measures. Because of my experience in the last government, as a new minister I was not very familiar with the department and already in the first few months I was expected to commit to these projects that were to be carried out over the next four years,” Simpson told Cabin Radio.

“As we worked in government, I realized that this was not the best process. This mandate is more of a guide for how the government should proceed.

“I also didn't want to do line items because we absolutely need to work with Indigenous governments on the projects we're going to do over the next four years, and we're also very dependent on the federal government. If we want to build more homes, if we want to build highways, we need these federal pots of money – and we don't know when they're going to show up. So I didn't want to use the traditional line item list. I wanted to take more of an approach.”

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When asked how citizens would be able to measure progress with a far broader mandate, Simpson said business plans would be released shortly setting out the details.

Normally, GNWT's business plans are extraordinarily extensive (the 2020-2024 plans are kept here and run to more than 400 pages). Until now, they have not been light reading.

“We knew we needed to make the business plans easier to understand without having to specify individual points in the mandate,” Simpson said, promising that these plans would be easier to understand and include measurable goals.

“This is the first time I've tried this,” he said, “and I'm always happy to make adjustments as needed.”