What Kevin Page gets wrong in his new book: Tapp

Stephen Tapp, a former senior economist at the PBO, on the weaknesses in Page’s book:

Regrettably, Page’s repeated demands for transparency merely become slogans. Critical questions go unaddressed about the fully transparent government he so desires, such as:

  • What are the pros—and cons—of an open approach to government in a time of ubiquitous social media, 24/7 news and political commentary, when information (and any misinformation and missteps) can quickly go viral?
  • Should the media have open access to public servants, and if so, how would the civil service convey the facts as well as the context of complex, competing factors that cabinet weighs in its decision-making?
  • Should senior civil servants speak out publicly when they disagree with the political choices of a democratically elected government—which is at odds with the Westminster system?
  • Which countries should Canada be following to improve our public service?

Likely – and hopefully – this will prompt a reply from Page and thus continue an important conversation.

Source: What Kevin Page gets wrong in his new book – Macleans.ca

Kevin Page delivers a warning to the public service

Excerpt from Kevin Page’s book, Unaccountable: Truth and Lies on Parliament Hill. Some uncomfortable observations that merit reflection:

The ethical values section of the code speaks to a public service reflecting the need to act at all times in such a way as to uphold the public trust. It says that public servants shall act at all times in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law.

This does not happen when deputy ministers refuse to provide spending plans to Parliament and the PBO that outline where Budget 2012 cuts will take place, along with an explanation of how those cuts will affect services to the public. Shame on all of us for sticking our collective heads in the sand.

Finally, under the code, the people values stipulate that public servants should demonstrate respect, fairness, and courtesy in their dealings with both citizens and fellow public servants. It says that appointment decisions in the public service shall be based on merit and that public service values should play a key role in recruitment, evaluation, and promotion. This did not happen with the recruitment of the new PBO.

What I learned from my PBO experience is that our public service has become good at avoiding accountability and transparency. The result is that public trust in the public service declines. Jane Jacobs, the famous American-Canadian urban activist, said “the absence of trust is inimical to a well-run society.” If only we could institutionalize trust, but alas, that is impossible.

Our public service leaders are going to have to step up and earn trust! To my friends and colleagues in the public service, I say this: Blueprint 2020, more than anything else it espouses, must be about restoring trust to the public service in Canada.

Source: Kevin Page delivers a warning to the public service | Ottawa Citizen

Among the Harper governments list of secrets: Soldiers on Viagra

Not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the Accountability Act:

There were 61 complaints last year to Suzanne Legault, the country’s information commissioner, about the cabinet confidence clause, almost twice the number in 2012. Figures from the commissioner’s office show it used the exclusion 2,117 times in 2012-13, a 20 per cent increase over the year before.

More recent data won’t be available until end of 2014, Legault told The Canadian Press in an interview.

She is concerned, however, about how wide-ranging the definition of a cabinet secret has become, especially since once the exclusion is declared, not even she can see the documents in question.

“When you look at the scope of the exclusion, it is extremely broad,” Legault said.

“It’s very, very broad. It basically catches anything that mentions a record that’s a cabinet confidence. In my view, the actual scope of this does not respect fundamental tenets of freedom of information.”

Media outlets aren’t the only ones for whom the flow of information in Ottawa has slowed to a trickle. Watchdog agencies like the auditor general, the military ombudsman and the parliamentary budget officer are also complaining.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson said last spring that his attempts to audit the long-term health of public pension plans had been stymied by bureaucrats at Finance and Treasury Board.

Ferguson said he was “surprised” at the scope of information officials refused to disclose.

Kevin Page, who took the Harper government to federal court when he was parliamentary budget officer, said the law needs a major overhaul.

“Under my time as the budget officer we were told on numerous occasions — from crime bills to elements of the government’s economic forecast to departmental spending restraint plans post budget 2012 — that Parliament and the PBO could not get access to information because it was a cabinet confidence,” Page said.

“The stakes were high. The government was asking Parliament to vote on bills without relevant financial information and were hiding behind the veil of cabinet confidence. This undermined accountability for Parliament and the accountability of the public service.”

Among the Harper governments list of secrets: Soldiers on Viagra.

Former PBO Kevin Page says federal government should reveal plans for public service

Hard not to agree with Page on accountability and transparency grounds. I recall working on implementation of the Conservative government’s Accountability Act, and particularly the role of Deputy Ministers, and it is hard to square that with the refusal to release information on spending plans (PBO should not have to file ATIP requests to get this info):

Page said the big problem is that the government hasn’t revealed its spending plans, including the nature of the cuts and their impact on service levels. While at the PBO, Page waged a public battle with Privy Council Clerk Wayne Wouters and deputy ministers over their refusal to turn over information on the government’s spending plans.

The closure of veterans’ offices and libraries — and the resulting political backlash — is what happens when departments live under steady cuts and everyone has been kept in the dark about their impact.

“You can look more productive … but we don’t know for the most part whether service levels are being maintained or the same quality of service is maintained because we don’t get that information from the government. They won’t allow the public servants to release it,” said Page.

“I would think if you asked public servants working at those regional veterans offices … if they were maintaining the same quality of service, I am pretty sure they would say ‘ no, we’re not but we are better off fiscally because we’re taking people out. So productivity gets a bit of boost but if service goes down and outputs go down, Canadians aren’t getting the same quality of services, and in the long run we are not better off.”

Former PBO Kevin Page says federal government should reveal plans for public service.

Kevin Page dismisses Privy Council’s Blueprint 2020 as ‘empty vessel’, other commentary

Hard to disagree with these comments by Kevin Page, former Parliamentary Budget Officer and currently attached to University of Ottawa, and Donald Savoie of Université de Moncton:

“I don’t see a vision and I have been very critical of the Blueprint 2020, but there is a context for change,” said Page.

“Where is the state of policy and financial analysis in government and its capacity to deliver services? We should be true to our values and no one can say we have been true to accountability and transparency in the past five years, moving on big initiatives with no supporting analysis.

“The public service is accountable to the executive but it is also accountable to Parliament and they have dropped the ball on that, and that comes with the price of lost public trust.”

Donald Savoie, the Canada Research chair in administration and governance at the Universite de Moncton, is also pushing for reform but argues the problem lies with the public service’s relationship with ministers, cabinet and Parliament….

He said all the chatter and discussions generated by Blueprint 2020 may be invigorating, especially for young public servants eager to harness technology and open up government, but it won’t work unless that relationship with politicians changes.

“I can’t figure out Blueprint 2020. It’s like grabbing smoke. I don’t understand where it is going. Maybe something fundamental or important is taking shape in the system and if that’s the case, good luck, but for someone from the outside looking in, there’s nothing there. It seems vapid … and until you deal with the role of ministers, Parliament and their relationship with public servants … the vision is only sentences in a report and will not have any legs.”

Kevin Page dismisses Privy Council’s Blueprint 2020 as ‘empty vessel’.

And the official government and bureaucratic view, predictably more rose-coloured:

Public servants waiting to see which vision for the bureaucracy will prevail in 2014

Lawrence Martin in the Globe takes a similarly hard-hitting approach, highlighting the relationship issue between the government and the public service. He goes too far in asserting the independence of the public service, given its role to serve the government of the day. Codifying a “moral contract” as suggested by Ralph Heintzman beyond the general understanding of “fearless advice and loyal implementation” is unlikely to happen, and would likely be too rigid. As always, finding the right balance is a challenge:

In the face of all the problems, top bureaucrat Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council, has unveiled Blueprint 2020, a vision for a reformed world-class public service. Many such reform and modernization schemes have been tried in the past with scant results. This one, which follows a commendable consultation process within the service, is full of fine-sounding stuff like citizen engagement, smart use of new technologies and a whole-of-government approach to improve service delivery and value for money…

But not much in Mr. Wouters’s plan appears aimed at restoring the degree of independence the public service has traditionally exercised. Its politicization, a most serious example being that of the Privy Council Office, must be stopped. The public service should be accountable not only to the executive branch but also to Parliament. On the latter, says Mr. Page, it has dropped the ball, at the price of a loss in public trust.

Meaningful reform would entail something like what’s been proposed by former Treasury Board executive Ralph Heintzman. What is needed, he says, is a “moral contract,” a charter that sets well-defined boundaries between ministers, public servants and Parliament.

 Time to renew Canada’s cowed, bloated bureaucracy 

In fairness to all, the challenge in any such PS renewal initiative is high, there are no formal evaluations of previous efforts at PS renewal that I am aware (some informal reflections, however),  the fundamental limits of what can be done given bureaucratic and political heirarchies (government works top down, not bottom up), not to mention the particular context of the current government-public service relations.

Kevin Page calls for public service renewal from the ‘ground up’

While I think Kevin nails the lack of senior level leadership on public service renewal (and his dismissal of initiatives like BluePrint 2020 as an “empty vessel without a rudder”), I am not sure, given the hierarchical nature of the public service, that a grass-roots initiative is workable. But his diagnostique is bang on.

Kevin Page calls for public service renewal from the ‘ground up’.

Kevin Page blames ‘weak’ public service for not serving Parliament, Canadians

He has a point and is right to focus on the need for transparency.

Kevin Page blames ‘weak’ public service for not serving Parliament, Canadians.