When my management consulting career suddenly turned to providing services to the Government of Canada, I initially thought “wow – this is going to be incredible. An opportunity to see how the inner workings of Government actually happen”. What I didn’t realize at the time was exactly how different it would be from working in the private sector. Beyond that, exactly how messed up the inner workings of Government are by comparison to what the average person would deem as being “normal” regardless of whether you are a business owner or just a user of government services.

Part of the problem has stemmed from two pieces of “advice” I was given very early on in starting to work on Government contracts directly at the Federal level.

The first was that Government is not about the lowest dollar value – it is about the principles of transparency, accountability, and fairness. Value for money is always tempered by high accountability to Parliament, fairness to all Canadians, and transparency of process.

The second was that the public service is here to support the public interests, not stakeholder agendas.

Now being an idealist I take these principles to heart in that when I’m on a contract for an organization I have a vested interest in doing the right thing for the right reasons even if that means walking away from obvious opportunities for financial gain. If you are doing something wrong or not for the right reasons there is only so much time you can get away with that before it becomes obvious and then you don’t get invited back to the party later. It’s bad business and so I just don’t go there.

Notwithstanding the idealist perspective one of the things I found was that while most government services workers would agree with both sets of principles ‘in-theory’, the practical application of such on a day-to-day basis was less than stellar. So much so that the most common refrain heard in the non-executive levels of the government in multiple Departments was

“it’s all pensionable time”

More so than this, was the general attitude that one doesn’t put one’s head up above their cubicle for fear of it being smacked back down again – especially the idealists.

Having worked towards a doctorate encompassing organizational design, behavioural psychology, and knowledge management these attitudes towards the development of good organizational practices are both self-defeating of the main principles of government and, at worst, representative of a poisoned working environment.

Having seen the transition from Liberal to Conservative it is interesting to note the mechanisms that occur in the background of government subject to the direction and policies of the currently sitting government. To the point, the attitudes that predominate throughout government departments accelerate to match those of the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), Public Works Government Services Canada (PWGSC), and most specifically those of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Closed, dictatorial practices in the PMO are eventually mimicked throughout other departments not as a matter of direct influence (i.e. the PM saying “do it this way or else”). Rather these practices filter down because there is a way of interaction between the PMO and the rest of the Government that ensures the business of Government moves forward. Those practices that are aligned with the current administration’s ideology get first priority and those that don’t are left to mire in the bureaucracy of “the process”.

This type of cultural change takes time to establish. When Government changes every 3-5 years it becomes extremely difficult for any type of organizational best practices to be established within the bureaucracy of Government. This is because it takes on the order of 3-4 years for a solid working relationship to be established between the executive levels of Department management (i.e. down to the Director General level) and the PMO.

All the real work however is done by the 7 or so layers of the bureaucracy that lie below the DG level. Usually changes in Government organizational design seldom make it down this far before Government administrations change again. It is true that departments get renamed and reorganized at the lowest levels. Grant and Contribution programs come and go. But seldom are the organizational best practices and knowledge retention of these incarnations preserved. Rather the organization is in a constant state of re-organization which prevents best practices from being established.

The job of getting the day-to-day requirements completed is hard enough through successive waves of re-organization and political posturing without having to pay attention to silly things like total quality assurance.

Hence you have Directors and Assistant-Directors creating mini-fiefdoms, not because they want to but, because without solid leadership from the top down, it is the only way to get things done. There is an ever present need for the establishment of best practices that have some hope of withstanding the next round of re-organization while the upper executive levels are sorting out strategy of getting things approved by PWGSC, TBS, or the PMO such that they can meet the stated priorities of the current Government.

The best method of testing the health and whether the current Administration deserves to be retained in office is to poll the lowest levels of the organization and ask one very simple question:

“Do you feel you made a difference today?”

If the answer comes back that “it’s all pensionable time” then obviously the Government is not doing their job in supporting the public agenda because its these people at the bottom of that hierarchy that are responsible for making it happen – face to face with the Canadian public – not the ones at the top.

The second best method of testing the health and whether the current Administration deserves to be retained in office is to poll the executive (EX) level of the organization and ask one very simple question:

“How many times have you re-organized or switched teams/roles since the last election?”

The industry average for upper management in the private sector is 18 months. The average for Government of Canada EX level management is 6-9 months in an environment where plans and priorities can change based on the next crisis that besets the public interest (mad cow disease or listeriosis outbreaks  for example) never mind the next change in Government Administration. The closer the reorganizational number is to the industry average the healthier the organization.

It is next to impossible to establish best practices and quality assurance in knowledge management, accountability, transparency, and fairness outside of financial reporting mechanisms, when dealing with turnover at such high rates. Unfortunately financial metrics are the only thing the Government is adept at. The result is that accountability, transparency, and fairness are typically defined in financial terms even though it is readily acknowledged that financial metrics are not the only metrics that should be used to vet the Government’s plans and priorities.

Additionally, Government plans and priorities are generally set on a 3-5 year basis with minor modifications year-over-year notwithstanding crisis management situations. While it could be argued that it is the nature of government to need to accommodate shorter business cycles than what is found in the public sector, the reality of the situation is that such business cycles are in statistical control. This means that there is no reason why Government shouldn’t be looking at the larger picture to make the bureaucracy more effective in handling organizational change and best practices.

There are other metrics that can be used as well. For example a sampling of management behavioural patterns over time to be transparent as to the current plans and priorities as interpreted by each Department. If the PMO has a closed mentality to how information should be disseminated then those EX-level wannabes which most closely align with the PMO’s direction tend to receive preferential treatment which then ‘filters down’ each layer.

The bottom line here is that in order to be effective the health of the public bureaucracy needs to be one of the paramount objectives of the Government. Policy, in absence of the knowledge management, quality assurance, organizational design mechanism, and communications that make such policy happen, is leadership though absence. Laws and Acts of Parliament do not constitute change without enablement.

Has this government lived up? That is for each individual to decide. Certainly it is another lens from which to view all the political candidates to add to the myriad of others that are important to people as they make their own decision on May 2nd.

— Kevin Feenan

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