Top bureaucrat rejects auditor general’s ‘opinion piece’ on broken government culture

Fairly combative appearance, perhaps reflecting ongoing frustration with auditor general reports. Phoenix, however one looks at it, is a classic large-scale bureaucratic failure.
My memory is long enough (as it the Clerk’s!) to remember the universal classification system (UCS) initiative in the 1990s that consumed an enormous amount of time in reviewing job descriptions and criteria only to be abandoned. IMO there are cultural factors that make such large-scale transformations high risk, and there is enough collective experience to be more wary about proposing these kinds of initiatives given the implementation challenges:
Top bureaucrat Michael Wernick has rejected the auditor general’s assertion last month of a broken culture in the federal government that enabled the Phoenix pay system disaster. While there’s room for improvement, and Phoenix was a failure, the kind of deep malaise that Michael Ferguson described in his message accompanying his spring reports to Parliament does not reflect the reality of the public service, the Clerk of the Privy Council said during a House of Commons committee meeting Tuesday,.
“I believe it contains sweeping generalizations, it’s not supported by evidence, and it does not provide you any particular guidance on what to do to move forward,” Wernick said in his opening comments to the committee, calling the auditor general’s message “an opinion piece which I take issue with.”
Wernick told the parliamentarians who comprise the public accounts committee, many of whom greeted his words with skepticism, that he saw Phoenix as a “perfect storm,” the culmination of multiple factors that have already been laid out in two auditor general reports and an independent study by consulting firm Goss Gilroy Inc.
David Christopherson, a New Democrat MP and committee vice-chair, challenged Wernick on his conclusions.
“With all due respect … either we have a (Clerk) of the Privy Council who has his head buried in the sand and is in complete denial with what the cultural problems are, or we’ve got an auditor general that is off the rails. “Where does that leave us?”
But Wernick said that contrary to what the auditor general observed, the public service does not have a pervasive problem with deputy minister turnover. Of the 33 deputy ministers over which Wernick said he has some influence and the last three terms they’ve each completed, 49 of 99 were more than three years, 27 more than four years, and 16 more than five years.
And Public Services and Procurement Canada, the same department that oversaw the botched Phoenix rollout, delivered parliamentary precinct construction projects on time, on budget, and fully-functioning, he said. “I’m not saying the public service culture is perfect … We are risk-averse, we are process and rules-driven, we need to be more nimble, we need to be more creative, we need to be more assertive,” Wernick later concluded.
“What I take issue with is the insinuation that it is a generalized broken culture, which implies a generalized broken public service, and I have to contest that.”
He registered his belief that the public service needs structural reform. It has too many layers, he said, having climbed 15 of them to get to the position he holds today. The hundreds of classification groups and thousands of special pay groups and allowances make building an effective pay system extremely challenging, he said.
He also recommended the committee consider the incentive structure under which public servants operate. There are numerous layers of oversight and feedback around the senior bureaucrats, Wernick said, and almost all are negative. The exceptions are performance pay and promotion.
“Culture is shaped by incentives and disincentives,” he said, and there are opportunities to create those “which reward innovation, creativity, or that stifle it.”
But MPs continued to raise the question of a larger cultural crisis throughout the bureaucracy. Conservative MP Lisa Raitt pointed out that Ferguson isn’t the first to come to this conclusion.
Last year, public service integrity commissioner Joe Friday flagged a culture of fear silencing public servants from speaking out about wrongdoing. And Kevin Sorenson, committee chair and Conservative MP, cited letters his office had received from public servants “saying this culture has to be fixed.”
Wernick pointed out these letters and emails come from those motivated enough to write, and “officers of parliament have their role and have their opinion, but they are outside observers.”
For the most part, Canada’s public service is free of nepotism, corruption and partisanship, he said.
“It’s important in this day and age that Canadians have some confidence in their public institutions, and I am committed to making them better as we go along.” But, he cautioned, “be very careful on the diagnosis before you start prescribing remedies. There are a lot of governance quacks out there, and I think it’s important to listen carefully to people with some expertise.”
Wernick also extended some cultural advice of his own to the committee: create a space in which questioning the auditor general is possible. For a decade or more, he said, government was taught the only way to respond to auditor general recommendations was with agreement. “It should be OK to challenge the analysis and the findings of the auditor general. It will make for a healthier, richer debate.”

Source: Top bureaucrat rejects auditor general’s ‘opinion piece’ on broken government culture

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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