10 April 2008

and on the third day, the Premier had no control of anything...

Wednesday turned out to be a day of bizarre contradictions.

Consider, for example, that on Monday the Premier insisted he took full responsibility for what was done or not done by anyone involved in the breast cancer debacle. He spoke consistent with principles of modern, public sector administration.

By Wednesday, as questions swirled around why a briefing note prepared for him was not sent to the minister at the time, he had a different view of control and responsibility:

So, you know I cannot attribute any blame. I cannot pass my own personal opinion on it. What we have seen is we have seen instances where Eastern Health had omitted and deleted information from briefing notes that were being released under ATTIP requests, and that was done. They have gone off - they have actually had press conferences where, in fact, all of the information was not revealed. Those are actions that are beyond the control of the minister. The minister cannot be responsible for every single person all the way down the line in the health care system because they have no possible, tangible means of doing it.

"Those are actions that are beyond the control of the minister. "  How odd. 

The Premier makes this comment after claiming that officials of Eastern Health had edited documents being released under the province's access to information laws. This is certainly news on the order of the allegations of forged documents that led to the Somalia Inquiry.  It's a curious parallel for the Premier to draw, even implicitly, since Somalia was a tale, in part, of great intrigue including the destruction of documents and problems in presenting documents to an inquiry.

But even if this allegation about the production of false documents were true - and there doesn't appear to be any evidence thus far that it is - the subsequent part of the Premier's comment undermines any notion of ministerial responsibility and ministerial accountability which he laid claim to on Monday.

Legally, ministers are indeed responsible for the actions of the department and the people within the department.  They are accountable to the public through the legislature for those actions.  They have tangible means of directing action and of monitoring activities within the department.  Departments are organized specifically to provide direction and control from the minister through to the front line workers of a given agency.

If there is no "possible, tangible means of doing it", i.e. of being responsible, then the department cannot function and government would grind to a halt.  think about it for a minute.  If a minister cannot direct action within a department there is no need for the legislature to pass laws directing a program to be implemented.  If a problem is detected, as in the breast cancer case, then it will be impossible to ensure it never happens again nor is it possible to produce the "best system in the country."  An absence of control and accountability - the essence of the Premier's comment - makes it impossible for government to function.

A minister cannot micro-manage, of course, if that is what the Premier meant.  It is impossible for anyone to direct the specific, detailed actions of every person in any organization, irrespective of its size.  Only fools try to do it and those fools that do usually create a dysfunctional organization full of unpleasant, unhappy and unhealthy people in the process.

The Premier's contention is, on the face of it, sheer nonsense.  Ministers can and do control their departments in a variety of ways. One of them is through the simple issuing of direction on what will be done in a given instance or, when something is not done, to have it sorted out and done to the satisfaction of the minister.

One of the enduring unanswered questions in the breast cancer debacle thus far relates to this simple notion.  Once ministers - including the Premier - became aware of certain issues, such as a failure by Eastern Health to disclose information, they failed to direct other action instead.  For example, if the Premier was aware - as he clearly was - that Eastern Health was no disclosing certain information - he failed to issue instructions to correct the situation. 

That is, by his own account he failed to exercise his legal responsibilities as first minister to direct the actions of government officials or those of Crown agencies.

With regard to the minister’s comment on, if he had it, he would have gone public. Well, I do not know what he had or what he did not have. He did not have that briefing note. The following month there was a press conference whereby Eastern Health disclosed information, even though they did not disclose all of it, and I have no control over that, that was in the public domain. Why the minister at that point did not decide to come to me or go public with it, he is the only one who can answer that. [Emphasis added]

Contrast that with the Premier's words and actions as the House of Assembly scandal broke in June 2006.  He took action.  He issued instructions.  He took credit for bringing the Auditor General into the House of Assembly. He had no executive authority to do so - the House is not a government department -  but he claimed credit for it anyway.

Yet, on a far more serious matter in a department over which he, as first minister had executive control through cabinet and successive ministers, the Premier had "no control over that." One wonders why, if that were the case, he would request a briefing note on a matter over which he had no control. Idle curiosity?  Why would he have bothered to give up the life of a successful lawyer to take on a job where he had no control over anything of substance? How is it that he can be consumed with trivialities enough to threaten legal action against your humble e-scribbler for some still incomprehensible reason and yet he cannot control the actions of government officials nor recall whether or not he received briefings on key issues?

The answer to these questions is, of course, that the Premier's comments in the House today are sheer nonsense.

Some of his other comments though may not be nonsense and, if true, raise far more significant implications for the conduct of government business.  A 1998 description of the executive functioning of the provincial government describes a typical relationship of the Premier and his two chief advisors, his political chief of staff and the Clerk of the Executive Council.

A close working relationship involving the Office of the Premier, Cabinet Secretariat and the other secretariats within the Office of the Executive Council is essential. The Premier meets daily with both his Chief of Staff and the Clerk of the Executive Council. The Premier’s Chief of Staff and the Clerk of the Executive Council work in close collaboration, keeping the other apprised of political, policy, communications and administrative considerations.

At the head of the Office of the Executive Council (other than the Office of the Premier) is the Clerk of the Executive Council and Secretary to the Cabinet. This position encompasses three related roles. As Deputy Minister to the Premier, the Clerk is the senior official reporting to the Premier on all governmental matters. The Clerk receives and transmits instructions from the Premier, and, as the senior official in the Office of the Executive Council, the Clerk coordinates the operation of the secretariats.

The Clerk assists the Premier in setting the Cabinet agenda, arranges meetings of Cabinet, oversees the preparation of briefing materials for the Premier, ensures the records of Cabinet are properly maintained and, under the Premier’s guidance, plans Cabinet retreats. The Clerk is also responsible for process in the conduct of Cabinet business and, from time to time, works with Ministers and senior officials on substantive matters on Cabinet’s agenda.

It would not be unusual for the Clerk of the Executive Council to meet with the premier daily on a variety of issues.  The Clerk is after all, the deputy minister to the Premier and typically reports to the Premier on all matters of government especially those involving the administration of government.

With that as background, consider the following comment by the Premier in response to a question about whether the Clerk of the Council had mentioned to him the serious problem at Eastern Health when the Clerk became aware of it in July 2005:

Mr. Speaker, I cannot recall a conversation with Mr. Thompson on that particular issue. Mr. Thompson would brief me, not on a daily basis. It was sometimes on an extended basis, sometimes it could be as long as a month when we sat down for briefings. Mr. Thompson and his staff, I have not made a direct question to Mr. Thompson as to whether I did have it, but it has been requested as to whether there were any conversations with Mr. Thompson, and to my knowledge there were none.

A month between briefings from his own deputy minister? Those familiar with the operations of government would find such a statement leads to only a handful of conclusions none of which are good either for the province or the Premier.

The most obvious conclusion is that he is suffering from pinocchiosis but it would be rash to assume this. He may well be stating his own view of the job and of the reality of how this administration functions or dysfunctions. The Premier may well not bother himself with many of demands of his job, leaving responsibility to his unelected staff and to such cabinet ministers as Tom Rideout.

Of course, that is not the picture which has been described to date nor is it the basis on which he has received such overwhelming popular support. That's one of the political landmines Danny Williams faces:  the Cameron Inquiry may reveal much of how his administration has actually functioned.

If he continues to claim he has no control of anything and attempts to shift responsibility for action and inaction onto other people, the public may well start to wonder why they elected him and his associates in the first place.

No wonder cabinet is trying desperately to find an excuse to stop questions in the House of Assembly on the breast cancer debacle.