Author Topic: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'  (Read 3055 times)

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Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« on: October 05, 2007, 10:29:54 »
 Shared in accordance with the "fair dealing" provisions, Section 29, of the Copyright Act.

Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
Bureaucrats afraid to take action for fear of breaking new rules, think-tank says

Kathryn May, The Ottawa Citizen, 5 Oct 07
Article link - Public Policy Forum report:  "LEADING BY EXAMPLE:  50 PROMINENT CANADIANS TALK TO US ABOUT THE FEDERAL PUBLIC SERVICE AND WHY LEADERSHIP MATTERS" (.pdf)

The rules-laden Federal Accountability Act is backfiring and creating a bureaucracy of risk-averse "Dilberts" who keep their heads down, don't trust anyone and put process ahead of getting things done, warns a report by Ottawa think-tank Public Policy Forum.

The newly-released report, which draws on interviews with 50 leaders in the public and private sectors, including former prime ministers Joe Clark and Paul Martin, concludes that the Conservatives' signature legislation went so overboard with rules, regulations and parliamentary watchdogs looking over bureaucrats' shoulders that it is killing morale and stifling innovation, creativity and effective leadership.

"Many felt politicians didn't put sufficient thought into accountability measures that are now in place, which have limited the capacity of the public service to act and have left the public believing public servants are both inept and corrupt," said the report.

Most of those interviewed, however, felt it would be nearly impossible to bring the pendulum back. The Harper government rode to power on the sponsorship scandal and the promise to clean up government and make bureaucrats and politicians more accountable. The Federal Accountability Act was its signature legislation and top priority.

The forum report warns that the tightening noose of red tape is exacerbating the tension and mistrust between bureaucrats and their political masters.

This situation risks driving away top talent and discouraging would-be recruits from government jobs.

The report says the act generated another layer of bureaucracy to make sure rules are followed, for "very little gain." The new controls put a huge "drain" on money and staff that could be spent on programs and services to Canadians.

One respondent likened it to the satirical Dilbert cartoon strip, describing "post-FAA Ottawa as a Dilbert-like world where everyone follows processes, which are stifling the public service, making it difficult to recruit and retain workers and regulating to a point where intended outcomes are no longer apparent."

Many felt the accountability mania also affected the quality of leadership and that the government took a "step back" to a highly secretive hierarchy. From deputy ministers at the top to front-line workers, all work in fear of making a mistake that will be dragged out by the media or the auditor general, the report said.

"In the public service, one strike and you're out."

The report is a key part of the two-year project the forum launched last year to examine the state and role of the public service in the 21st century.

Among those interviewed were Allan Blakeney, the former Saskat-chewan premier; Rita Burak, the former Ontario clerk and head of Hydro One; Nancy Hughes Anthony of the Canadian Bankers Association; Bob Rae, the former Ontario premier, Hal Kvisle, the CEO of TransCanada Corp.; and Frank McKenna, the deputy chair of TD Bank Financial and former premier of New Brunswick.

The report provides the "diagnosis" of the challenges facing the public service, which it will address in its final report next spring, said Ian Green, the longtime federal deputy minister who is leading the forum's study.

Privy Council Clerk Kevin Lynch has since launched his own public service "renewal" project and appointed heavyweights from the Mulroney era -- former deputy prime minister Don Mazankowski and former Privy Council clerk Paul Tellier -- to head an advisory committee. The forum's report will be turned over to that committee, which has said it will consider the findings, especially around thorny issues of leadership, public trust, recruitment and retention, and the policy function of government.

In an interview, Mr. Tellier, who led an ill-fated reform of the public service 15 years ago, said he strongly agrees that declining trust between bureaucrats and politicians and the obsession with accountability must be fixed for any attempt to modernize the public service to work.

Mr. Tellier said the relationship between the public service and politicians has historically had its ups and downs, but took a nosedive under the previous Martin government. That rocky relationship further deteriorated under the Conservatives, many of whom don't trust the bureaucracy, he said.

Mr. Tellier, however, said he's not convinced the government is facing a leadership crisis. He said the challenge is replacing retiring baby boomers with the "cream of the crop."

The former CEO of Bombardier Inc. and Canadian National Railway said the public service needs a mix of leadership, from the charismatic Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier, to the stereotypical invisible public servant.

"I am a big fan of Hillier and I'm attracted to men and women like Hillier who are outspoken, aggressive, articulate and good communicators, but over the years I have to conclude there are many types of leaders ... and the low-key ones can be just as effective."

Many bureaucrats complain that the Harper government isn't interested in their advice and simply wants them to implement the policies they dictate. Instead, the government relies on a tight circle of like-minded advisers, including inexperienced political aides, who bypass the bureaucrats, guard information and are "less willing to accept their advice," said the report.

On top of that, the declining decorum in Parliament has MPs turning on bureaucrats at parliamentary committees to score political points. Politicians, however, have complained about the "diminished respect" they get from senior bureaucrats who dodge committees and send junior staff to take the hot seat.

"The equation is quite simple: good relations equal better policy and more control; bad relations equal poor policy, less control and, sometimes, outright warfare," said the report.

But others argue there's no mutual respect because bureaucrats aren't living up to their end of the bargain, either. They aren't providing good advice, or interesting ideas that support or advance the government's agenda.

"It is no doubt difficult if governments are more hesitant to listen, but some have seen little evidence of honest debate or of bureaucrats challenging politicians about what is or is not in the public interest," the report says.

The report, however, says any overhaul of this relationship has to be led by the prime minister. It also suggested a remake of a sick public service, which is in the "emergency room," must go hand-on-hand with reform of political parties, which are "well into the morgue."

Some worry that the fix could come by politicizing the public service and appointing senior bureaucrats who have an "ideological alignment" with the government of the day, as is done in the U.S. and some provinces. What's needed are bureaucrats who strike the balance between "deferring" to government and "offering informed positions."

Many argued that the quality of leaders in the public service has declined and questioned whether today's senior bureaucrats are up to the job.

Most respondents felt the competence and administrative and policy-making abilities of senior bureaucrats have "eroded" over the years. Some said that's because the government promoted the "process experts," who can implement their policies and stickhandle them through the bureaucracy, rather than the big thinkers who will challenge them. Also, the accountability act has spawned such a fear of making mistakes that senior bureaucrats don't make waves and are afraid of pushing big, new bold ideas.

Part of the problem is the rapid turnover of senior executives, exacerbated by the election of minority governments and the shuffling of ministers every couple of years.

Deputy ministers are shuffled so often they are known as "tourists" in the system who often don't "know the business" of their departments. As a result, they don't have the courage to speak up or take risks. This revolving door creates leaders who are insecure, fearful and controlling and who try to stay under the radar until their next move.

The report argued the bureaucracy needs more "doers." Its leaders need better skills in managing people and finances, but they need people who "make the tough decisions" and "not just rag the puck." As one respondent said, "they need to get their mojo back."

Many say the public service also has to fix its relationship with Canadians and fellow bureaucrats working outside of Ottawa. The public service now shares the policy arena with many players -- lobbyists, think-tanks, special interest groups and universities. Some complained about an "Ottawa mentality" of isolated, "mostly white Anglophone" bureaucrats in the capital who don't understand what's happening in the rest of the country. The result, said one respondent, is "you can't have smart regulations with clueless bureaucrats."

"Public servants don't travel and don't connect with the people on the ground. This is very dangerous, as you can't make policy in an ivory tower," said the report.

"Too little contact with citizens and shareholders results in poor understanding of issues and perspectives and ultimately results in well-intentioned but poor policy."

This spills over into the regions, where bureaucrats on the front line feel they are treated like "drones" while their colleagues in Ottawa "think they are the smartest in Canada."

Canadians have become so frustrated by the endless consultation and red tape of dealing with bureaucrats that they are starting to "disengage" and go it alone to resolve issues. This is having a huge impact on the public service because many of the pressing issues facing Canadians, such as climate change, trade, cities and infrastructure, need all the players to collaborate to find solutions.

Some suggested that the only way Ottawa bureaucrats can get better "plugged in" to what Canadians in different regions want is to move departments out of the capital to "get things done where they make sense," such as moving Natural Resources to Calgary; Fisheries and Oceans to the Maritimes and Indian and Northern Affairs to the Prairies.



- edited to fix format of report title link -
« Last Edit: October 05, 2007, 10:54:48 by milnewstbay »
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Offline Thucydides

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #1 on: October 05, 2007, 10:50:15 »
Perhaps a better way to proceed is to remind bureaucrats their job is indeed to implement policy and legislation, not create it.

Deep cuts to eliminate endless paper shuffling and wasted steps (not to mention stripping away the smoke screen of minor functionaries so the spotlight can indeed be shone on the accountable) is also an important part of the process. When senior civil servants send flunkies to parliamentary committee meetings, they better have a compelling reason for not attending (like a death certificate in their hand) at the next meeting or face dismissal.
Dagny, this is not a battle over material goods. It's a moral crisis, the greatest the world has ever faced and the last. Our age is the climax of centuries of evil. We must put an end to it, once and for all, or perish - we, the men of the mind. It was our own guilt. We produced the wealth of the world - but we let our enemies write its moral code.

Offline E.R. Campbell

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #2 on: October 05, 2007, 11:18:44 »
There are, at any moment, three policies under active consideration in Ottawa:

1.   The policy of the current governing party – this is, almost always, a messy amalgam of ill-conceived political promises, even worse political ideologies, a few good, solid ideas from working politicians and a few more good ideas developed while in office based on the advice of the civil service;

2.   The policy of the official opposition – which is very like that of the party in power in both content and nature; and

3.   The national policy which is determined, exclusively, by ten to twenty very, very senior civil servants – led by Privy Council Clerk Kevin Lynch.

I think that most prime ministers are, with very good reason, wary of their own political promises and their party ideologies. As party leaders their aim is to stay in power and that means winning elections so that means making all manner of silly promises on the campaign trail which no one in their right mind wants to ever see on the order paper. Equally, most prime ministers want to be seen to be governing well, in a efficient, effective manner – that means eschewing ideological positions in favour of sound, pragmatic public policy; that means listening to the Clerk and his entourage.

The mandarins’ ‘national policy’ is long term; it is not intended to be transferred, holus bolus, into legislation. Instead it is used to frame bite-sized bits of legislation which are politically acceptable and affordable. In Canada, these bits of good policy must be sandwiched between traditional, pork-barrel goodies which most Canadians regard as a matter of right.

The mandarins are doing they jobs: developing strategy, guiding the elected politicians, preparing legislation and then implementing it. What is amazing is that, by and large, they do this in a wholly non-partisan manner – even, perhaps especially, by those who have strong, partisan political loyalties. 

It is ill that men should kill one another in seditions, tumults and wars; but it is worse to bring nations to such misery, weakness and baseness
as to have neither strength nor courage to contend for anything; to have nothing left worth defending and to give the name of peace to desolation.
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Offline N. McKay

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #3 on: October 05, 2007, 11:47:54 »
Perhaps a better way to proceed is to remind bureaucrats their job is indeed to implement policy and legislation, not create it.

Who do you suppose actually creates policy and legislation, then?

Offline Thucydides

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #4 on: October 05, 2007, 17:44:17 »
Who do you suppose actually creates policy and legislation, then?

The Legislature.
Dagny, this is not a battle over material goods. It's a moral crisis, the greatest the world has ever faced and the last. Our age is the climax of centuries of evil. We must put an end to it, once and for all, or perish - we, the men of the mind. It was our own guilt. We produced the wealth of the world - but we let our enemies write its moral code.

Offline E.R. Campbell

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #5 on: October 05, 2007, 18:59:46 »
The Legislature.

Not very often - during the nearly half century I've been observing policy and politics. I would wager that, in Canada, Britain, America, etc, most policy and nearly all legislation is crafted by bureaucrats.

Back in the days when lawyers were the mainstay of parliaments it was possible for some politicians to craft legislation. Now that lawyers are in a minority most legislation, even that proposed by politicians or lobbyists (who propose more than politicians, I think), is created by bureaucrats.
It is ill that men should kill one another in seditions, tumults and wars; but it is worse to bring nations to such misery, weakness and baseness
as to have neither strength nor courage to contend for anything; to have nothing left worth defending and to give the name of peace to desolation.
Algernon Sidney in Discourses Concerning Government, (1698)
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Offline MCG

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #6 on: October 05, 2007, 22:45:33 »
Policy comes from the executive; from Cabinet. 

Offline GAP

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #7 on: October 05, 2007, 23:02:52 »
I think ER has it about right....there's too much on a politician's plate with too little time in the portfolio for them to become intimite with all aspects of creating the nuts and bolts of some pretty convoluted legislation. They probably come up with the basic concept, and the bureaucrats flesh it out and nail it down.
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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #8 on: October 05, 2007, 23:23:55 »
I admit I forgot to put the [sarcasm][/sarcasm] on, but re reading the first post it seems far too much power is vested in the civil service, and the will of the people as expressed through the legislature can be easily derailed by some of the tactics described in the lead article. Some if it could be too subtle to notice; how do you prove that some flunky did not give good or creative advice?

Yes, the nuts and bolts are important, but I believe that good legislation (like good music, literature or art) should be based on simple underlying principles and easy to understand (even Baroque music can be analyzed and reduced to several underlying themes). Members of Parliament should be avoiding complex legislation, and perhaps the proposed legislation should be read by a "Grant's Captain" in committee. If the "Grant's Captain" finds it hard to understand, then a rewrite is in order.

Our society is evolving away from Democracy as more and more legislation is drafted or created (in the case of judges) by people and groups who are NOT elected and accountable. One could perhaps make a case for unelected officials making policy and law, but without some form of accountability the end result is Tyranny of one form or another.
Dagny, this is not a battle over material goods. It's a moral crisis, the greatest the world has ever faced and the last. Our age is the climax of centuries of evil. We must put an end to it, once and for all, or perish - we, the men of the mind. It was our own guilt. We produced the wealth of the world - but we let our enemies write its moral code.

Offline E.R. Campbell

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #9 on: October 06, 2007, 07:56:23 »
It seems to me that until we restore “law making” to the elected politicians we are doomed to rule by unelected, anonymous bureaucrats.

It also seems to me that the only way we can restore the correct balance of powers is through either:

1.   Some sort of massive simplification of the legal system so that 300+ elected politicians can actually manage legislation. (They cannot, now, because the entire legal/legislative system is so complex that it requires a modest army of clerks to draft even a simple, minor, amendment that will not, unintentionally, sideswipe some other government programme or run afoul of some other law.) or

2.   Institute a huge parliament (1,000+ members) so that there is a small army of elected lawyers who can, at least, oversee the larger army of clerks.
It is ill that men should kill one another in seditions, tumults and wars; but it is worse to bring nations to such misery, weakness and baseness
as to have neither strength nor courage to contend for anything; to have nothing left worth defending and to give the name of peace to desolation.
Algernon Sidney in Discourses Concerning Government, (1698)
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Offline N. McKay

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #10 on: October 09, 2007, 12:19:35 »
The Legislature.

Then I'm afraid you're wrong.  The legislature is the authority on whether or not a bill will become the law, and through the committee process it has an opportunity to modify a bill, but the actual drafting of the legislation, as well as the staff work (e.g. research, much of the public consultation process, etc.) is done by the civil service.  That's what the civil service is for.

Very few ministers are SMEs on the subject matter of their portfolios.  For example, never in my recollection has the Minister of Transportation for New Brunswick been a civil engineer or other transportation professional.  The Minister of Education is not usually a teacher; the Minister of Health is not usually a doctor or nurse.  Ministers provide a high-level direction of government, and the Legislature provides the mother of all oversight mechanisms for the civil service, but they do not do the nuts-and-bolts-level work of government.  That is the domain of the professional civil service.

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #11 on: October 09, 2007, 12:44:11 »
Are there any examples of what plans the bureaucrats have that differ from the government ones (or vice versa)?

What exactly were these “Dilberts” prevented from accomplishing?
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Offline TCBF

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #12 on: October 09, 2007, 12:45:51 »
I never could figure out why legislation is written so shoddily that it gets destroyed in a court challenge.  good laws should be simple, easy to understand, reflect natural justice, closed to bizarre interpretation and necessary from a cost/benefit point of view.

We seem to demand "Feel Good" legislation, then are amazed when a piece of counter-productive trash is substituted in it's place.
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Offline Brad Sallows

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Re: Accountability act creates PS 'Dilberts'
« Reply #13 on: October 09, 2007, 20:10:37 »
The suggestion that public agencies were not already bastions of risk-averse process followers is an amusing one.

There is a simple solution for those who desire more freedom of action: wield a stiff broom; police your own for malfeasance vigorously and without respite or mercy.  There is no reasonable excuse that collections of well-educated people with enviable employment terms can offer for the existence in their midst of those who misuse public funds.

If collective self-discipline fails, it is bound to be legislated and imposed from above.
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