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When government serves the public good

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    EDITORIAL: Nunavut</CATEGORY> November 03, 2009 -

    When government serves the public good


    Many Iqaluit residents got a chance this past weekend to witness what can happen when a government gets serious about acting on behalf of the public good.

    On Nov. 1, a team of health workers, volunteers and Canadian Rangers achieved something that most other governments in the country have fumbled so far.

    They managed to conduct a mass flu-shot clinic that worked. They turned no one away and they forced no one to stand for hours in long, frustrating queues.

    The Government of Nunavut accomplished this by taking advantage of things that are normally considered weaknesses: Nunavut?s tiny population and Nunavut?s vulnerability to infectious disease.

    Nunavut?s vulnerability to lung disease ensured that everyone living in the territory was deemed to be at high risk. This means the GN?s health department received, in advance, enough doses of the H1N1 vaccine to immunize everyone in the territory who wants a flu shot. It?s likely they?ll get this done by the middle of the month. This means Nunavut doesn?t have to worry about the vaccine shortages that have dogged public health officials in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and Manitoba.

    As for Nunavut?s tiny population, that?s normally perceived to be a big handicap, and with good reason. The territory?s small size guarantees that the per capita cost of providing government services is, and always will be, the highest in the country. Our rudimentary transportation system, our tough climate and the vast distances that separate our communities drive that cost even higher.

    But on this occasion, our small population became an asset. The job of immunizing nearly 30,000 people scattered throughout a big territory like Nunavut looks daunting ? but consider the headaches faced by health officials in the Greater Toronto Area, where they?re expected to immunize a population of 5.5 million.

    At the Iqaluit vaccination clinic, health workers immunized people at a rate of about 100 an hour, which means they likely covered roughly one-sixth of the city?s population ? about 1,000 people ? in just one day.
    But there?s a greater advantage to being small, an advantage the GN and other Nunavut organizations don?t make use of it nearly as often as they should.

    And that?s flexibility: being able to make quick decisions without getting bogged down in fruitless bureaucratic processes and unnecessary consultations. Quick decisions ought to be much easier to make within small organizations and small groups of people, because there are fewer people who need to communicate with each other.

    The GN, earlier this year, demonstrated this with their wash-your-hands campaign, which started quickly, then combined face-to-face communication techniques with posters, brochures and advertisements.

    The message got through ? fast.

    So there?s a lesson to be learned from Nunavut?s successful handling, so far, of the H1N1 crisis.

    And that lesson is this: despite all its well-documented shortcomings, the GN can get the job done when it makes the effort.

    In this case, the territorial government?s incapacities have not kept its officials from deploying the machinery of government on behalf of the public good. The key elements of that success appear to have been quick and flexible decision-making, political support, good communications and some help from the federal government.

    ?Lack of capacity? is a bureaucratic euphemism that means the organization doesn?t employ enough people who know how to do their jobs. It?s a real problem. But it should not be used as an excuse for inaction.

    The Government of Nunavut should now build on the success of its H1N1 vaccination program to tackle at least some of the chronic social and health problems that plague the people of the territory.

    For example, the Qanukkanniq report card recommends the immediate creation of lunch and snack programs for all school children. The appalling rates of malnutrition in Nunavut reported earlier this year from studies presented at the Circumpolar Health Congress in Yellowknife show why this is necessary.

    If Nunavut can run mass vaccination clinics, then Nunavut can run mass feeding programs for children ? or mass feeding stations for adults. Yet another example is suicide prevention, an area where the territorial government should find ways to conduct the mass training of counsellors and other people who work with youth.

    We?re sure you could add your own items to this list. We hope GN officials will find enough encouragement in their recent success to deploy the same tools against the poverty and ignorance that give rise to so many of the territory?s social problems.

    The government doesn?t have to be your enemy ? when it does its job, government can also be your friend. JB
    "Safety and security don't just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear."
    -Nelson Mandela