Will the Ontario Public Service Speak Truth to Power to Doug Ford?

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The 40% of Ontarians who voted for the Progressive Conservative candidate in their riding may have been voting for change and fiscal prudence, but they did not vote for the kind of lies, cruelty, chaos, managerial incompetence and demagoguery that we are now seeing under the Trump administration.

Introduction

In Doug Ford, Ontario has elected a Premier without a coherent governing agenda and with little knowledge of key government files. The Ford campaign, a tightly scripted production built around a series of populist slogans recited stiffly off a teleprompter, was just competent enough to keep a sure victory from slipping away. The fact that his nervous handlers were obsessed with keeping reporters at a safe distance from the PC leader, suggests that our new Premier is a man with a very shaky grasp of the issues.

During the 2018 campaign, Mr. Ford made countless false claims and misleading statements. It would be an understatement to say that Mr. Ford has little use for the facts. This strong bias against evidenced-based decision-making was clear when within days of being sworn in, the Ford government fired Ontario’s Chief Scientist, Molly Shoichet, an award-winning professor at the University of Toronto, and eliminated the Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science. And in government, the false claims from the PC campaign  continue on many fronts from climate change to federal refugee policy.

Beyond his ignorance of key provincial files, Premier Ford can’t be relied upon to tend to the PC Party’s ongoing operational problems and incessant infighting. One only has to look at the events that brought down former PC leader Patrick Brown and the countless PC nomination meetings in which the results were contested amid accusations of membership recruiting and voting improprieties, to know that there is something seriously wrong with the culture of the Ontario PC party. It is also obvious that Doug Ford is exactly the wrong man to fix those problems.

It is the central argument of this article that a non-partisan, public service willing to speak truth to power is especially crucial with the ascendancy of right-wing, populist governments headed by men such as Mr. Ford and U. S. President Trump. This is because both men consistently display a troubling dis-regard for hard facts and institutional norms.

In other words, the existence of a fearless, professional public service – along with an independent judiciary and a free press – assumes  greater importance given the erratic behaviour of such right wing, populist leaders.

In our  Westminster style political system, all governments – whether of the left, centre or right – require a strong, non-partisan, public service willing to speak truth to the elected government of the day. As such, it is more than a little unsettling that astute Canadian observers of both the federal and provincial scenes have long worried about a decades long decline in the capacity and willingness of our professional public services to speak truth to power. These concerns recently spilled onto the front page of the Globe and Mail when Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick (Canada’s top public servant) challenged Auditor-General Michael Ferguson’s assertion that the problems with the federal government’s Phoenix pay system were rooted in “pervasive cultural problems” in the federal public service.

In a Globe op-ed on June 24th, Ralph Heintzman, a senior fellow of Massey College in the University of Toronto and a former head of the federal government’s Office of Public Service Values and Ethics, summed up the ongoing debate over problems in public service culture and, in particular, the important contribution to this debate of the Gomery Report of 2005. That report included several recommendations calling for accountability changes at the Deputy Minister level that would provide for a much more supportive environment for public servants speaking truth to power.

The changes proposed by Gomery would have allowed for a clearer distinction between what the elected government of the day is accountable for (policy) and what the public service is accountable for (administration and program implementation). The Gomery report argued convincingly that a clear distinction can and should be made between policy accountability and administrative accountability and that by making it clear that the public service is accountable for administrative failures and the political side for policy failures, the public service is actually in a much stronger position to speak truth to power. Not surprisingly, putting the mechanisms in place that would allow for a clear distinction between public service accountability and political accountability elicited strong opposition from both the federal public service and federal politicians. It is a sad fact of Canadian public life that both groups saw it as being in their interest to maintain the confusion over their respective areas of accountability.

Another key recommendation of Gomery was to take the power to appoint Deputy Ministers away from the political side and give it to a more neutral body. This would also strengthen the ability of the public service to speak truth to power. But as Heintzman points out, none of the key recommendations were implemented by the Harper government as recommended by Gomery – even though they have long been in place in the U.K. and have been enormously beneficial to the effective functioning of the U.K. Parliament. The results of this inaction are countless failures of program and policy implementation at both the federal and provincial levels for reasons similar to those that caused the failure of the Phoenix pay system. 

There are those that continue to argue that changes such as those recommended by Gomery are not needed, that there is little to worry about, and that Canada’s professional public services are strong and more than capable of restraining a populist leader such as Mr. Ford. However, the sight of young children being torn from the arms of their parents along the Mexican – U.S. border should be a reminder to all Canadians not to take for granted a government rooted in a respect for human rights and the primacy of the rule of law.

Leaders such as President Trump and Premier Ford – men with little respect for facts and an impatience with institutional norms –  require democratic institutional constraints. In the case of Premier Ford, the Ontario Public Service is likely the most important institution that could provide such constraints. However, there is a growing body of evidence (alluded to above and detailed below) that the senior ranks of Canada’s non-partisan, professional public services increasingly lack the will to speak truth to power. If that is in fact the case, Ontarians could be in for a very rough four years under Mr. Ford.

The Ontario Public Service and the Ford governing agenda

The counter-argument to the above is that the more erratic impulses of our newly elected Premier will be reigned in by Ontario’s non-partisan, professional public service. More specifically, those with this perspective believe that although Mr. Ford has failed to explain how he will pay for his many promised programs and tax cuts, the professionals in the Ministry of Finance and other ministries will patiently explain to the new Premier, cabinet ministers, and key PC political staff, the fiscal realities of the province’s books and what is possible and what is not possible amongst Mr. Ford’s many  promises. This is essentially the “discipline of power” argument.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen for the very reasons Federal Auditor-General Michael Ferguson recently detailed in his report on the disastrous implementation of the federal Phoenix pay system.

Before delving into Ferguson’s findings, a little background on the historical role of the public service in a Westminster style government such as ours is in order.

In a properly functioning Westminster democracy, there needs to be a check on the political platforms concocted by political parties to win votes during elections and that check has to be done by a public service with deep policy and (even more importantly) operational expertise. The public service’s assessment of the winning party’s platform must take into account the broader fiscal framework that campaign platforms often ignore out of political expediency, as well as the complex implementation measures that need to be undertaken by a public service with a high level of operational expertise if a government initiative is to succeed.

In other words, in our system of government, it is essential that the professional public service tells the government the hard truths about its platform planks in terms of costs, implementation challenges, and appropriate timeframes needed to professionally operationalize specific initiatives. Most importantly, it must be forceful and straightforward  in telling the government whether or not a particular platform proposal will really solve the problem that the platform says it will.

Of course, the elected government of the day will always have the right to ignore the public service’s advice—it’s the government, not the public service, that has the governing mandate from the electorate, after all. Moreover, if the government of the day decides to ignore the public service’s advice, the public service still must implement the government’s wishes to the best of its ability – whether they believe any given government initiative will accomplish its stated objectives or not.

The problem is this. If the professional public service does not see its role as speaking truth to power and does not provide honest and forthright advice to the newly elected Premier and his ministers regarding government proposals, the risk of failed programs and policies increases exponentially. And the public service’s fear of speaking truth to power is exactly what federal Auditor-General Ferguson found in his study of the failure of the federal Phoenix pay system and it is what Ontario’s Auditor-General has repeatedly found in her formal assessments of Ontario government initiatives.

According to Ferguson, the public service officials who really knew what was going on with the Phoenix pay system did not want to inform their political masters of any bad news related to the system – so they failed to inform the Minister (and even the Deputy Minister) that if the government insisted on sticking with the original timeframes for roll out and the original budget, the Phoenix payroll system simply wouldn’t work.

But why wouldn’t the public servants directly responsible for the Phoenix payroll system simply deliver the straight goods to the Deputy and Minister responsible and tell them the system wasn’t ready for roll out?

Here’s why. Any elected government, regardless of the political party in power, values quick action intended to resolve the high-profile problems of the day above all else. More specifically, Prime Ministers and ministers (and their political staff) value initiatives that will produce political benefit (i.e. favourable media) within an election cycle. Moreover, whether a particular initiative is “on time and on budget” has become the primary determinant of success for ministers because politicians believe that the public and the media understand these concepts but have no idea whether in the long run, a particular program or policy actually works and accomplishes its intended objectives on the ground.

The problem with this approach is obvious. Any government initiative can be brought in “on time and on budget”, as long as no one cares (or knows) if it works or not. Caring about whether a government initiative works or not has historically (and necessarily) been the core concern of the public service – as opposed to partisan political objectives such as helping ministers get “favourable media”. But according to Auditor General Ferguson, bringing in a program “on time and on budget” has displaced all other priorities in many parts of the senior, federal public service.

This point cannot be emphasized enough. In contrast to the short-term, partisan perspective of our elected politicians, in our Westminster form of government, the permanent, public service is supposed to champion a longer-term perspective to make sure that government programs actually work – i.e. solve the problems they were intended to solve on the ground, in the real world. In other words, the public service’s role is to make sure Prime Ministers, Premiers and Ministers (and their political staff) know that sometimes (as was the case with Phoenix) sticking to the original budget and timeframes will fatally sabotage a particular initiative.

Most importantly, it is the public services’ role to speak truth to power even if its advice is politically inconvenient for the government. Again, any government of the day can ignore the advice of the public service and order it to proceed according to the original platform plan. And in such cases, the public service must heed the government’s orders. Moreover, the public service’s advice is provided in complete secrecy in as much as all “cabinet advice” is exempted from access to information laws. As such, there is absolutely no reason for the public service not to adhere to the old adage of “advising fearlessly and implementing loyally”.

To make the point as forcefully as possible, in our Westminster form of government, Ministers and public servants are meant to have different views about program implementation. To a minister, the announcement of a new program is the important event – implementation for a minister is a relatively unimportant back office function. In contrast, for the senior public service, a program announcement should just be the starting point. The public service should know that successful implementation will take a lot of grinding, detailed work, perhaps over many years and that program implementation and fine tuning will sometimes be undertaken under several different ministers.

But despite ministerial turnover and the relative unimportance placed on program and policy implementation by Ministers and their political staff, it is an essential role of the public service to keep ministers and their staff fully informed of implementation successes and failures. The problem that Auditor-General Ferguson found is that the officials directly responsible for the Phoenix pay system didn’t see it as their job to tell successive ministers and their political staff that the implementation of Phoenix was going very badly and that the system would NOT be functional if rolled out according to the original time frame and within the original budget. This is what led to what Auditor Ferguson repeatedly called an “incomprehensible failure” in his report.

These are the Auditor’s exact words:

My short description (as to why the Phoenix project failed) is that the culture has created an obedient public service that fears mistakes and risk. Its ability to convey hard truths has eroded, as has the willingness of senior levels—including ministers—to hear hard truths. This culture causes the incomprehensible failures it is trying to avoid.

In his comments on the Phoenix failure, Auditor General Ferguson alluded to the Indigenous file where he saw the same dynamic at work:

The ministerial focus on the short term explains why the Indigenous file has been so intractable. A long-term view has to dominate that file, but because it usually only brings political problems in the short term, government tries to stay in the safe space of administering payments instead of being an active partner with Indigenous people to improve outcomes. The measure of success has become the amount of money spent, rather than improved outcomes for Indigenous people.

To put things a bit differently, the skills of many senior public servants increasingly reflect the values and priorities of ministers and their partisan political staff. Ministers now reward senior public servants for implementing programs without making a mistake that is reported by the media. Whether those programs work or not, is of secondary importance. After all, no politician wants to be blamed for a mistake—real or perceived—that makes the news. As a consequence, the public servants that have risen to the top of government bureaucracies, increasingly value being up-to-date on the key message of the day far more than possessing a deep understanding of the programs and policies they are responsible for – especially the implementation side of those programs and policies.

At a time when politics and reality TV are becoming increasingly indistinguishable, it is simply far easier for a Deputy Minister and other senior officials to implement the will of the Minister without question rather than forcefully point out the problems on the ground that could arise from bad policy and unrealistic  implementation time frames. In the current political environment, this is how an increasing number of senior public servants advance their careers and keep whatever influence they have on their ministers – they stay silent on their concerns over misguided policies and over-ambitious implementation time frames, and then come up with excuses for their ministers when the programs fail.

To quote once again from Auditor Ferguson’s Phoenix recent report:

The result is an obedient public service that tries to eliminate risk and mistakes, which of course is not possible, so it has to try to avoid responsibility for those mistakes.

In this culture, for a public servant, it is often better to do nothing than to do something that doesn’t work out. If, however, action can’t be avoided, people search for plausible deniability—a way to deny responsibility for a mistake.

Policies are applied as cover to avoid blame. There is a reverence for checking boxes: If all the policies and procedures were followed—if all the boxes were checked—then the flaw must be in the system.

Conclusion

Clearly, the results of the Ontario election were a setback for progressive voters. This means about 60 per cent of the electorate, if you combine NDP, Liberal and Green supporters.

But that is not what this column is about. Ontario  voters have spoken and in our first-past-the-post electoral system, 40% of the vote is more than enough to deliver a legitimate, majority government. And on June 7, 40% of Ontario voters voted for an ideologically conservative government. Hopefully, a professional, managerially competent, philosophically conservative government is what Ontarians will get over the next four years.

But as with the Trump administration south of the border (e.g. separating children form their parents at the border), today’s right-wing, populist leaders such as Mr. Ford appear to be less traditional fiscal conservatives favouring balanced budgets, and more demagogues with an intense hostility for the truth, facts and expertise. As suggested above with Mr. Trump, when these new populist conservatives assume control of government, they seem to declare war on the very notion of truth itself – and by extension are hostile to the permanent public service and its expertise.

While this would be troubling in and of itself, the ascension of the Ford PC’s to government is particularly alarming at a time when the non-partisan, professional public services in Canada (provincial and federal) appear to have lost their will to speak truth to power – whether the government they are serving is of the left, right or centre. Manifestations of this loss of will is not just limited to the actions of the public servants directly responsible for the Phoenix pay system as documented in Auditor-General Ferguson’s recent report, but by the analysis contained in the Gomery report cited above and recent reports from a number of provincial Auditor-Generals.

The writings of the eminent, political scientist Donald Savoie and several of his colleagues have also repeatedly raised concerns about the willingness and capacity of the public service to speak truth to power. In such books as “Whatever Happened to the Piano Teacher” and his most recent Donner prize-winning book, “What Is Government Good At“, Professor Savoie describes a risk averse, operationally deficient, federal public service in almost exactly the same terms as Auditor-General Ferguson. Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has also written extensively on this subject in a similar vein.

As detailed above, the Gomery report  included several recommendations calling for accountability changes at the Deputy Minister level that would provide for a much more supportive environment for public servants speaking truth to power. The implementation of the most important recommendation would allow for a clearer distinction between what the elected government of the day is accountable for (policy) and what the public service is accountable for (administration). Another key recommendation was to take the appointment of Deputy Ministers away from political side and give it to a more neutral body – a measure that would provide Deputy’s with greater independence to offer non-partisan, professional advice to their ministers and speak truth to power. Both recommendations should be implemented federally and provincially.

Ontarians have voted in a ideologically conservative, majority  government and the 60% of Ontarians who voted for a more progressive agenda are going have to accept the fact that their favoured policies are not going to be embraced by a majority, Ford government.

But the 40% of Ontarians who voted for the Progressive Conservative candidate in their local riding did not vote for the kind of cruelty, chaos, managerial incompetence, lies and demagoguery that we are now seeing under the Trump administration.

Unfortunately, that may very well be what Ontarians are going to get if the provincial public service fails to stand up to the worst instincts of the Ford government and doesn’t perform its crucial role of speaking truth to power.

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Barry Haley
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Barry Haley

I find it laughable that you keep referring to a “non partisan” public service. The Ontario public service is anything but non partisan after being coddled and bought off by successive Liberal governments. Since you’re claim to fame is fact checking. How many public service unions did not actively support the Liberals and/or NDP including running ads against the PCs?
I do agree that having a non partisan public service speaking truth to politicians including respect for taxpayer dollars ideal

Donnie McLeod
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Donnie McLeod

The well known consequence of fear of speaking truth to power is death.

“To change a culture of blame and silence about errors at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, COO Julie Morath instituted a new policy of “blameless reporting” that encouraged replacing threatening terms such as “errors” and “investigations” with less emotionally laden terms such as “accidents” and “analysis.”

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Doesn’t matter how many times you push the name of the US President into this pile of nonsense, no-one is going to be confused. This article is laughable

Anonymous
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Anonymous

You must be kidding.

J. Smith
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J. Smith

I would like to point out the the ON Public Service is made up of over 60,000 people; most of whom are ordinary working people with little or nor power at all. So please don’t lump us all in one basket. I would also like to point out that Ford was not elected by 40% of the electorate, but based on the actual percentage of people who voted, was elected by about 23% of the electorate.

J. Smith
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J. Smith

I would like to add that you are correct. From my experience at my “lower” level position, I have found that the PS has become very acquiescent. If you question anything, critique anything, suggest something other than what the “higher-ups” are pushing, you are blacklisted. Those who routinely get ahead are those who never, ever open their mouths, other than to smile and agree with everything they’re told. It’s quite stunning how pervasive this mentality is as compared to 30 years ago.

J. Smith
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J. Smith

I have no doubt that this is a big reason why the higher lever public servants are coddled and bought off. They know that as long as they tow the line and “Yes Sir” everything, they’ll get the perks, eg: promotions, raises, etc. But it’s not just the public service that has become this way. This new “kiss ass” way of thinking is pervasive throughout modern culture. Image is much more important now that substance, and this attitude is part of how it manifests itself. Integrity is very rare.