Here’s the Real Skinny on How Power Works in Ottawa

The reality is that the senior mandarins are the ultimate arbiters of power in Ottawa, not the politicians. And the oft-criticized hyper-centralized culture is centered not in the PMO but in Treasury Board and the PCO.

By Sean Bruyea
The Hill Times: Published September 19, 2011

OTTAWA—We should be forgiven if we believe that ministers, or in the case of this government, the Prime Minister’s Office is in complete control of Ottawa. This dogma of the Westminster model of government stands in the way of reality. Given the need to restore Canadians’ faith in our federal government while managing the inevitable cutbacks requires we fully understand Ottawa if we are to make its powerbrokers truly accountable.

The reality is that the senior mandarins are the ultimate arbiters of power in Ottawa. They exercise control through departmental agendas and complex Treasury Board processes that often have little to do with the public their namesake institution claims to serve.

It has become a near truism that the Prime Minister’s Office under the Harper government has carried out unprecedented centralization of our federal government. This does not mean he is in control. Even with 130-plus staffers, the PMO is vastly outnumbered by 1,000 or so public servants in the Privy Council Office.

Beyond that, there are less than 500 mostly inadequately experienced political staffers to direct, control and oversee almost 400,000 public servants. These are odds more akin to the Fellowship of the Ring fighting the armies of Sauron.

Clearly the public service does not deserve near so malevolent an image. Let’s take the case of Veterans Affairs Canada. The minister has five or so dedicated political staffers (and a driver) to manage a department of more than 4,000 employees. This government has promised deep cultural reforms in the department. They are intended to both serve veterans and prevent scandals such as those resulting from the damning findings of the privacy commissioner in my own case last fall.

Given six against 4,000, is it any wonder that nothing meaningful has changed in the operations of the department? Should we be surprised that not a single bureaucrat has been disciplined as a direct result of the commissioner’s findings of widespread breaches of the Privacy Act?

A not-so-complex game is being played in Ottawa (and in Charlottetown, where Veterans Affairs is headquartered) wherein senior public servants control the show. They decide most of the minister’s agenda outside of the House, control the flow of information and—most importantly—spell out the limited options available to the minister. Carefully-vetted briefing notes represent the only perspective accepted by most ministers.

For example, public servants will answer any query from the minister. This perpetuates ministers’ belief in their ascendancy at the hierarchical summit. However, these answers ultimately reflect the narrow perspective of the department’s senior executives. Should a minister make the fateful decision to ignore advice, there is always the looming threat of brown envelopes showing up on a reporter’s desk.

In this way, public servants essentially hold politicians captive.

Make no mistake about it: all public servants give their loyalty first and foremost to Treasury Board (which determines policies, processes and long-term strategic planning). A close second is their loyalty to their own careers, third to ministers, and a distant fourth, loyalty directly to the public interest. Ministers, not having the resources to question the intricacies of Treasury Board policies and processes have little choice but to go along for the ride. Ministers, in effect, become subsumed under Treasury Board and therefore, deputy ministers’ agendas.

Furthermore, public service careers are ultimately decided by other public servants, not ministers.

Of course the political party in power does have some leeway to implement party agendas. Such initiatives are usually restricted to about one or maybe two issues per minister per election. Even then, though, all initiatives are reworked and ultimately rewritten by bureaucrats prior to implementation. This is why legislation like the Public Service Disclosure Protection Act (a.k.a. the Whistleblower Act) is ineffectual in identifying, investigating and disciplining public servants for wrongdoing.

This begs the question: why were public servants allowed such a free hand to shape a law governing their actions, and determining consequences for their misconduct? Wasn’t the conflict of interest obvious? Would we ask criminals to write the penal code?

Because ministers generally repeat word for word what is in the briefing and Question Period notes written by public servants, they become unwitting players in the public perception game that claims the Whistleblower Act provides “ironclad protection” for whistleblowers. Yet, the only people who have been protected so far are those committing the wrongdoing (including the former integrity commissioner herself, Christiane Ouimet).

Being ultimately subsumed under the senior mandarins also means that ministers often find themselves defending programs which were begun under previous governments. In the case of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Transport Canada, safety and security initiatives that have had tragic consequences were first pushed by officials in the Chrétien government as a way to save money on inspection and keep business happy. Now the bureaucracy and therefore ministers continue moving mainly by momentum. The small ‘Fellowship of the Ministers’ is unable to slow down let alone stop such inertia.

Meanwhile, at Veterans Affairs Canada, the Harper government has spent the past five years defending the lump sum compensation given to injured soldiers when it was a program they were justly and properly correct in questioning while in opposition.

The ultimate result is that no one controls the senior bureaucrats. This is why an individual like Christiane Ouimet can operate for more than three years following Treasury Board policy to the letter while not finding one case of wrongdoing in the public service.

And the rewards for ignoring the public interest are immense. Ouimet walked away with more than half of a million dollars and a pension which will be mostly based upon a salary of $236,000 per year. Even though Ouimet reported to Parliament, it was PCO that “encouraged” her departure.

The oft-criticized hyper-centralized culture is centred not in the PMO but in Treasury Board and the PCO.

These institutions are the heart of a bureaucratic culture hypersensitive to any opposing views. Woe to the public servant who rejects this culture and dares represent the public interest in pointing out illegal activities, financially wasteful and harmful practices or questioning a system which rewards unethical behaviour in the senior management.

No law will protect whistleblowers in such an environment. Bureaucrats who apparently break the law will not be punished—leaving wrongdoing as an option with many rewards and little if any downside.

This is why the public service has what Professor Gilles Paquet, Canada’s leading expert on governance, identifies as a “malaise.” He argues that most of the bureaucracy is forced like “automata” to follow the “arrogant logic” of bizarre internal processes instead of allowing Canadians to participate in their own democracy; hence, Canadians’ malaise with Ottawa.

If the law or any other body fails to punish senior mandarins when they commit wrongdoing and the politicians can’t control bureaucrats, who is looking after Canada’s largest bureaucracy spending more tax dollars than at any point in our history?

We expect the politicians to be in charge. We can indeed blame (and punish) senior mandarins for pursuing any means to justify their ends. However, we all pay for and depend upon a system that promises politicians will hold the bureaucracy accountable. As such, it is ultimately the politicians’ fault for not standing up to the public service.

Politicians should not be held captive by senior bureaucrats. Substantial and real protection for whistleblowers would ensure the wrongdoing reported in “brown envelopes” is rigorously investigated and thoroughly disciplined so it need not be leaked.

Any plan to make government more efficient (and ethical, and law-abiding) depends upon protecting those who would report waste and wrongdoing. Otherwise, senior managers responsible for wrongdoing and inefficiency will remain during the coming austerity measures. These senior mandarins will be the ones culling the bureaucratic herd of those who would otherwise represent the public’s interest, not the “arrogant logic” of the bureaucracy.

There is more of Yes Minister than actual ‘ministering’ going on in Ottawa. The result is Canadians are laughing less as their tax dollars and declining faith in Ottawa continues to be needlessly wasted.

Sean Bruyea is a columnist, former intelligence officer and graduate student of a Masters in Public Ethics. He is a director of Canadians for Accountability. His privacy case was settled last fall.

The Hill Times