Politician, review thyself

NationalPost.com – FullComment
13/06/05.   Spencer McKay

The President of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, recently announced that all federal government employees must complete a performance agreement. The required process will provide a way to dismiss underperforming employees who don’t improve.

Mr. Clement is apparently unfamiliar with the idiom “those who dwell in glass houses shouldn’t cast stones.” Because if there’s anyone that needs their performance reviewed, it’s Canada’s political leaders.

The quality of government has been the topic of much discussion in light of the Rob Ford drug allegations, the Mike Duffy payoff controversy, the arrest of former CSIS watchdog Arthur Porter, the misuse of taxpayer dollars by several senators, the robocalls scandal dating to the 2011 federal election, and the demand for an inquiry into the large offshore accounts of Senator Pana Merchant.

Unfortunately, Mr. Clement isn’t taking aim at those who have deliberately undermined the public trust or taken advantage of the public purse (perhaps because he’s been accused of both by former auditor-general Sheila Fraser). As such, it’s hard to believe that the ultimate goal of this policy is better government.

This new initiative isn’t about making Canada better, it’s about making Canada cheaper. The federal government has already cut some 19,000 federal service jobs, but would like to cut deeper. It hopes to find justification for further cuts through performance reviews. This, unsurprisingly, ignores the wisdom of recent studies that have shown such attempts to improve performance through employee reviews typically end up making government less efficient through the addition of staff and procedures meant to make government leaner and more efficient.

This is the same government that posted partisan messages on the Canadian International Development Agency website

If Canadians are losing confidence in the public service, it may not be the result of rampant incompetence on the part of employees, but the effect of ideological interference from above. After all, this is the same government that posted partisan messages on the Canadian International Development Agency website, required that government scientists keep their mouths shut in the face of media queries, abolished the census over the best advice of Statistics Canada employees, and misguidedly pushed the National Research Council in the direction of big business.

Performance reviews might allow the Conservative government to implement its policies more efficiently, but we should not allow the intentionally non-partisan public service to be measured by this metric alone. By highlighting poor performance and stating that he is “drawing a line in the sand,” Mr. Clement’s action puts public servants on the defensive by adopting an adversarial tone. While Mr. Clement praises collaboration between managers and workers, he’s adopted the Prime Minister’s tendency to hand down final decisions rather than engage in dialogue.

The blame for the problems of Canadian government is being placed squarely at the feet of the people who don’t have glamourous patronage appointments waiting for them

In fact, talking to public servants could prove enlightening for many of Canada’s embattled politicians. Public servants must adhere to a set of values and ethics — published somewhat ironically by the Treasury Board — that includes respect for democracy, respect for people, integrity, stewardship and excellence.

These values are severely lacking for many who hold positions of power in this country. The same people who ignore these values are the ones who ought to be setting an example for the whole country. Instead, the blame for the problems of Canadian government is being placed squarely at the feet of the people who don’t have glamourous patronage appointments waiting for them.

Obviously the public service isn’t perfect, but targeting employees treats the symptom. Only when elected officials stop evading questions long enough to take true responsibility can we begin to treat the cause of Canada’s shortcomings.

National Post

Spencer McKay is a graduate researcher in the Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia and a former public servant.

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