POWERFUL MEN IN PUBLIC SPAT
Top bureaucrat, auditor disagree on public service
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 value-for-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, risk-taking 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 80-90 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 instil 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 could lose dozens of our chaps. Hundreds maybe. Even thousands.”
Auditor General Michael Ferguson spoke out at a public accounts committee on Tuesday on systemic shortcomings that he believes led to the Phoenix pay debacle.