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Canada's federal public servants afraid to speak truth to power: study

daftandbarmy

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Well, I'm (not) shocked ;)


Canada's federal public servants afraid to speak truth to power: study​

A new report says senior leaders feel ill-equipped to deal with the new hyperpartisan era and are afraid to tell their political masters hard truths.

Canada’s public service leaders have a problem telling the truth to their political bosses.

A new report, Top of Mind, says they feel ill-equipped to gather evidence for policy advice, especially in a world where facts are distorted and drowned out by disinformation, polarization and hyperpartisan politics.
To make matters worse, they appear afraid to tell their political masters the hard truths when they do find them.

Getting back to the basics in policy-making and execution are among the top worries that senior bureaucrats raised in the new study into the state of the public service in Canada. It was conducted by two think-tanks, the Ottawa-based Institute on Governance (IOG), and the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University.

The study, launched in the middle of the pandemic, was aimed at understanding the challenges these executives face when doing their jobs, which is to provide reliable, well-run services for Canadians as well as policy advice to ministers. It was based on interviews with 42 senior leaders from all levels of government and a survey of 2,355 public servants in the same departments and agencies.

The big worries — which many felt were accelerated by the pandemic — included falling trust in government; the decline in sharing “fearless advice”; a hollowing out of policy capacity; a post-pandemic economic reckoning; conflicts between different levels of government; and the need for public service reform.
The report didn’t dig into the root causes, but the responses raise enough red flags to justify a debate and development of a roadmap for reform, said Stephen Van Dine, IOG’s senior vice-president, public governance.

“We have enough from this report to say we better be looking into this,” he said.

An impartial public service is a cornerstone of Canada’s democracy. Bureaucrats are supposed to speak truth to power. The ethos of “fearless advice and loyal implementation” is its motto, and public servants take an oath to uphold it when hired.

“The participants felt rational thought and evidence-based decision-making are being circumvented by politicization, polarization and disinformation,” said Van Dine.
“Do public servants have access to enough truth to give fearless advice? If all their information is coming from above rather than from networks in and outside government, how much truth is there really? What happened to the role of public education in the policy development process?”

The responses paint a picture of a bureaucracy that’s too isolated from Canadians and not independent enough from politics, said Van Dine.

Over the years, rules restricting travel and hospitality expenses put a damper on public servants’ ability to meet with provincial counterparts, industry representatives and civil society. They aren’t networking, developing contacts outside of government, or educating Canadians about the factors at play in policy-making.

“This has isolated the public service from the outside world and given the outside world the only door into government, which is through the Prime Minister’s Office or a minister’s office,” said Van Dine.
But public servants need new skills and modern technology. They need people who think digital, understand systems, analytics, data and can manage projects. That means attracting people to government and hiring them more quickly than the eight months it takes now.

All of this is having an impact on a long-strained relationship between public servants and ministers. Two-thirds of respondents said that relationship was “an important challenge that requires more effective management.”

Many respondents said the relationship is being eaten away by the “over-politicization of policy-making and choices, and the lack of opportunity to constructively challenge political direction.”

The report concluded that “speaking truth to power … seems less achievable to many participants.” Bureaucrats don’t have “safe spaces” among themselves to have all-out debates about analysis or options that “are unpopular“ or “not in tune with their government’s political position.”
Instead, they are expected to toe the party line and give politicians the advice they want to hear.

It’s unclear why. Is it because the deputy ministers aren’t encouraging dissent? Are bureaucrats holding back for fear of falling out of favour with their bosses or being seen as disrespectful?

“The strong undercurrent is that the public service has lost an element of independence and is now expected to deliver on platform commitments rather than offer objective policy advice on the feasibility of the commitment or alternative ways to achieve the objective of the platform commitment,” said the report.

This is an old problem.
Experts sounded the alarm more than 25 years ago about public servants’ hesitancy to speak truth to power. It led to the 1996 Tait report, the foundation of the public service’s values and ethics code.

Donald Savoie, a leading public administration expert, has repeatedly warned that the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office is politicizing the public service. He likened it to “court government” where senior officials act like courtiers trying to ingratiate themselves, rather than delivering hard truths.

The Gomery Inquiry concluded that a grey zone between bureaucrats and politicians was at the heart of the sponsorship scandal and recommended ways to reset it.

The late auditor general Michael Ferguson famously linked the Phoenix pay system disaster to a risk-averse and “obedient public service.” He concluded that the “ability to convey hard truths has eroded, as has the willingness of senior levels — including ministers — to hear hard truths.”

Despite these warnings, little has been done to fix the problem. The Harper government introduced the Federal Accountability Act in response to the sponsorship scandal, but many experts argue its focus on rules, oversight and compliance made matters worse.
Today’s deputy ministers climbed the ranks over the 20 years since the sponsorship scandal, and the Federal Accountability Act is the world they know. Many argue they got to the top because of their skills in dodging risks, following the rules and keeping government out of trouble.

In the new Top of Mind report, it is unclear how a lack of fearless advice is “cascading” down the ranks. Van Dine worries that assistant deputy ministers aren’t speaking up as they should now that the Public Service Commission has turned over “talent management” to the deputy ministers who appoint them.

“Now the deputy minister is holding all the cards about promotion and appointment … To what extent are they becoming more deputy servants than public servants?” he asks.
The Harper era is also when public servants found themselves drawn into partisan communications with directives, events, activities and website designs to promote the Conservative Party brand.

Today, some respondents worry that a focus on communications is supplanting policy. The current focus is on how a policy will play out or how its “messaging” will be received by Canadians, rather than getting to the nub of the issues the government wants to address.

“Make stuff less about the announcements and actually make it about the issue,” said one leader, quoted in the report. “Communicate with Canadians on that front — what is the problem you are trying to fix here? … People have the basics wrong, and it leads to bad discord.”

The Top of Mind report makes a series of recommendations that could lead to a top-to-bottom overhaul of the federal public service.
At the top of the list is a proposal for a joint Senate-Commons committee to review the Accountability Act, zeroing in on whether its onerous compliance and reporting requirements stifle innovation and create an obedience culture.

The paper also recommended modernizing the ground rules for relationships between bureaucrats and politicians and examining what’s needed for public servants to create “safe spaces for fearless advice,” so they can provide facts, analysis and policy options that don’t toe the government’s party line.



Canada's federal public servants afraid to speak truth to power: study
 

YZT580

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When I read the commentaries re: why Putin invaded, I find many of the same attitudes as are presented in the above report. I spent 30 years as a civil servant and I can vouch for the presence of a risk-adverse culture in every decision made. It definitely dominates the procurement process. But as is pointed out, it is nothing new and we seem to be great at pointing but not so good at doing.
 

Booter

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Perhaps maybe, the public service needs to return to trying to do its basics well. Then they don’t need to have all these high concepts like “messaging”. Do what you’re paid to do- and if you can’t do your basic core function maybe recognize you can’t give advice on a higher function.
 

Kirkhill

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Here's to a bloody war and a sickly season. 😁
 

Humphrey Bogart

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cohen baron GIF

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manchester united GIF
 

rmc_wannabe

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A lot of the issues seen in the Public Service are echoed within the halls of the CAF and its many HQs.

Cronyism, careerism, "well we've always done it like this.."ism, hell even a complete deferment to personal opinion and experience over actually learning the regulations and applying them equally.

I have to wonder what projects and initiatives died on the cutting room floor because of this prevailing attitude. Then again, when our government rules from the PMO's office, I wonder how much ingenuity and truth to power is squashed by "but it's not in the platform/talking points."
 

Fabius

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I suspect a lot. I think we see this an awful lot when ever any of the CAF senior leaders get in front of Parliament or the media. They echo the MND aka the Cabinet aka the PMO line (RCN Tankers and the fighter gap come to mind as well as the CDS's recent CBC interview). You can see this is the National Defense Committee meetings as well I think.

This gets portrayed, I think, as loyalty to the government, and its a key tenant to not contradict the government in the media or parliament. Quite a different dynamic than other states where the military will be very frank in public about accepting risks on missions or readiness etc. due to government funding or priority decisions. Not criticism of the decisions, just upfront admissions and explanations of the risks and trade offs.
Makes for a more informed national debate and understanding of national security I think.
 

Booter

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I suspect a lot. I think we see this an awful lot when ever any of the CAF senior leaders get in front of Parliament or the media. They echo the MND aka the Cabinet aka the PMO line (RCN Tankers and the fighter gap come to mind as well as the CDS's recent CBC interview). You can see this is the National Defense Committee meetings as well I think.

This gets portrayed, I think, as loyalty to the government, and its a key tenant to not contradict the government in the media or parliament. Quite a different dynamic than other states where the military will be very frank in public about accepting risks on missions or readiness etc. due to government funding or priority decisions. Not criticism of the decisions, just upfront admissions and explanations of the risks and trade offs.
Makes for a more informed national debate and understanding of national security I think.
Canada doesn’t suffer a need for success. Everything moves along.
 

Colin Parkinson

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I never suffered fear of punishment for speaking out, but I knew I never get past manager in my unit. When I voiced opposition to the the latest and greatest dumb ass idea, I was pulled aside and told that I won't have a "career" if I continued to oppose these directions. I replied: "I am a older white male with no university, what career?" The were stunned that I articulated the current reality of hiring.
The senior management for the most part is also completely tone deaf to their own departmental staff and SME's within their departments. So it's funny they complain about the political masters doing the same to them.
 

Booter

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Senior manager:

“We ve decided, since we re the only ones still doing it, to cut this. We ve brought you SMEs here to help us chart out way out of that business”

SME:

“Actually, as an SME, I assisted these provincial departments and municipal departments with refreshing this. They are all still doing it”

Senior Manager:

“No. I’ve been told we re the only ones doing it”

SME:

“But I literally will be working on this with a municipal government this week”

Senior Manager:

“So. Since we are cutting this- this is what the path out of this business line looks like. Thank you everyone for your help with this project”
 

Halifax Tar

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Institutional leadership... It's killing us.

I don't want leaders who tow the company line.

I want leaders who can maturely and articulately challenge it when that's required. And done publicly when necessary. Be damned their careers.

I want GO/FOs and CPO1/CWOs to see honor in falling on ones own sword in the face of what they know is wrong. I want them expressing the pulse of the rank and file and I want them pushing back on our politicians and bureaucrats.

I want more Landymore in my officers and CPO1/CWO.
 

Navy_Pete

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On the flip side, if you figure out the messaging, and dumb it down to a 5 year old level, you can actually get things signed off by the BGHs. 'Old engines burn lots of fuel, bad for the environment. = $100M replacement project

I'm not sure what they are really talking about at the DM/As being suddenly afraid to speak 'truth to power'; they didn't get there by being outspoken and contradicting ADMs as DGs...

I've seen detailed briefings get simplified down 5 or 6 times until it got up to the DM level, and was actually factually wrong by that point, so frustrating. The people briefing the decision makers are usually about 4 levels removed from the SMEs that made the recommendation and understand the issues.
 

rmc_wannabe

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I'm not sure what they are really talking about at the DM/As being suddenly afraid to speak 'truth to power'; they didn't get there by being outspoken and contradicting ADMs as DGs...

I've seen detailed briefings get simplified down 5 or 6 times until it got up to the DM level, and was actually factually wrong by that point, so frustrating. The people briefing the decision makers are usually about 4 levels removed from the SMEs that made the recommendation and understand the issues.
Being one of those SMEs, I have to agree.

Sitting through a briefing on Enterprise Cloud Architecture, whilst being reminded to hold my tongue, I had to quietly shake my head and stare at my notebook a few times.

It wasn't until after the briefing that the Colonel came over and asked me point blank to poke holes into the briefing. I gave him the Coles Notes and offered what we had passed up prior to him receiving the brief. He asked for an email from me by End of Day, with our original briefing note, so he could have a few words with the Project Managers that Frankensteined what we put forward.
 

daftandbarmy

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Institutional leadership... It's killing us.

I don't want leaders who tow the company line.

I want leaders who can maturely and articulately challenge it when that's required. And done publicly when necessary. Be damned their careers.

I want GO/FOs and CPO1/CWOs to see honor in falling on ones own sword in the face of what they know is wrong. I want them expressing the pulse of the rank and file and I want them pushing back on our politicians and bureaucrats.

I want more Landymore in my officers and CPO1/CWO.

“Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”


― Carl Sagan
 

Navy_Pete

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@rmc_wannabe Have seen similar, except it was a submission going to TBS, that had been edited by PSPC, with no PM or SME involvement in the briefings upwards.

It's especially frustrating when you are responsible for it in theory, but don't get final say on the content or even see it, but get crapped on by an ADM for the submission getting rejected and requiring rework.

That whole process is weird; TBS have their own reps that brief projects to the TBS with a recommendation, but there are a number of cutouts so they never actually talk to the PMs. It's so bizarre, but basically people that understand it condense it down for people who sort of understand it, who pass it over to people that don't really understand it, who explains it to someone that doesn't understand it and finally presents it for approval by a group that has absolutely no clue to ask real questions. I'm not sure if that explanation even makes sense, but the whole system is foxed.
 

rmc_wannabe

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@Navy_Pete It's a bad game of broken telephone; except with no winner, billions of dollars at stake, and potentially lives lost on operations.
 

dapaterson

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Read Edward Tufte on the cognitive issues with PowerPoint.

But I have been part of multiple TB submissions. Effective engagements at multiple levels with SME input should be common.

A recurring problem, though, is technical experts incapable of effective communication. If you cannot effectively communicate technical concepts to non-technical audiences, you shouldn't be a project lead.
 

rmc_wannabe

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Read Edward Tufte on the cognitive issues with PowerPoint.

But I have been part of multiple TB submissions. Effective engagements at multiple levels with SME input should be common.

A recurring problem, though, is technical experts incapable of effective communication. If you cannot effectively communicate technical concepts to non-technical audiences, you shouldn't be a project lead.
Agreed, but there are some concepts that cannot be dumbed down.

As much as technical SMEs need to learn effective communication, I would also say people put in charge of projects of a technical nature should know more than "Blinky lights help us kill more people more better..."
 
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