30 December 2015

Advice #nlpoli

New governments often wind up in a bit of a pickle.

They walk into a new job where they are supposed to be the folks in charge, but they very often aren’t the people who initially know how everything works. They don’t know how to get things done but they have things they need to accomplish.

The folks who do know how everything runs are the public servants.  According to the theory,  the public servants are supposed to be the impartial professionals who give every government expert advice n how to handle every problem.  They are supposed to be separate from the politicians.

The theory is one thing. 

Practice is another.

The public servants are not a single undifferentiated mass.  Think of them split into two groups.

The first group consists of unabashed partisans. These are folks either put in jobs or promoted by the politicians who held office before now. They liked to surround themselves with friendly faces.  And when the politicians leave office after an election, they often leave their partisans behind in positions normally occupied by career pubic servants.

The second group is made up of career public servants. These public servants do their jobs professionally. They have no partisan ties. And while they might have answers they think are right,  career public servants are able to do a good job at implementing what they think are bad decisions.

Now that first group can be quite easy to spot.  In Ottawa last fall, the Liberals wound up handing out a batch of letters to partisans the Conservatives left in public service positions.  The Liberals, quite sensibly, understood they could have no confidence in active partisans who had been left behind with access to all sorts of sensitive information.

Can be but not always. Sometimes, the partisans moved off to the public service jobs early in the administration.  By the time the change of government happens, people have lost track of the partisans who are now blended in with all the other  grey faces of the bureaucrats.

The second group  - the actual career public servants – can cause some worries of their own.  For one thing, they can come with an agenda of their own.  It could be personal or it could be a collective position taken by a a bunch of them across several related departments. 

After all,  if they’ve been working together in a relatively small bunch for a long time, they form friendships and practical working relationships with bonds that are stronger than those they have to politicians.  They are supposed to form those kind of relationships.  They need them to function and in a sense, the way the system is set up, you’d expect a tension between the politicians and the bureaucrats that should help to keep everyone on the right path.

That notion assumes the politicians come to office with a clear sense of direction.  Often, they do.  Sometimes they don’t.  That’s when problems can start.

You see, politicians make decisions.  To make decisions, you need alternatives.  The quality of the decisions is directly proportional to quality of the advice,  or, in other words, to the alternatives presented.  If the alternatives are garbage,  then odds are high the subsequent decisions will be garbage as well.


Garbage in.

Garbage out.

or if it isn’t GIGO, you can run into a problem Henry Kissinger used to joke about.  Bureaucrats at the state department used to give a set of alternatives:
  • Nuclear war,
  • Unconditional surrender, or
  • the option preferred by the bureaucrats.
You get the idea.


With that in mind, go back and look at the first decisions taken by the provincial Liberals once they took office.

The first one was to leave everyone in place. They didn’t get rid of any of the active partisans left behind by the former administration.  The communications branch of government is the most obvious place to find them, starting right at the top of the tree in the executive council. Key departments all have at least one partisan left behind. 

Right now they know Tory secrets.  But pretty soon they will know Liberal secrets and that’s when they become the most dangerous for the Liberals.  The new administration might get around to cleaning house but frankly,  it doesn’t seem to be on their list of priorities at all.  That makes it all the more likely that the new administration will be shot through with problems.

They didn’t even take out the screamingly obvious partisan appointments like John Ottenheimer.  Nor did they get rid of folks like Ed Martin and his management team.  They may not be partisans but they are very much tied to the key policies of the former administration.  When Dwight Ball endorsed Ed Martin last week, Ball sent a very strong message that he doesn’t plan to make very many substantive changes within the structure and administration of government,  at least not yet.

By the time the Liberals have come to grips with the budget and are well into the daily business of governing, they won’t have any interest in or  - far worse – won’t see any need to make changes.

That’s the partisans.

But what of the public servants?

Bureaucratic Interests

Well,  they are a slightly different kettle of fish.

Bureaucrats wield power.  Their power is defined by the amount of budget landscape they control. 
How many people and how much money report to them?  The more, the better.

A huge part of the bureaucratic mission is the accumulation of power.  if you look at policy options over time, you can see a distinct pattern.  In the late 1980s and earl 1990s,  an idea grew up that maybe we need to decentralise government decision-making in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The round of education and health care reform in the 1990s was part of a wider plan to devolve decisions about health and education delivery to local bodies elected directly by the public.

Needless to say, those ideas,  like the economic development ones, didn’t sit well with established ideas and interests inside the public service. Against the tide, Doug House’s 1997 memoir,  is a particularly bitter description of his own experience.  You shouldn’t read it as literally true in every respect but House does describe the fundamental clash between the fundamental interest within government in favour of continuity and centralised power on the one hand and efforts to alter the distribution of power on the other.

You can see that basic idea played out since 2003.  Faced with a budget crisis on taking office and without a clear plan and sense of direction,  the provincial Conservatives took the option offered to them by the bureaucrats.  Eliminate all those very inefficient regional  boards, they said.  Collapse them down into a handful of boards.

Much cheaper.  Not surprisingly, the boards mirrored the parent departments precisely in structure and organization.  The boards appointed to make decisions were superfluous. The way the departmental re-organization rolled out in practice,  .power lay with the board bureaucrats and with the deputy ministers of the departments. 

The new structure didn’t improve service delivery and it never saved a penny.  But it concentrated power beautifully.  The bureaucrats controlled it and their political allies got to rule over the large, centralised bureaucracy.

When the budget needed a chop again,  no chopping actually happened. No one saved any money. But Kathy Dunderdale’s administration wiped out education boards in favour of one big board based on the claim it would improve services and save money. They came close to ding the same thing in health but settled, eventually, on putting purchasing,  human resources,  and all those sorts of things together in one pile.

And now the Liberals

The second decision the Liberals took,  announced the week before Christmas, was to stay the course on Muskrat Falls.  They made an announcement that will do nothing of substance but that was touted as a “review.” 

Uncle Gnarley thinks it was done to make the bond raters happy.  Maybe that’s true.  Maybe it is nothing more than developing an estimate of how much government will have to borrow.  Frankly, your humble e-scribbler thinks it is far less significant than making the bond raters happy.

Either way,  what the Liberals announced last week was a classic example of doing what was already planned and making it look – very feebly – like it was new.

The next day, the Liberals gave us a budget update that confirmed information already leaked to CBC.  In the process, the Liberals  promised to continue the Conservative practise of pre-budget “consultations.” 

What exactly was new and different about that?  Well, nothing, actually.  The format of the news releases remained the same, which means it is devoid of meaningful information.  There are lots of platitudes about the confidence in the Great Leader.  All the release did is change the name of the leader in whom the finance minister has all confidence.

How little real information does the budget update news release contain?  Well, it didn’t even include the link to the update itself.  But it did include a reference to the recent offshore land parcels sale that – as the former Conservatives loved to tell us – contains the key to our future.

The link to the update is in a second release. That’s the one that contains a series of decisions that will have very little practical effect on government spending for the last three months of the fiscal year. The one thing the second release does commitment government to do is rather interesting:
We want to engage with our public service as we embark upon making our vision of Newfoundland and Labrador a reality. We value and recognize the public service - their experience, knowledge and dedication is crucial to fulfilling the mandate we have set out. We need to utilize our public service so we can operate more efficiently while delivering programs and services that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians expect and deserve.
Wonder what kind of advice they might offer?

Well, if you want to see what is coming, you just have to look at where things have been going.