It’s time Ottawa fix its broken trust with Canadians

Our democratic building can withstand removing the bureaucratic and political façade which fails to cultivate trust through collaboration, coordination and cooperation.

Photograph by Jake Wright, The Hill Times
Power and Parliament: Should we care that we have lost substantial faith and much trust in Ottawa and its institutions, asks government accountability advocate Sean Bruyea.
By Sean Bruyea
The Hill Times, Ottawa: Published Dec. 05, 2011

OTTAWA—It has become a sad truism that Canadians’ faith and trust in our federal government has been consistently declining.

This is hardly news. Over the past decade, federal government studies from the likes of Public Works and Government Services in 2001 and independent studies from the World Economic Forum in 2005, Conference Board of Canada in 2009 as well as the Nanos and the Manning Institute reports both in 2011 show how prevalent and persistent is Canadians’ declining trust and faith in government.

What to do about it is of greater importance. Ottawa’s own Gilles Paquet (University of Ottawa) offers a hope-fired torch to lead Canadians from our growing “malaise” and disaffection with Ottawa into a new era of “collaborative” government.  His often colourful diagnoses of the problems are matched by his inspiring call to duty of all levels of society including citizens, bureaucrats, and intellectuals.

Should we care that we have lost substantial faith and much trust in Ottawa and its institutions? Not only should we care, the foundations of a modern democratic society depend upon such trust. Declining trust in government not only results in adverse economic impacts (witness the growing economic crisis in Europe) but trust is fundamental to creating a peaceful and productive society. All our interactions, be they with companies, government institutions as well as with each other, require trust in some form. Ultimately, trust in government is inseparable from the sense of trust we feel with institutions or one another in our communities.

Canada’s federal government has suffered a rash of distressing crises over the past decade which have justly shaken our confidence in government. The tainted blood scandal, the sponsorship scandal, the public sector integrity commissioner scandal, and the Veterans Affairs privacy scandals are seen increasingly as the tip of an endemic iceberg. They represent actual and perceived widespread public service incompetence and associated arrogance centered principally at the senior levels of the bureaucracy.

How does Paquet propose to guide us out of Canada’s crisis of trust in Ottawa? A number of his more than 50 books and hundreds of articles carry a similar theme: government must stop perpetuating the myth that any government institution or person is in charge. In a diverse modern democracy, no one can be “in charge.” However, over the past 40 years, Ottawa, like many seats of western democracies, has managed to convince its citizens that we must pay our taxes and vote but otherwise shut up.

How has Ottawa accomplished this? The growing distrust of government in the 1960s resulted in many, including Ottawa, finding a way to legitimize its own existence while imposing a “top-down” scientific model of management. Ottawa immersed itself in ever-increasing complex technical processes to control not just Canada’s growing federal public service but an increasingly centralized version of federalism.

The legitimate moral concerns, passions, interests, and even outrage felt by active citizens came to be lost in labyrinthine Treasury Board and other departmental processes. Most Canadians could never hope to have the time to understand such technical complexity in order to have their voice heard. In fact, most public servants in Ottawa are at a loss to understand the full gamut of what we have come to see as mountains of red tape.

As very few, mostly senior bureaucrats, claim to understand the ‘big picture’ of such technical barriers, Ottawa has effectively hijacked the human concerns of a nation and placed them in the “mental prisons” that Ottawa is in charge and only her “leaders” know what is best for us.

This amounts to a coup d’état of our sense of right and wrong, robbing us of all but the most simple of our duties and responsibilities as citizens. All we are left to do is pay taxes and vote and we haven’t exactly been enthusiastic about doing the latter.

Ottawa has made the Canadian public feel like a “nuisance,” annoying in our apparently naïve wish to have the public service actually serve the public through collaboration and cooperation. Since the mid-90s, the public service has been bolstered in its “special status” to be our “guardians.” Jane Jacobs’ 1992 book, Systems of Survival has decorated many a senior mandarin’s desk and, according to Paquet, is seen as a “gift from the gods.” As self-proclaimed guardians of our destiny, bureaucrats no longer see themselves as carrying out a job. Instead, their “exceptional qualities” are required for their “missionary” work as Canada’s “state clergy.”

Such arrogant detachment from and patronization of Canadians does much to explain the multiple scandals in Ottawa’s bureaucracy. Jacobs’ emphasis upon bureaucrats’ loyalty to the public good naturally leads to a consequence which is highly destructive to a healthy democracy. Since the bureaucracy ultimately designs, interprets, and implements public good, bureaucrats are led to wrongly believe that they are “obviously much better-suited” to this vocation than the “non-descript bunch of individuals churned out by the electoral process,” i.e., Parliament. In this manner, misleading or managing the perspective of ministers and the PMO (not to mention the public) through acts of omission or commission is not seen as being disloyal to the public good.

Paquet rightly emphasizes that neither the politicians nor the bureaucracy is or can be in charge. Our quest for the mythical leader to take us to the Promised Land is doomed to fail. No leader can negotiate the overwhelming complexity and diverse viewpoints of modern democracies. Perhaps this is why the current government has focused instead upon unprecedented centralized control. Canadians have contributed their share as we have the impossible expectation that leaders must hit the ground running, knowing all while being infallible.

How can innovation and learning occur when government is centrally controlled by the infallible? Innovation is clearly squashed in such a rigid top-down structure and risk aversion becomes an epidemic. The symptoms of this plaque are all too well-known: cushy foreign postings and cash payouts (remember Christiane Ouimet) to reward the incompetent while punishing success and crucifying through “organizational violence” those who would otherwise speak up to defend the public interest (Allan Cutler, Joanna Gualtieri, Brian McAdam, Ian Bron, and Shiv Chopra, to name a few).

Repairing trust in such instances is crucial: those who commit serious wrongdoing must be seriously punished.

Clearly, encouraging a culture of retribution and punishment for the victims and rewarding the culprits is not working. What we need instead are public officials who act as facilitators of community-building and consensus, not leaders terrified to allow innovation and experimentation. These facilitators or “stewards” are needed to guide the collaborative process which coordinates a diverse collection of interests, points of view and shared destinies.

For instance, government often applauds its role in encouraging multicultural diversity. Yet, Ottawa does very little if anything to bring these communities together. Instead it perpetuates the isolation of cultural and ethnic groups from one another creating undesired ghettoization.

Citizens are not blameless in this process. Yes we have rights but we also have a “burden of office” as the most important players in our democracy. Our right to speak out must fully respect that others have that same right to engage in robust, yet respectful debate. Our points of view may not have equal validity, but they do have equal merit to be heard. Listening to one another while having government required to listen and act upon what we say is key to building trust in a new Canadian approach to government.

We must shake off the learned helplessness of 50 years of a burgeoning welfare state. We cannot wait for government to find the money for and initiate programs which embrace our concerns. We must be creative and innovative while we seize upon the lessons we learn from inevitable mistakes along the way.

With the public service acting as facilitators, we must work within communities of common interest while collaborating with other communities. This is the new horizontal world of “multi-logue” which must replace the ineffective vertical world and “condescending ear” of dialogue. Such dialogue (usually held behind closed doors) has allowed bureaucrats and politicians to easily play communities off against one another.

One final key component in this new collaborative process is the renewed importance of the public intellectual, someone much more than an academic. He or she is an individual willing to confront taboos, authority and the despotism of political correctness in order to “reveal an alternative reality that people were not aware they were missing.” There was a time when the great independent minds of Marshall McLuhan, George Orwell, Milton Friedman and Alvin Toffler spoke and the government and the public listened.

Since then universities have increasingly become bastions of political correctness where open debates are often stifled and administrators exile those who do not conform to a particular viewpoint. Rousseau understood this more than two centuries ago when he anticipated that individuals would not be physically beaten in a democracy for holding different ideas, they would merely be ostracized.

Intellectuals must come down from their ivory towers and speak to us in plain language. We need them to be the pebble in the government’s shoe or the sand in the oyster that irritates until the idea becomes a treasured pearl. We need intellectuals to make sense out of what politicians would oversimplify and bureaucrats would overcomplicate. In a political era where education is often condemned by elected officials and ignorance is lauded, we need the public intellectual now more than ever. And government must stop treating ideas like a terrorist bomb or a virulent infection.

Paquet challenges us to trust that Canada’s cherished democracy is a solid building sturdy enough for us to remove the “scaffolding pretending to hold it together—the state.” Our democratic building can withstand removing the bureaucratic and political façade which fails to cultivate trust through collaboration, coordination and cooperation.

Ultimately, each of us needs to cultivate trust in ourselves, our rights as well as our “burden of office.” Through such self-empowerment we can learn to not only trust in our right to speak out but show and compel government how to trust and thereby become trusted by the Canadians it claims to represent.

Sean Bruyea is a columnist, former intelligence officer and graduate student of a master’s in public ethics at St. Paul University. He is a director of Canadians for Accountability. His privacy case was settled last fall.

The Hill Times