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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

My mistake, I thought the Public Service was working for Canadians

July 4, 2006

It’s nice that Canada Day comes around every year to remind us to think about the country we live in and how it meets our expectations. Canada truly is one of the best places in the world to live. On Canada Day we can take a breath and enjoy the large degree of balance we have achieved together.

That’s why it’s doubly frustrating when you see a problem and it seems to absolutely resist being fixed. Of course I’m not talking about things like the violence in Iraq or Afghanistan or AIDS in Africa. I’m talking about those chronic Canadian problems like healthcare, literacy and lifelong learning, immigration, productivity, the environment, or the ongoing saga of federal-provincial relations. If we’ve come so far, then why can’t we resolve these issues?

In my naiveté, I have always assumed that fixing these things was what our public sector leaders were hired to do. Isn’t that why we vote for them? You can therefore imagine my surprise when I was informed by a senior federal ADM that “governments don’t fix problems. They only take positions.” From a political perspective, what’s really important is being on the right side of the issue. As it turns out actually resolving an issue is largely immaterial and just a “coincidence” if it is in fact settled.

Said another federal official, “the big problem in doing business with government is that there is no leader, no one person who is really in charge. Government is a multi headed thing. If you’re dealing with government you’re likely to be dealing with several different departments who don’t talk to one another and are usually off in different directions.” It’s even worse, he said, if you’re dealing with some federal-provincial file. It’s like signing an agreement with a CEO who has no control over his company. Whatever anyone says it’s an empty promise because you don’t know who’s making the agreement? You can make a deal with one part of government and another part of government contravenes your agreement. This is why government is typically experienced as such a bad faith partner. The different parts act so independently of each other that there is no semblance of coherence.

Consequently, leadership in the public sector is all about spin and has very little substance. The former Liberal government is still milking the billions of dollars it budgeted for reducing green house gas emissions but then they actually only spent a few hundred million as reimbursements for energy retro-fitting. They then get double credit for supporting climate change but not spending too much money and delivering a steady stream of budget surpluses. The Conservatives have done away pretty much with environmental spending and also seem willing to walk away from Kyoto, claiming credit for honesty without any viable national or international plan in its stead. Is this honest or is this stupid? You decide (but hint the problem of green house gases hasn’t gone away). See also my blog on Kyoto.

One of the primary contributors to this situation is the bureaucratic structure of government itself. In federal and provincial governments, legislation defines that the activities that are undertaken by government departments in silos (as does funding) but this results in a huge need for cross collaborative work among public servants. “Ministers within a single jurisdiction don’t know how to work together or how to achieve policies that align.” This gap exists at a time when most issues tend to cut across ministerial responsibilities. For example, on the subject of immigration there are several federal departments that deal with aspects of immigration, including: Foreign Affairs and International Trade, HRSDC, Health Canada, Industry Canada, etc.. Not only has the federal public service not figured out the pathways, mechanisms or models to allow themselves to effectively work together but neither has it figured out how to deal with the municipal or provincial orders of government.

There may be a committee of deputy ministers assigned the responsibility of coordination but once the task is assigned to a departmental lead, the other departments essentially forget about it. One deputy minister I spoke with agreed, “there is lots of work to be done here.” But making changes is always resisted as Machiavelli reminds us, “innovation makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those would prosper under the new.”[1]

The other major contributor to this powerlessness to solve problems is the attitude of citizens themselves. A senior academic official recently told me that “as citizens, there is a big disconnect between our personal and public interests. We don’t want government to raise taxes but we don’t want them to reduce any our services either -- in fact we want more services.” We all want a free ride while someone else pays the piper.

In the end, we offer our politicians a choice – you can fix our problems which are difficult and complex to resolve or you can reduce our taxes which is simple to do, despite the negative repercussions that this may have on the collective problems we face. As citizens we will reward you equally. Small wonder then that we are blithely told by politicians that they will fix a problem and it will cost us less. Does anyone forget that image of McGuinty promising in writing not to raise taxes? And we buy that garbage! We have only ourselves to blame because we have not stood up to say what we want or to tell our governments to get real.

So despite these ongoing frustrations, I will choose to take solace this Canada Day from all that we have accomplished, that we have succeeded reasonably well in spite of ourselves and that there is hope that we will once again find some pragmatic means to overcome the challenges that face us today.

[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, second edition, W. W. Norton publishers, London: 1992: pg. 17