Wernick re­jects AG’s ‘opin­ion piece’ on PS


Top bu­reau­crat Michael Wernick has re­jected the au­di­tor gen­eral’s as­ser­tion last month of a bro­ken cul­ture in the fed­eral govern­ment that en­abled the Phoenix pay sys­tem dis­as­ter.

While there’s room for im­prove­ment, and Phoenix was a fail­ure, the kind of deep malaise that Michael Fer­gu­son de­scribed in his mes­sage ac­com­pa­ny­ing his spring re­ports to Par­lia­ment does not re­flect the re­al­ity of the pub­lic ser­vice, the clerk of the Privy Coun­cil said dur­ing a House of Com­mons com­mit­tee meet­ing Tues­day.

“I be­lieve it con­tains sweep­ing gen­er­al­iza­tions, it’s not sup­ported by ev­i­dence and it does not pro­vide you any par­tic­u­lar guid­ance on what to do to move for­ward,” Wernick said in his open­ing com­ments to the com­mit­tee, call­ing the au­di­tor gen­eral’s mes­sage “an opin­ion piece which I take is­sue with.”

Wernick told the par­lia­men­tar­i­ans who com­prise the pub­lic ac­counts com­mit­tee, many of whom greeted his words with skep­ti­cism, that he saw Phoenix as a “per­fect storm,” the cul­mi­na­tion of mul­ti­ple fac­tors that have al­ready been laid out in two au­di­tor gen­eral re­ports and an in­de­pen­dent study by con­sult­ing firm Goss Gil­roy Inc.

David Christo­pher­son, a New Demo­crat MP and com­mit­tee vicechair, chal­lenged Wernick on his con­clu­sions.

“With all due re­spect … ei­ther we have a (clerk) of the Privy Coun­cil who has his head buried in the sand and is in com­plete de­nial with what the cul­tural prob­lems are or we’ve got an au­di­tor gen­eral that is off the rails.

“Where does that leave us?”

But Wernick said that con­trary to what the au­di­tor gen­eral ob­served, the pub­lic ser­vice does not have a per­va­sive prob­lem with deputy min­is­ter turnover. Of the 33 deputy min­is­ters over which Wernick said he has some in­flu­ence and the last three terms they’ve each com­pleted, 49 of 99 were more than three years, 27 more than four years and 16 more than five years.

And Pub­lic Ser­vices and Pro­cure­ment Canada, the same depart­ment that over­saw the botched Phoenix roll­out, de­liv­ered par­lia­men­tary precinct con­struc­tion projects on time, on bud­get and fully func­tion­ing, he said.

“I’m not say­ing the pub­lic ser­vice cul­ture is per­fect … We are riska­verse, we are process and rules driven, we need to be more nim­ble, we need to be more cre­ative, we need to be more as­sertive,” Wernick later con­cluded. “What I take is­sue with is the in­sin­u­a­tion that it is a gen­er­al­ized bro­ken cul­ture, which im­plies a gen­er­al­ized bro­ken pub­lic ser­vice, and I have to con­test that.”

He reg­is­tered his be­lief that the pub­lic ser­vice needs struc­tural re­form. It has too many lay­ers, he said, having climbed 15 of them to get to the po­si­tion he holds to­day. The hun­dreds of clas­si­fi­ca­tion groups and thou­sands of spe­cial pay groups and al­lowances make build­ing an ef­fec­tive pay sys­tem ex­tremely chal­leng­ing, he said.

He also rec­om­mended the com­mit­tee con­sider the in­cen­tive struc­ture un­der which pub­lic ser­vants op­er­ate. There are nu­mer­ous lay­ers of over­sight and feed­back around the se­nior bu­reau­crats, Wernick said, and almost all are neg­a­tive. The ex­cep­tions are per­for­mance pay and pro­mo­tion. “Cul­ture is shaped by in­cen­tives and dis­in­cen­tives,” he said, and there are op­por­tu­ni­ties to cre­ate those “which re­ward in­no­va­tion, cre­ativ­ity or that sti­fle it.”

But MPs con­tin­ued to raise the ques­tion of a larger cul­tural cri­sis through­out the bu­reau­cracy.

Con­ser­va­tive MP Lisa Raitt pointed out that Fer­gu­son isn’t the first to come to this con­clu­sion. Last year, pub­lic ser­vice in­tegrity com­mis­sioner Joe Fri­day flagged a cul­ture of fear si­lenc­ing pub­lic

ser­vants from speak­ing out about wrong­do­ing. And Kevin Soren­son, com­mit­tee chair and Con­ser­va­tive MP, cited let­ters his of­fice had re­ceived from pub­lic ser­vants “say­ing this cul­ture has to be fixed.”

Wernick said th­ese let­ters and emails come from those mo­ti­vated enough to write and “of­fi­cers of Par­lia­ment have their role and have their opin­ion, but they are out­side ob­servers.”

For the most part, Canada’s pub­lic ser­vice is free of nepo­tism, cor­rup­tion and par­ti­san­ship, he said.

“It’s im­por­tant in this day and age that Cana­di­ans have some con­fi­dence in their pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions and I am com­mit­ted to mak­ing them bet­ter as we go along.”

But, he cau­tioned, “be very care­ful on the di­ag­no­sis be­fore you start pre­scrib­ing reme­dies. There are a lot of gov­er­nance quacks out there and I think it’s im­por­tant to lis­ten care­fully to peo­ple with some ex­per­tise.”

Wernick also ex­tended some cul­tural ad­vice of his own to the com­mit­tee: cre­ate a space in which ques­tion­ing the au­di­tor gen­eral is pos­si­ble. For a decade or more, he said, govern­ment was taught the only way to re­spond to au­di­tor gen­eral rec­om­men­da­tions was with agree­ment.

“It should be OK to chal­lenge the analysis and the find­ings of the au­di­tor gen­eral. It will make for a health­ier, richer de­bate.”

Michael Wernick


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