Public Values

Work grinds to a halt in Harper's civil service

Top professionals and PS workers feel "like rats in a tread-mill, stuck in a cage".

Work grinds to a halt in Harper's civil serviceby Ish Theilheimer

OTTAWA, November 25, 2010, Straight Goods News: Work at the top levels of Canada's federal public service is grinding to a halt under the hyper-partisan control of the Prime Minister's Office, according to top bureaucrats interviewed by Straight Goods News.

A crass culture of political control is stifling initiative and turning off the best and the brightest from either staying with or joining the bureaucracy.

"There's a very top-down, authoritarian management style that permeates the whole bureaucracy," said one retired policy advisor. [All identities have been obscured to protect sources.] "There isn't much incentive for someone coming in to show some initiative."

A retired communications director said that many of his colleagues "are concerned about that immense centralization of control right down to the level of program design and the sense that there's not much flexibility left, even for senior bureaucrats. The implications of that are a real dampening in public servants' commitment to program excellence in a way that allows them to draw on the expertise that brought them into the public service in the first place."

Even those at the top of the bureaucratic food chain, deputy and assistant deputy minsters (DMs and ADMs) are often shunted aside by political staff, according to sources.

"The power of the Prime Minister's office and the chief of staff in the minster's office is staggering," said a retired manager. "It used to be the ministers could choose their chiefs of staff. Now Harper tells them."

These chiefs vet and dictate policy and procedure down to minute operational levels.

"I saw deputies with amazing amounts of experience — who had been in their departments for periods of time where they really knew their departments — not able to get discussion time with their ministers," he said.

"In the past, when you needed to get a briefing note up the minister, you could generally be sure it would be done," said the retired advisor. "Now it gets stopped by the chief of staff. It never gets to the minister. You can try over and over and over again. Even if the staff believes this is hugely important issue and needs to be brought up to the minister, the chief of staff says no."

The effect on morale has been severe in many departments, especially those with that are most politically sensitive. "We all feel like we're rats in a tread-mill, stuck in a cage," she said. She pointed to the example of a non-controversial program on which she had worked for years, that was killed because of concerns of political staff that it could attract unwanted media attention. "This grinds all work to a halt. You avoid all risks and take no risks."

Bureaucrats expect to work for whatever political party is in office to implement its program, but "the degree to which they grind the mechanism of the department to a halt is new," she said.

"What Mulroney did when he came in was he politicized the ministers' offices by creating positions called political chiefs of staff," said the former communications director. "Right from the get-go, you had to educate and orient these political chiefs of staff. But that was different. They became part of the team, and it allowed for a feedback loop up to PMO that was able to present PMO with a more balanced perspective on why that frigging policy directive couldn't be implemented, because you also had chiefs of staff able to speak to that.

"The modelling under Harper is quite different," he said. "Under Harper, ministers were not given much autonomy to create their own portfolio. That would create a whole kind of cycle of convincing. You would convince up the system to the minister's office. Then it would go into a black hole."

Ministers themselves are often powerless when faced with political directives from Harper's office. "There seemed to be a greater level of security both under the Liberals and under Mulroney to let the fixes happen as low in the system as possible," said the retired manager. "That system changed when Harper came in."

"Under the Liberals and under Mulroney, you could count on the minister to go to bat and say, 'Lookit, you asshole, why have me as a minister if you're not going to rely on me?' That pattern didn't seem to be the same. Ministers seem to be castrated in some way. Ministers seem to have a lot less accountability to actually manage their departments."

This puts them, he said, "in a very difficult place because one of the things that's always been really helpful when you're supporting a minister is to be able to have an open discussion about what's working well and what's not."

The policy development process, senior bureaucrats say, has changed radically under Harper. One source pointed to the decision to build more prisons as an example. "'That's going to be our crime prevention strategy,'" bureaucrats were told. "There was never any discussion around whether there was any evidence-based reason for this. They talk a lot about evidence, and it pushes down in the system, as in 'We're not going to renew that program unless there's evidence,' but on the policy development piece does not appear to be evidence-based at all. It's just rhetoric."

Some civil service professionals complain their departments have Conservative Party activists on staff who carry out political directives from the PMO. If a regulation or a project threatens a key supporter of the government, these people ensure it is axed. Employees whose loyalty or extra-curricular activities are suspect for any reason may be investigated, harrassed or fired, as in the case of Luc Pomerleau, a scientist fired by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in 2008 for releasing a government document implementing the shift of food inspection from government to food manufacturers and distributers.

"A lot of what's happening is that there were awfully arbitrary decisions being made to gut programs because they weren't delivering the kind of black-and-white outcomes that the Accountability Act was demanding," said the retired manager. "I have a different perspective on accountability, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile that with my personal values. I believe if you're going to develop accountability, you do that by good planning, doing the thinking at the front end. You don't do it by moving all your resources to the back end of the process and going into punishment mode. You do that especially when you're working with partners. It was not fun anymore," which led to his retirement.

The retired advisor talked about "years of work down the drain" as a result of political maneuvering. "Things are a lot less productive."

The retired manager, who used to do some recruiting for the public service, says he no longer encourages students to pursue government work. "I could no longer be enthusiastic about young people coming into the public service. I used to be able to go out there and really speak from the heart to get people in who really did want to think about the greater good. I cannot in honesty recommend a federal public service job because it's mind-numbing now."

"Lots of people are leaving," said the retired advisor. "It saps the morale of the department. If you've been working on something for four years and all of a sudden there's a decision from the minister's office that we're going to halt work on that, how would you feel?"

Ish Theilheimer is the Founding Publisher of Straight Goods News.

Posted: November 25, 2010

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