Thursday, February 02, 2006

Gomery: A Canadian Perestroika

The Gomery Inquiry was just plain gross from beginning to end, but we can cheer at least a little simply because it did happen. It has exposed major long-term patterns of abuse and corruption of those in power -- something that just isn't possible in most countries of the world.

The system still works.

But the Gomery Reports show how easily the system can morph into a slimebog.

By definition, the role of the public service is to serve the public. Not the government. It's supposed to be an independent government arm of service delivery, research, and support. Yet slowly over the past two decades, the public service has been twisted into the servant of the government in power.

What's the difference?

Public servants who advise the government in power are supposed to "speak truth to power." They do the research and present the facts on the issues to the policy-makers. But insiders in the public service have told me that normally now they are expected to provide information to justify a policy decision that has already been made. If they present facts that don't support the policy idea, then they are sent back to edit it. Ministers get angry at what they see as "partisan" public servants -- in other words, public servants who try to serve the public interest.

In one case, a department presented facts that argued against a certain policy idea, but the minister went on to implement the decision anyway (which is a minster's right: he or she doesn't have to act on the public service's information). But after the decision was made, the minister required the same department to write the documents to support the decision.

Major role confusion. Political interests are like a vampire on the neck of truth.

There are other problems that reinforce this government-servant role. Heads of departments used to rise up through the ranks of the department so that they were familiar with the information and tasks before they assumed leadership. Now heads of departments are career MBAs, interested in lateral moves to rise to the top faster. They rarely stay with one department more than two years. So in effect, these heads are not interested in the department: just in their careers. They are sycophants to the government that directs their career path.

I'm not sure that these two issues have been dealt with in plain enough terms in the Gomery Reports. However, Gomery has taken on the whole notion of ministerial accountability, because it has become ministerial ubercontrol of the public service. We could blame the public service, but we have to place bigger blame on the governing parties for abusing ministerial power and riding the public service like a mule. Perhaps once this leash is cut, the public service will be able to return to its former independent role: helping the government to avoid making stupid mistakes with our money and our future.

I'm just glad it all happened.

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