02. A Public Service

  1. 01. Minutes of the COCKUP
  2. 02. A Public Service
  3. 03. The 22% Solution
  4. 04. On The Campaign Trail
  5. 05. Athens of America
  6. 06. A Yankee’s Yankee
  7. 07. My Canadian Family
  8. 08. Edmonton? Why?
  9. 09. Prairie Singers
  10. 10. Deconstructing Calgary
  11. 11. My Kelowna
  12. 12. Wine Whine
  13. 13. Fire Mountain
  14. 14. A Stopover and a Popover
  15. 15. Inspiring Victoria
  16. 16. Planet Rosehip
  17. 17. Carry On Grunge
  18. 18. Street People
  19. 19. The Curse of Portland
  20. 20. Mean-Spirited, Powerful Justice
  21. 21. Amtrak’s Jewel
  22. 22. Managing Yosemite
  23. 23. Yumpin’ Yosemite
  24. 24. Parched
  25. 25. Brave New San Fran
  26. 26. Over The Hill
  27. 27. Greatest Again

“I know what you are thinking.” I was speaking to an auditorium of MBA students, trying to entice the best and brightest to consider working for government. “Everybody thinks public servants are lazy, corrupt and incompetent. Why, you ask, would I want a job that labels me as lazy, corrupt and incompetent?”

There was a gasp. Someone blurted a stern “No!” Was it my boss? But mostly, eyes widened, heads nodded.

Explained properly, it is an attractive proposition. Twenty minutes later I was mobbed by those eager to know how they might enjoy the lifelong benefits of laziness, corruption and incompetence. I ran out of business cards.

No one can accuse me of being anti-government. I think government has an important and growing role to play in modern society. In particular, teachers, police, firefighters, nurses, and many other frontline public servants ought to be sainted. Perhaps I should be running for Pope instead of President.

Yet there’s a very different element of the Public Service: desk jockeys packed in the big buildings of capital cities who push papers and spew nonsense in the name of “policy development.” These are the public servants commonly considered lazy, corrupt and incompetent. I know. I was one for ten years.

Such was my opinion of the Public Service before I joined it. I expected to fit right in. After all, I had spent a private sector career inventing financial shades of grey for private clients to use in thwarting tax authorities, bypassing bankers’ demands, overbilling customers and misleading investors. I could handle corruption. How difficult could laziness and incompetence be?

These three traits share an underlying drive to find the easy way, a short-cut – or as government taught me to blather, “Outcomes, not outputs.” Within limits, efficiency is admirable, I thought, even in government.

It didn’t take long to discover that I had a profound misunderstanding of how the Public Service operates. The very first draft of my very first brief was circulated to dozens of bureaucrats –the normal process, mind-bogglingly enough. Eventually the feedback I got was from the external consultant I had been hired to replace. He summarised my efforts in an email to the entire staff as “heavy-handed, overly emotional and inappropriate.”

I was flummoxed. I take some pride in my writing as clear, easy to understand, forceful, and persuasive. The “Writing for Government” seminar provided by the department purported to support exactly that. Yet, the brief was taken off my desk, and in the ten years that followed I was never asked to write another brief. For that, I guess, I ought to be thankful.

As it turns out, government writing demands a lack of clarity, with phrases that allow for multiple interpretations, even diametrically opposite meanings. Ostensibly this allows for consensus building, as it is easier to agree on the meaningless. Internally and informally, this is called “wiggle room”. In performance reviews it is referred to as “the ability to embrace ambiguity.”

Lazy, corrupt and incompetent? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Do Not ImaginePublic servants are intelligent, competent, hard-working, honest to a fault, well-intended, and eager to do good for the public. The vast majority of public servants sign on with a sincere passion to make a meaningful contribution. This makes the reality of the Public Service, and public servants, all the more horrifying.

A top-level federal official once pointed out to me “The government of the day doesn’t tell the Public Service how to operate. The Public Service decides that for itself.” In reality, on a day-to-day basis, the Public Service not only operates government, but decides how to operate government. This creates a troubling conflict of interest. As with most organisms, the primary interest of the Public Service is its own survival. Risk avoidance is valued above all. There is very little incentive to change, improve or deliver.

To prevent it from being perceived as lazy, corrupt and incompetent, the Public Service imposes on itself innumerable and impenetrable guidelines, frameworks, protocols, methodologies, processes, and systems. These have the effect of decimating productivity – nothing gets done – while costing billions of dollars. I have often observed that while public servants frequently describe courses of action as “career-limiting”, in reality they get to make only one career-limiting decision, and that is to join the Public Service.

So huge amounts are spent on operating procedures that accomplish little and do not prevent laziness, corruption and incompetence – but merely ensure that when the inevitable laziness, corruption and incompetence is uncovered, it is less embarrassing to the Public Service. Ironically, it is these very procedures that cause the embarrassment in the first place. The self-imposed, unattainable regime of processes and expectations embeds a culture of stasis, dysfunction, and delusion on a level that would make George Orwell cringe. In the end, by paying for it, it is the public that services the Public Service, which largely services itself.

Over the years I came to understand how the “Public Sector Values” could require, in the name of Integrity, that all communications must have multiple, even contradictory, meanings. Indeed, I came to appreciate the beauty of “Values Based Management”:Doublethink

  • Accountability requires that everyone must be agree on everything, lest anyone be held accountable.
  • Innovation is a creative process by which we demonstrate that things should stay exactly as they are.
  • Respect for Diversity requires that everyone adhere to the prevalent cultural norms of upper-middle class English-speaking white people.
  • Transparency is essential to good governance and can only be maintained if everything is confidential and secret.
  • Impartiality demands a merit and evidenced-based decision-making process be reverse-engineered to document the intuition of the executive.

How could all these intelligent, competent, hard-working, well-intended people combine to create such an oppressive culture? We shall crush youEach of them has little choice but to embrace these contradictions, indeed, to deny that they are contradictions at all but absolute truths. It becomes impossible to imagine another way, moreover, even considering another is to be lazy, corrupt and incompetent. Those that might disagree, innovate or propose improvement have little chance of getting into the Public Service. The few that do are marked as disruptive and banished.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, the paradigm cannot be sustained, as if it is not corrected peacefully, the eventual result is violent revolution – the ultimate “clean slate”. But even peaceful adjustment is a painful process, requiring not only the Public Service but the general public to “let go” of dearly held beliefs.

For example, imposition of “Zero Tolerance” always has unintended consequences and becomes counter-productive. I liken it to mandatory sentencing which makes judges dismiss charges rather than impose prison sentences that bear no proportionality to the crime.

The Public Service interprets its self-imposed “zero tolerance for corruption” with the following syllogism:

There is zero tolerance for corruption

Corruption cannot be allowed to exist

Therefore nothing is corruption

To investigate a twenty-thousand dollar fraud, we will spend two million dollars on a process which must show that the fraud did not occur. Worse, on a day-to-day basis we spend billions to minimise the embarrassment experienced when a public servant improperly spends a couple hundred bucks on a government credit card. As a side-effect, government is brought to a grinding halt.

I ask, which of these should be our focus, the couple hundred bucks or the billions?

I suggest the latter.


Politics Possible