Lang: Missing – public servants who could warn Trudeau about WE conflict

Good commentary by Lang who worked under Herb Gray when he was deputy PM (I worked in PCO at the time and interacted with him time-to-time):

“Mandarin” is another word sometimes associated with such powerful bureaucrats, who were occasionally resented – but often valued – by politicians for their knowledge, wisdom and willingness to stand up to ministers to ensure the basic integrity of the ministry.

As the government has lurched from the SNC-Lavalin scandal of a year or so ago to the WE charity controversy of today – both of which centre on questions of prime ministerial and ministerial ethics and judgment – one question that isn’t asked enough is “Where are the mandarins in all this?”

When Justin Trudeau’s government came to office nearly five years ago, its chief hallmark was inexperience. The few ministers from previous Liberal administrations in its ranks at the beginning had little power. From its inception, power in the Trudeau government has been highly concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office and among a few trusted ministers — notably Chrystia Freeland and Bill Morneau — none of whom had any prior government experience.

The feeling among some Ottawa watchers in the early days was that this inexperience would be managed and shaped by the mandarins. They would help ensure the government remained stable, competent and exhibited good judgment most of the time. This expectation was re-enforced by the prime minister himself, who stated early on that his government would rely much more heavily on the advice and counsel of the professional public service than his predecessor, Stephen Harper, had.

It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. Or, perhaps there are no “old school” deputy ministers left in the government of Canada.

Take the SNC-Lavalin scandal. The issue boiled down to a big company allegedly threatening to cut jobs and investment in Canada if it was not given a specific legal concession from the government that would enable the firm to continue to bid on federal contracts.

Any decent mandarin should have known at the outset that corporations routinely tell the federal government job losses will result if they do not get X, Y or Z. This kind of thing used to be greeted with skepticism by the public service, justifiably so. But if the SNC threat was judged a serious risk, there was also a time when a few senior deputy ministers would have sprung into action and developed options for the government to manage its way of out of the issue, such that it might never even have come to public attention, much less have led to two ministerial resignations and threatened the viability of the government.

Today, we have the controversy surrounding WE, a charity that the prime minister and his wife have had a longstanding and very public association with, and to which the government intended to direct a contract worth some $19 million. The Clerk of the Privy Council, the prime minister’s deputy minister, must have known about Trudeau’s general relationship with WE.  He must have seen a conflict of interest here, or at least an appearance of conflict. An “old school” Clerk would have insisted on the prime minister recusing himself from any cabinet decision-making on this issue to protect the prime minister and the government. Instead, if we are to take Trudeau at his word, the public service more or less boxed him and his ministers in to an inevitable appearance of conflict of interest by recommending that only WE could do the job and offering no alternatives, something very rare in government.

None of this is to say that public servants are responsible for either the SNC-Lavalin scandal or the WE mess. Responsibility for both rests on the shoulders of the prime minister and his cabinet.  There is no legal, or even ethical, obligation on deputy ministers to stop ministers from exercising terrible judgment. Yet there was a time, not that long ago, when the expectation was that some wise, “old school” deputies had the government’s back.

Source: Lang: Missing – public servants who could warn Trudeau about WE conflict

Andrew MacDougall’s take is also worthy of note:

The thing you have to understand about the federal public service is that it isn’t geared toward excitement; it’s a “safety first” kind of place.

Pick a policy, any policy. If there’s a Flashy Option A and a Boring Option B, the public service opts for boring every day of the week and twice on Sunday. And that goes treble if Flashy Option A is, to pick a random example out of thin air, a sole-source contract worth nearly $1 billion to an organization with no track record of delivery of federal programming.

Put differently, the only way the public service recommended WE for the CSSG is if the political wing of the government gave it such narrow specifications that it could return only one answer. You can bet there exists, somewhere, an exquisitely crafted memo from the public service to cabinet saying, in effect: “If you really want to go forward with this completely brain-dead approach to federal programming, then you go right ahead, ministry.” The job of the opposition and the press is to now surface that memo.

Because thankfully for Trudeau, the federal bureaucracy is also rather polite, which explains why the prime minister is being allowed to hide behind his version of events. The public service is used to being human shields for politicians and will keep quiet.

Which isn’t to say the prime minister’s story is surviving contact with reality. Every day brings another WE tale of woe.

In this (still-surfacing) version of events, a charity with a long association with the prime minister, his family and his advisers, one that pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trudeau’s family members and puts together slick, campaign-style videos promoting the prime minister while simultaneously receiving millions of dollars of government grants and contributions and other sole-source contracts, is being laid low by the pernicious effects of the coronavirus. There is massive churn on the board of directors and large numbers of staff are being laid off as Canada enters lockdown. All looks lost. Until, that is, the Trudeau government comes to the rescue with an offer to administer a pandemic-related program.

According to the charity, the Prime Minister’s Office rang up the day after the program was announced in April to say it needed help from WE to deliver the program. All with the blessing of the federal public service of course, which already, by the way, runs the Canada Summer Jobs program targeted at much the same audience as the new Canada Student Service Grant. What are the odds?

Not that WE had ever delivered a similar program, mind you. Not that WE even have the staff to deliver the program (the charity had to hire back hundreds of laid-off staff in anticipation of getting the work before the program was formally announced in June). Not that WE even have any particularly good ideas to pull students into the program, other than throwing money at other groups to do it for them. And we’re meant to believe this group was the “only” one capable of delivering the program?

A sure sign Trudeau’s version of the story isn’t true is the fact he won’t release any evidence to support it. The government won’t even say which other groups were considered to deliver the grant.

In other words, this contract was friends, not safety, first.

Source: https://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/macdougall-trudeau-ducks-for-cover-behind-the-non-partisan-public-service/wcm/0748db2c-65e8-4ddd-999d-b5bb87c16067/

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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