Populism is on the rise and voters seem disenchanted with politicians and cynical about politics more generally. “Elites” who supposedly “look down on the common folk” have become punching bags for the populist right (think Doug Ford) and a general feeling of distrust of many institutions (media, government, the courts, financial institutions, etc.) seems to be pervasive.
This article is the first in a series of Canada Fact Check posts that argue that many of our key institutions are, indeed, in decline and that ordinary Canadians have a right to be angry and distrustful of the elites that run these institutions.
That said, these articles will also argue that the populist right is absolutely wrong about why Canadians should be angry and distrustful of elites. They argue that the problem is not that elites think they are “better” than average Canadians but that our economic and political elites don’t want to be accountable to average Canadians who want them to act in the public interest as opposed to their own personal interest. In fact, the posts will argue that our elites will do everything they can to not be accountable for the harm they do to our communities, our health and the jobs we depend on to feed our families and pay the mortgage.
Let’s start with the elites that run our governments.
What ails our governments?
Any elected government, regardless of political party, values easy to understand action that is visible to the voting public. In their eyes, this is how they accomplish their principal objective – to get re-elected.
In contrast, the permanent public service needs to champion a longer-term perspective to ensure that complex government programs are implemented competently and that these programs actually accomplish their intended objectives—even if they won’t bring short-term political benefit to the elected politicians in power.
The truth of the matter is that both views are needed for government to function properly. Ministers and public servants should have very different views about the importance of program implementation.
To a Minister, the announcement of a new program to the public is inevitably what is most important—implementation is a relatively unimportant detail to Ministers and their political staff even though 90% of what will make a program work is determined by the quality of its implementation.
In contrast, to a good senior public servant, a program announcement is just the beginning. A good senior public servant knows that successful program implementation will take a lot of diligent work, perhaps over many years and several election cycles.
The problem is that in the current government culture in Canada, the two perspectives are out of balance, with the short-term political perspective being dominant. For a variety of reasons, politicians are more concerned than ever with message and image management and less interested in whether government programs really work. This leads them to valuing senior public servants who can provide communications and issues management advice much more than public servants whose expertise is in effective program implementation.
Related to this is that Ministers now also expect the public service to implement programs without making a media-worthy mistake. No politician wants to be blamed for a mistake—real or perceived—that makes the news cycle.
Unfortunately, the truth is that it is impossible for public servants to not make mistakes over the many years that it often takes to implement complex government programs and policies. However, while it is impossible to not make mistakes, it is possible for public servants to become experts in hiding mistakes from the public and even their own Ministers. And when mistakes do become public, it is possible to become expert in deflecting blame from both the individual public servants directly responsible for the mistakes and the Minister responsible for the file. In other words, it is possible to become an expert in the practice of “plausible deniability” – a way to deny responsibility for a mistake.
Because of this dynamic, there has been an erosion of hard, fact-based advice being provided by the public service to Ministers. In turn, the decline in objective, fact-based advice from the public service contributes to an erosion of accountability because Ministers and Cabinet genuinely don’t know the details of most of what is happening in their own government. More specifically, they don’t know if programs and policies they approved and publicly announced in the past, are being professionally implemented and whether they are working or not.
Three signs of this are the increasingly short tenures of Deputy Ministers, the increased influence of partisan political staff and the increased use of private, for-profit firms doing work that career public servants used to do.
With regard to the first point, Deputy Minister’s are increasingly being valued for their generic “issues management” skills and therefore don’t need to spend much time in any given ministry because there is no great importance placed on them having a deep understanding of the ministry files. They have been promoted to the top because they have demonstrated they have political acumen and are skilled in communications crisis management – not because they have successfully implemented complex government programs.
On the second and related point, a large cadre of ministerial political staff give partisan political advice to the same ministers that Deputy Ministers and their departments are responsible for advising. This partisan advice from political staff rarely includes in-depth policy analysis or the pros and cons of various program implementation options. It is therefore harder for Deputy Ministers and their departmental officials, with their complex, fact-based advice, to be heard. This means that it’s easier for a Deputy Minister and departmental officials to simply implement the will of the Minister (often conveyed to them through partisan political staff) without question rather than provide fearless advice on the pitfalls that could arise in implementation and how to avoid them.
Third, more and more of the work of government is being sub-contracted to private firms as a way to avoid public service and Ministerial accountability.
For example, IBM Canada was hired to assess the business case for a new federal payroll system in 2009. Not surprisingly, it endorsed the development of a new system. IBM was then the only company to bid on the development of the new pay system renamed Phoenix. It was hired in June 2011 to do a huge job: define, implement, operate and maintain Phoenix. IBM’s contract started at $5.7 million for the first stage of the deal, but after 39 IBM initiated contract amendments between 2011 and 2017, the contract ballooned to $185 million.
But Phoenix never worked causing real hardship for thousands of public servants who couldn’t count on a consistent pay check.
In the 2018 federal budget, the government announced that it intended to “eventually move away from Phoenix” and explore the “next generation” of the federal government’s pay system. This won’t happen anytime soon though. The government is also planning to invest $431.4 million over six years to try to fix the existing Phoenix system. This will bring the total government investment in Phoenix to $900 million by the time it is scrapped for a new system.
Who is responsible for the failure of Phoenix? The Minister, the senior public servants “overseeing” the project, or IBM? Of course, given the culture of “plausible deniability” that has evolved in government, it is impossible to tell. The whole Phoenix development process was, in part, designed to avoid accountability. And to be clear, IBM was a willing partner in this blurring of accountability as they didn’t want to be blamed for the Phoenix failure either.
The Phoenix debacle demonstrates the way public servants today attempt to keep the “trust” of their Ministers. They avoid communicating the hard truths of governing to their Ministers (and sometimes, as was the case with Phoenix, even to their Deputy) and simply tell them what they want to hear. These sort of public servants completely reject the notion that it is the role of the public servant to speak truth to power. For them, speaking truth to power is tantamount to career suicide.
But the fault also lies with the political side. Public servants are no longer “trusted” by Ministers because they offer objective, fact-based advice and implement government programs competently. They are trusted if they are loyal and can be counted on to manage political crises and identify “good news” communications opportunities. The dean of Canadian public administration scholars, Donald Savoie, has described this public service approach as being “promiscuously partisan”. In other words, increasingly, senior public servants see the key to their rise in the public service as being enthusiastic cheer leaders for whatever political party happens to be in power.
In this government culture, for a public servant, it is often better to do nothing at all than to make a mistake. If, however, action can’t be avoided, public servants search for plausible deniability—again, a way to deny responsibility for a mistake. In this context, contracting out to the private sector is often little more than a way for public servants and Ministers to avoid accountability if something doesn’t work out.
The end result of all this is an obedient public service that tries to eliminate risk and mistakes, which of course is not possible if real public policy objectives are to be met. So it has to try to avoid responsibility for those mistakes while at the same time keeping their Ministers out of political trouble.
Internal policies approved (if not always understood) by individual Ministers and Cabinet are applied as cover to avoid blame for programs that simply don’t work. There is a reverence for checking boxes: If all the internal policies and procedures were followed—if all the boxes were checked—then the flaw that led to a program failure must be in the system.
And of course, every government failure exposed in the media leads to more rules and boxes to check. Compliance with all internal government rules has become impossible because of their sheer volume.
Again, what has happened is that we have created an obedient public service that fears mistakes and risk. Its ability to convey the hard truths that are required if government is to really work has eroded, as has the willingness of political staff and Ministers—to hear hard truths. This government culture causes the failures it is trying to avoid. This is what explains the Phoenix disaster and countless government failures before and after.
The crisis in accountability in government is one part of a broader crisis in accountability in many of the political and economic institutions that govern our lives. While the average citizen may not understand the details, they do sense that something is wrong. They sense that our economic, political and administrative elites are self serving and not acting in the public interest and that they can continue to do so with impunity.
The catastrophic failure of the Phoenix payroll project described above is a classic example of the way our elites act to avoid accountability. There was no grand conspiracy between the elected governments of the day (Conservative and Liberal), senior public servants overseeing the project and IBM to sabotage the development of a new government payroll system. There was simply a broader government culture that supported the avoidance of accountability that all three sets of elite actors took advantage of when it became obvious that there were serious problems with the new system.
Let’s take a much bigger example of the same “avoidance of accountability” dynamic in action: the 2008-9 financial crisis.
The financial crisis was caused by the reckless behaviour of many of the world’s largest banks. Despite that, only one mid-level banker went to jail following the 2008-9 financial implosion that devastated the lives of millions of ordinary people around the world. Sam Buell, a Duke law professor, argues in his book Capital Offenses: Business Crime and Punishment in America’s Corporate Age that this is no accident. The difficulties that government prosecutors face in cobbling together fraud cases against even the most nefarious corporate executives illuminates the fact that, legally, corporations are big, fancy accountability avoiding mechanisms. It’s what they were designed to do: Let a bunch of people get together, take some strategic risks they might otherwise not take, and then make sure none of them is hurt individually if things blow up.
Again, the average citizen can’t be expected to understand the specifics of what is called in legal circles “corporate responsibility diffusion”. But whether they understand the details or not, it is ordinary people who get hurt when things blow up (e.g. the 2008-9 financial crisis) and they lose their jobs and their pensions.
And just as they know that there is something wrong when no one takes a hit when government project after project ends in abject failure, they know that something is wrong when none of the bankers who brought the global economy to its knees in 2008-9 went to jail.
Voters are angry and they have good reason to be – the system really is rigged against them.