THESTAR.Com – Opinion – Abrupt priority shift dooms reform plan
Published On Fri Jan 22 2010. By Carol Goar Editorial Board
The Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University has just released a 214-page plan to revitalize Canada’s public service. It its loaded with proposals to attract and retain new talent; clarify the relationship between politicians and public servants; and improve the performance of the government.
Its recommendations are practical. Its tone is reasonable.
There is one problem: The government has no interest in bolstering the public service. It intends to shrink it.
Last month, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty pointed to the impending wave of retirements in the public service as an opportunity to cut government costs and reduce the deficit.
“What we’re going to see in the federal government, in any event, is some attrition,” Flaherty said, pointing to the age profile of the public service (more than half are baby boomers). “We’ll have to be mindful of that as we try to restrain growth in spending.”
No doubt, many Canadians will applaud this cost-cutting tactic. It galled them to watch public servants sail through the recession while they lost their jobs, took pay cuts and tightened their belts.
It is not a surprise that Flaherty would take this tack. He spent his first decade in politics climbing through the ranks of the provincial government headed by Mike Harris (later Ernie Eves), which laid off some 20,000 provincial public servants.
But this is a policy shift for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Until recently, he backed public service renewal. He created an advisory panel of prominent Canadians to look at the issue. He encouraged his former deputy minister, Kevin Lynch (who resigned last spring), to spearhead a drive to attract new talent. A recruiting campaign was underway when Flaherty made his remarks.
The premise on which the Centre for the Study of Democracy built its research crumbled. Its report became outdated on arrival.
But the project team had the foresight to design a plan any government – federal or provincial – could use to rebuild the expertise, competence and dedication that were once hallmarks of Canada’s public service.
Its principal architect was Tom Axworthy, chair of the academic think-tank and former principal secretary to prime minister Pierre Trudeau. He spent 20 years in government, as a civil servant and ministerial adviser.
In his foreword to the study, he reflects on the “Golden Era of the Mandarins.” But the body of the report is devoted to the Ottawa of here and now, with its shadow workforce, its private consultants, its culture of mistrust and its all-pervasive partisanship.
“One cannot turn back the clock two generations,” Axworthy acknowledges. “But it is possible to have much more clarity in the relationships between ministers, their staff, Parliament and public servants.”
Drawing on the insights of former and current public servants, Axworthy and his research team mapped out a path to a stronger, more knowledgeable and more capable federal workforce.
Step one: Stop the incessant churn. Deputy ministers are rotated so rapidly they can’t do their jobs effectively.
Step two: Create a code of conduct that defines the responsibilities of public servants, political aides and ministers and sets clear lines of accountability.
Step three: Minimize the use of outside consultants.
Harper no longer has any use for such proposals (and might never have considered them anyway, given Axworthy’s Liberal pedigree). But Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who was badly burned by the spending of high-priced consultants last year, may want a plan to get government work done in-house. And federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who has no government experience, could use a policy primer.
Canadians may not recognize it yet, but a sullen, overstretched public service is not a bargain.
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