Se­nior bu­reau­crat, Canada’s top au­di­tor wran­gle in pub­lic

National Post (Latest Edition) - - CANADA - john iviSon Com­ment

The of­fice of the au­di­tor gen­eral has been deemed in­fal­li­ble since Sheila Fraser al­most sin­gle-hand­edly brought down Paul Martin’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment with her re­port on the spon­sor­ship scan­dal.

Min­is­ters whose de­part­ments have been un­for­tu­nate enough to fall foul of a crit­i­cal au­dit have gen­u­flected and promised to fix the prob­lem pronto.

That’s what made a rou­tine com­mit­tee meet­ing this week so com­pelling. Michael Wer­nick, the clerk of the Privy Coun­cil and Canada’s most se­nior pub­lic ser­vant, was at the Pub­lic Ac­counts com­mit­tee on Tuesday to an­swer MPs’ ques­tions about the open­ing chap­ter of the au­di­tor gen­eral’s spring re­port.

Michael Fer­gu­son, Fraser’s suc­ces­sor, pref­aced the reg­u­lar val­ue­for-money au­dits with a chap­ter de­cry­ing the “in­com­pre­hen­si­ble fail­ure” be­hind the Phoenix pay sys­tem de­ba­cle and other per­ceived sys­temic short­com­ings in gov­ern­ment.

He con­cluded there is an im­bal­ance be­tween po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tives in gov­ern­ment, nec­es­sar­ily short-term, and longer term pub­lic ser­vice per­spec­tive. The po­lit­i­cal side has be­come dom­i­nant over the past decades, as im­ple­men­ta­tion of pol­icy has been sub­verted to mes­sage and im­age man­age­ment.

“The cul­ture has cre­ated an obe­di­ent pub­lic ser­vice that fears mis­takes and risks. Its abil­ity to con­vey hard truths is eroded, as is the will­ing­ness to hear hard truths,” he con­cluded.

Prece­dent sug­gested the clerk would thank the au­di­tor for punch­ing his pub­lic ser­vants in the face and prom­ise they would mend their bu­reau­cratic ways.

But he did not — set­ting up the most heated in­sti­tu­tional tilt this coun­try’s seen since the last prime min­is­ter started chirp­ing at the chief jus­tice.

Wer­nick called Fer­gu­son’s open­ing chap­ter “an opin­ion piece” and said he took is­sue with its “sweep­ing gen­er­al­iza­tions.”

“It’s not sup­ported by the ev­i­dence and does not pro­vide any par­tic­u­lar guid­ance on what to do to move for­ward,” he told the com­mit­tee.

Far from be­ing bro­ken, he said the Cana­dian pub­lic ser­vice is “world class” and cit­i­zens should have con­fi­dence in its abil­ity to de­liver the gov­ern­ment’s agenda.

Wer­nick is clearly frus­trated that the fail­ures of the bu­reau­cracy are placed un­der a mi­cro­scope, while its suc­cesses are ig­nored. Pub­lic Ser­vices and Pro­cure­ment, the depart­ment at the heart of the Phoenix pay mess, is the same one that is de­liv­er­ing the par­lia­men­tary precinct ren­o­va­tion on time and on bud­get, he said.

“The gen­er­al­iza­tion doesn’t hold for one depart­ment. I cer­tainly don’t think it holds up for the en­tire pub­lic ser­vice,” he said.

Fer­gu­son is due to ap­pear be­fore Pub­lic Ac­counts next Tuesday to of­fer his own ri­poste to the clerk’s crit­i­cism.

It is an un­prece­dented al­ter­ca­tion by two of the most pow­er­ful peo­ple in the coun­try.

David Christo­pher­son, an NDP MP on the com­mit­tee, said we ei­ther have a clerk of the Privy Coun­cil who has his head in the sand, or an au­di­tor gen­eral who is “off the rails.”

Don­ald Savoie, the dean of aca­demics cov­er­ing pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion, said he has never seen any­thing like it.

But he said it’s a pos­i­tive and con­struc­tive air­ing of the prob­lems fac­ing the bu­reau­cracy. He sym­pa­thized with Wer­nick’s frus­tra­tion that much of the cov­er­age is un­fair.

“It’s all about find­ing blame. No­body ever says gov­ern­ment depart­ment X did a great job.

All pub­lic ser­vants go to work with a shadow on their shoul­der. The blame game per­me­ates the whole sys­tem, he said.

Cer­tainly, Canada’s pub­lic ser­vice is bet­ter than most in the world when it comes to nepo­tism, cor­rup­tion and par­ti­san­ship, as Wer­nick said.

But as Savoie pointed out, any­one rav­ing about gov­ern­ment ef­fi­ciency should try call­ing the Canada Rev­enue Agency some­time. The feel­ing among many cit­i­zens, far too of­ten, is that pub­lic ser­vants aren’t there to do, they’re there to ex­plain why it can’t be done.

While the clerk re­sented what he saw as the au­di­tor go­ing be­yond his man­date to of­fer a ser­mon, the two are less di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed than they might ap­pear at first sight.

At one point in his tes­ti­mony, Wer­nick ad­mit­ted im­prove­ments in the cul­ture of the pub­lic ser­vice are needed.

“I’m not say­ing we don’t have a cul­ture prob­lem. We are risk averse, we are bu­reau­cratic, we do tend to cling to process, we do tend to cling to rules,” he said — sen­ti­ments with which Fer­gu­son would con­cur.

Wer­nick said the bu­reau­cracy has made progress in in­tro­duc­ing glas­nost, the Gor­bachev-era con­cept of open­ness in gov­ern­ment, and it is now time for per­e­stroika, the free­ing up of min­istries to be more in­de­pen­dent. Savoie agrees with the idea of politi­cians giv­ing the pub­lic ser­vice its di­rec­tion but then pro­vid­ing it space to be flex­i­ble and more cre­ative in de­liv­ery of ser­vices.

But the key to re­form is change to the in­cen­tives and dis­in­cen­tives re­quired to be more nim­ble, risk­tak­ing and agile.

The prob­lem, as Wer­nick knows all too well, is that those “dis­in­cen­tives” are mar­bled into the sys­tem and are prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble to change.

Below the level of deputy min­is­ter, pub­lic ser­vants are cov­ered by the Pub­lic Ser­vice Em­ploy­ment Act, which means they can only be ter­mi­nated for cause, a le­gal process that takes around two years.

Bu­reau­crats can­not be fired for poor per­for­mance and, since 8090 per cent of the pub­lic ser­vice is union­ized, you have a work­place where the nor­mal rules of mo­ti­va­tion do not ap­ply.

Savoie said the re­sult is that no pub­lic ser­vice man­ager can be as ef­fi­cient as a pri­vate sec­tor man­ager.

He re­called a con­ver­sa­tion with Mul­roney-era min­is­ter Elmer MacKay (fa­ther of Peter), who said in all his years in Par­lia­ment, “I never could find the cul­prit.”

Any politi­cian that tried to re­form the em­ploy­ment laws to in­still some ac­count­abil­ity into the process would face a united front of unions and pub­lic ser­vants.

As the fic­tional Sir Humphrey Ap­pelby re­sponded when con­fronted with a sim­i­lar threat in the satire, Yes Min­is­ter: “We dare not al­low politi­cians to es­tab­lish the prin­ci­ple that se­nior civil ser­vants can be re­moved for in­com­pe­tence. We cold lose dozens of our chaps. Hun­dreds maybe. Even thou­sands.”


At left, Michael Wer­nick, the clerk of the Privy Coun­cil and Canada’s most se­nior pub­lic ser­vant; at right, Au­di­tor Gen­eral Michael Fer­gu­son. The two have not been play­ing very nicely of late, the Post’s John Ivison writes.


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