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What is citizens’ services, and what should be expected from its new minister?

Focus of new post is getting stuff done and delivering goods and services to Canadians

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reorganized his front bench Wednesday in a massive federal cabinet shuffle, he also created a single new job: minister of citizens’ services.

But when the minister appointed to the new role was asked what exactly citizens’ services is, he wasn’t entirely clear.

“This is really where the rubber hits the road in providing services to citizens right across the country,” newly appointed cabinet minister Terry Beech said Wednesday, less than an hour after he was sworn in.

Some elements of Employment and Social Development Canada will be under his purview, as well as “a bit of digital governance,” he said.

When pressed for details, he admitted he wasn’t sure on the specifics.

“I met with my deputy minister about five minutes ago. She handed me a piece of paper with a whole bunch of bullet points on it,” he explained.

“I’m gonna get fully briefed and to provide you much more fulsome answers from here on out.”

While the parameters of the new role aren’t exactly clear, it could have a major impact on the Liberals’ political prospects, said Jennifer Robson, program director and political management professor at Carleton University.

“I actually think that getting stuff done and delivering goods and services to Canadians in ways that actually makes a difference in their lives is really good politics,” she said.

It’s clear that the new appointment stems, at least in part, from the frustrations and failures in service delivery after the pandemic, she said.

Last year, public frustrations hit a boiling point as the government struggled to issue passports on time, jeopardizing Canadians’ travel plans and leaving people to camp out in long lines for hours outside their passport offices.

The problems led the prime minister to strike a task force made up of cabinet ministers to address serious delays in passport and immigration applications.

The issue goes beyond those specific frustrations though, Robson said.

“There’s this whole of government challenge. Is the government actually set up to deliver services to Canadians in ways that reflect the way that citizens expect to be treated now?” she said.

In a short statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said the new role will have a “cross-government focus on anything that touches Canadians directly.”

That includes passports, but also dental care benefit filings and employment insurance.

Conservatives have taken aim at the government for months, alleging that “everything is broken,” and Trudeau and ministers have been quick to dismiss the Opposition’s pessimistic view of government.

After his new cabinet was sworn in, Trudeau said his team will offers an optimistic view of the future “that is a clear contrast from the broken-ist philosophy that the leader of the Conservative party continues to put forward.”

The new post is likely an attempt to thwart that Conservative narrative, said Jeni Armstrong, an instructor in political management at Carleton University.

“I think this may be an attempt to say, ‘No, we’re on it. We understand there are challenges and we’re gonna do our best to fix them,’” Armstrong said.

The kinds of files that are likely to fall under Beech’s supervision are some of the most tangible interactions people are likely to have with government. Sometimes, those are things that affect people’s bank accounts, she said.

As an entrepreneur, Beech said he developed a bit of a reputation for excellent customer service in his home community in British Columbia, and he’s excited to provide that to Canadians across the country.

The prime minister is expected to release new mandate letters for most of his ministers in the coming weeks, which will clarify exactly what he expects from his new citizens’ services minister.

Whatever it is, it needs to be more than “just rearranging the order of the words ‘services’ and ‘citizens,’” Robson said.

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