Public Embarrassment

Worth A Look, Public Sector, Frontier Centre

We are experiencing a crisis in the capacity of our governments to manage themselves and make sound, strategic decisions, a crisis that is not getting the attention it deserves. At a time of heightened global risks, Ottawa and the provinces are poorly equipped to respond to a tide of new economic and social concerns, or to manage the nation’s business effectively.

Questions about public-sector management pretty much vanished from the public’s radar screen during the boom years of the 1990s. As long as deficits were being reduced, and taxes were coming down, most people were willing to let bureaucrats worry about the inner workings of government. But now, with Canadians pressing governments to act on a host of issues — financial regulation, gun control, border security, pensions, schools, Kyoto, health care — this governance question is critical. The public service is responsible for devising policy alternatives and for their implementation once politicians make policy decisions.

Allan Blakeney, Lester Pearson, Bill Davis, Peter Lougheed, Frank McKenna all, in private at least, attributed their political success in large measure to a competent, motivated, flexible public service. They let their managers manage, because they knew their managers were plugged into the outside world and knew what to do.

But today, Canada’s public service is inward-looking, secretive, rule-bound, and control-oriented, working in a culture more suited to the industrial age than the information age. And, rather than try to fix things, political leaders and central agency bureaucrats have said: We don’t trust our managers any more, so we’ll pull all the real power into the Prime Minister’s Office or the Privy Council Office or the Premier’s Office.

In part, the problems are structural, but more importantly, they are cultural. Despite all the downsizing and re-engineering, the public service of Canada doesn’t look all that much different today than it did when I joined it 30 years ago.

In the interim, public-policy decisions have taken us from a closed economy to one of the most open in the world. Ironically, the same people who engineered these changes have left the machinery for policymaking and administration largely intact.

Canada has been far less ambitious in its approach to public-sector reform than many other industrialized countries. Ministers and senior officials are still stuck on the Holiday Inn approach to management — “no surprises” — that puts a premium more on compliance with rules than on delivering results.

Look at the so-called HRDC scandal from three years ago. Rather than just fixing deficiencies in one small program — the Transitional Jobs Fund — they have thrown a blizzard of rules and red tape at the whole system. Don’t worry Minister, we’ll dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s and make sure it never happens again. In fact, we’ll make sure that very little ever happens again.

The sad fact is that the federal government is actually “rebureaucratizing” when most other large institutions, such as corporations, are heading in the other direction — trying to replace a rules-based culture with a much stronger and more prescriptive one that is based on values: Do what’s right. Treat people fairly. Be efficient.

There have been some notable achievements in the federal government. Forward-looking policymakers and administrators have made Canada one of the most connected nations on Earth, providing affordable Internet access to our citizens.

Another success story in the making is the transformation of Revenue Canada into the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency. The new agency is different from the rest of the public service. It has a management board, much like a board of directors with real teeth. It has a real performance-management system. Its senior executive corps is on performance pay. It has the authority to classify its own jobs and bargain with its own employees to meet its own needs, instead of responding to an out-of-touch Treasury Board.

The government had realized that its top-heavy, overly centralized, rules-oriented bureaucracy wasn’t well equipped for collecting taxes from Canadians. So, they followed what the British, Australians, and New Zealanders had done years before. They hived the tax man and 40,000 employees off on their own — and gave them the authority and flexibility needed to do the job.

It’s ironic that the one agency that is really making progress is the one that is largely responsible for taking money from citizens. It sure begs the question: If the public service, with its five-foot-thick Personnel Management Manual isn’t good enough for the tax collectors, what about the other 170,000 federal public servants?

Most senior public servants are policymakers, not managers. They deal with high order issues — what the law will be, not how it will be enforced or whether the enforcers have the tools, authorities, encouragement, direction and rewards they need to get their jobs done.

The cost overrun of the gun registration program is a case in point. Many of the people with real power are so far away from the front lines that these things aren’t even an issue. This culture is not going to change without sustained pressure from people who can see the world through different eyes and believe that their government should be able to as well.

There was an instance in which outsiders did become actively involved in the internal workings of the federal public sector. In 1990, a group of Canadian leaders gathered to support public sector management reform. In response, the government launched the Public Service 2000 (PS2000) program with great fanfare. External pressure was instrumental in convincing a reluctant bureaucracy and disinterested prime minister and cabinet to act.

Unfortunately, the external pressure was not sustained, nor were the outsiders able to secure a continuing role in the reform process. As the secretary to the cabinet put it at the time: “Only senior public servants can reform the public service.” Predictably, PS2000 became a cautious, inward-looking exercise, which failed to get at fundamental problems.

Still, there is an important lesson here. Pressure from the outside can lever change in the public sector. The key, however, is to sustain that pressure and keep outsiders engaged in the reform process.

I would like to put a challenge out to all Canadians and Canadian institutions. It is in the form of a call to arms. Canadians need to re-engage themselves in the administration of government. After all, the functioning of government is too important to be left solely in the hands of government officials and politicians.

Sheldon Ehrenworth was the founder of the Public Policy Forum and its president from 1987 to 1997.