Government is the favourite Canadian whipping boy. Countless conversations feature familiar complaints about bureaucrats, even though we look to them to solve all kinds of problems. It’s a timeless problem. What should governments do, and how should they do it?
First, they should only do what the private sector cannot or will not. Providing basic infrastructure, for example, or arranging for delivery of important public goods. Secondly, wherever possible, government agencies should treat their clients with respect. This may seem trivial, but nothing frustrates citizens more than to be told, “That’s not my department,” when it quite clearly is. In other words, bureaucrats should treat citizens with the same deference that markets extend to customers.
A notable exception to this rule used to be that child of the depression, an agency called the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), a division of Agriculture Canada. Although it’s federal, PFRA uniquely operates within a specific region, the Prairies.
Its original mandate was to “secure the rehabilitation of the drought and soil drifting areas in the Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta and to develop and promote within those areas systems of farm practices, tree culture, water supply, land utilization and land settlement that will afford greater economic security.”
The Great Depression was particularly savage on the Prairies. The general slowdown and low grain prices were coupled with a searing decade of drought that made soil particularly susceptible to wind erosion. Drought, blowing soil and abandoned farms were the problem and PFRA’s job was water management, trees and economic renewal.
The agency assisted with tree planting programs, water supply for irrigation, drought-proofing, flood protection, crop diversification and the adoption of sustainable farming practices. It touched almost every aspect of Prairie farm life. Urban populations also benefited, because the Shellmouth Dam near Russell and the Portage Diversion, both PFRA projects, protect Winnipeg from excess Assiniboine River water.
The mandate reflected the real world. Charged with improving conditions within Prairie Canada, PFRA has dealt with concrete issues from its outset. Moreover, it has retained the appreciation of its client groups. As Weldon Newton, a Neepawa hog producer and President of Keystone Agricultural Producers, Manitoba’s largest farm organization, notes, “PFRA has a history of working with us in agriculture and helping us. There are not too many other departments that I can say that about.”
PFRA even turns a profit. Its pasture program, covering 2.5 million acres of fragile land, runs almost at 100% cost recovery. More recently, PFRA has developed electromagnetic technology that maps subsurface soil composition, information that is invaluable in the siting of intense livestock operations.
Society at large benefits from a sustainably managed landscape that delivers wildlife and other environmental amenities. These are proper areas of government concern because it is difficult to develop markets for this type of service. Who would pay for it? PFRA has provided incentives to improve farming practices. Once they are adopted, incentives are no longer required.
Rural folks like the PFRA. Today’s Prairie farmers grew up with stories of the “PFRA man” who helped Mom and Dad get water, plant trees and save the farm. It would be nice if all federal agencies commanded this respect.
It is a different story at Agriculture Canada, which views its mandate to be farm production, exports and food science, all cocooned by appropriate buzz words like “environmental stewardship” and “renewal.” The rule bound culture in Ottawa keep asking a reasonable question, “What’s an agriculture department doing in the business of water supply, tree planting, and flood protection?” Fair enough, but while neat government reporting lines look good on charts, they do not reflect the real world.
The subtext of this perennial bureaucratic infighting is envy. Integrated agencies like PFRA are resented for their ability to make deals, to work in non-traditional ways and to be risk-takers. Never mind that they solve real problems, have an honourable history and are beloved by their clients. It is tagged with the most negative trait to a bureaucrat: it is “out of control.” Decentralized field operations are especially vulnerable because they have few champions in the head office. While PFRA staffers are actually out in the field solving problems, control gnomes in Ottawa are forever plotting their demise.
Western alienation is again on the rise, fuelled by the follies of the Firearms Act, the Species At Risk Act and the new Department of Fisheries and Oceans mandate of “Fish before People.” Ironically, the counterpoint stares Ottawa and the federal Liberals in the face: a more visible PFRA, doing its environmental, social, and economic “thing.” But an enhanced PFRA is trouble for Agriculture Canada, so it is shoved to the bottom of the pile.
It should be the model for Ottawa, not its neglected child.