There is a general consensus that Canada has a productivity gap. Yet the issue refuses to capture the public’s imagination or to take a higher priority on the nation’s political agenda. Claims that the sky is falling run contrary to public confidence that the economy is buoyant and resilient. At the same time, there is a widespread view that while prosperity is abundant, it is shared unequally and that in the face of unprecedented growth, the same advocates of productivity stand idly by and allow our social safety net – our health care, education and quality of life in our cities – to unravel.

For most people, increasing productivity involves little more than working harder or personal sacrifice. The perceived beneficiary to increased productivity is business, and therefore it hardly seems like a fair bargain or worthy of pursuit. Even those in government who might recognize that dealing with productivity is good policy are loath to advance the topic with any vigour.

I have moderated Microsoft Canada’s CAN>WIN conference on this topic four times since 2001 and watched some of Canada’s and the world’s brightest minds work their way through this dilemma. The consensus solutions to Canada’s prosperity problem are at once simple and deceptively complex.

When Marx prophesized the withering away of the state, I doubt he could have imagined the vacuum would be filled by the private sector. Yet as governments have recoiled from their traditional activist role, the private sector has assumed ever more responsibility, not only for economic prosperity but also for “the social good.” McDonald’s is now one of the world’s main providers of playground space. Coca-Cola has emerged among the largest benefactors of scholarships for Hispanics in the U.S. Business figures like Anita Roddick have taken on iconic status as a model of modern-day virtue, by merging the interests of her Body Shop chain with the welfare of Indians in the Amazon rain forest.

In fact, over the past two decades, we have witnessed the systematic blurring of the traditional roles of the public and private sectors. Today, governments are primarily consumed with facilitating initiatives needed to spawn more private-sector productivity, competitiveness and expansion. In the process, the public becomes convinced of government’s irrelevance as it seems to be little more than the handmaiden of business.