Saturday, September 12, 2015

A timely critique of Ottawa's dysfunction

I have just finished reading this book.

What is Government Good At?, by Donald J. Savoie, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, $24.47 hardcover, 388 pages).

With all of the criticism directed at Canada’s civil service, seldom do people stop to consider what they might be good at. That, argues academic Donald J. Savoie, is what more people ought to be asking, especially politicians involved in an election campaign and looking for promises that will attract votes.

Savoie has years of experience advising top government officials on policies and programs, including the launch of a regional development initiative for Atlantic Canada and of a research and training centre on public service.

He concludes that things have gone downhill, and considerably, since the 1970s, and he explains why it has happened.

Today there are more federal civil servants than ever, despite promises to trim the fat and the advent of computers and electronic communications. However, most of the additional people are in Ottawa where they spent their time and our money talking to each other and the politicians, dreaming up new initiatives and spin-doctoring for damage control.

Trouble is, for all of their bright ideas, there is precious little attention paid to implementation. Savoie estimates that 90 per cent of the effort goes into dreaming up ideas and only 10 per cent on implemention, and he thinks at least 60 per cent needs to go to implementation if the bright ideas are to make any difference.

No wonder the public is disenchanted. So are most of the civil servants outside of Ottawa.

Savoie also argues that the prime minister’s office operates as a centralized command center with little regard for Parliament. Elizabeth May has come to the same conclusion and says it she ends up with any clout after this election, she’s going to restore power to Parliament and change what has become a dictatorship punctuated by elections.

But this beast that has evolved in Ottawa won’t be tamed by any simple solutions. The situation is complex and messy, as Savoie details chapter by chapter.

Having worked in the civil service in Ottawa from the late 1960s to early 1970s, I can vouch for the worrisome downward spiral Savoie catalogues.

The civil service delivers fewer and poorer service in regulating important aspects of agriculture, such as the honesty and integrity of the feed and seed sectors. 

Research budgets have been squeezed, scientists have been muzzled and those who remain at work are expected to partner with the private sector, which really means the biggest corporations in the agriculture industry.

Gone are the days when highly-motivated and well-funded federal plant breeders, livestock and poultry scientists, could find ways to improve the quality, efficiency and productivity of our crops, animals and birds to world-leading status.

Instead the money is squandered on grants and loans, subsidies and services that end up making little or no difference. Other than collecting votes for the politicians making the promises.

Unless much changes, and soon, this will not end well. Savoie deserves to be read and understood by all Canadians in both the public and private sectors.