Monday, 18 March 2013

HIGH PRIESTS HAVE BOUNDARIES TOO

In “What the Premier Must Do. A Budget Primer (Part I)”, I suggested that, among those who do not have the Premier’s ear, are the most senior of public servants. 

Unlike politicians, the latter rarely come in for criticism; nor should they unless they, too, have become ‘political’.   
Three people, historically, have constituted the most exclusive group of senior public servants: the Clerk of the Executive Council (also known as the Cabinet Secretary), the Deputy Minister of Finance and the Secretary to the Treasury Board. Now, there are only two; in 2005, Treasury Board was emasculated after it was rolled into the Dept. of Finance.   

The Clerk of the Executive Council and the Deputy Minister of Finance are the two high priests of the public service.  Their professionalism and leadership are always in demand.  Those who occupy the positions are expected to be ‘macro’ thinkers, ‘fixers’ and ‘experts’ on public policy matters.  They are the people, who whisper into the ears of other senior public servants, the Departmental Deputies, when the latter overstep sensibly constructed boundaries, especially those which are political.  That is why the greatest currency of any senior advisor is an unblemished track record. 
Of course, there is never a guarantee that the Premier will ask for, or listen to, the counsel of her senior advisors. That is her prerogative. But, experience suggests the wiser ones prevail, more often than not.
The Dean of senior public servants, James G. Channing, served as Clerk of the Executive Council for 23 years, most of them under Premier Smallwood.  Smallwood was an intense partisan.  Yet, Channing, a consummate professional, never permitted himself a single professional lapse. Even after Moores came to power, in 1972, Channing was retained, such was his unblemished standing. 
Against this background, you will understand my surprise when, on that December evening of Muskrat Falls sanction, the person witnessing the signature of the Cabinet document (which the Premier led us to believe was the Order giving official start to the Project) was none other than the Secretary to the Cabinet, himself.  The Premier is not the person who signs an Order-in-Council.  That is the prerogative of the Lieutenant Governor. 

Of course, it was the right of the Premier to host the occasion.  But, the Ceremony was about her and her policy initiative; it was prime time television.  She did not invite the L-G to sign; the Opposition Parties were offered no role, so the function was entirely a partisan event.
The Clerk ought to have advised the Premier of a different arrangement.  He didn’t. In failing to so do, he committed an error in judgment, crossing an important and defined boundary.

As I write, public service lay-offs are in progress.  That is unfortunate but, likely, necessary.  The Clerk has presided over quite a bit of the empire building; while still small by the standards of most Departments, his own shop is now the largest in history.  A staff of 20 or so (including secretarial staff) remained a constant, dating back to the Moores’ years of the 1970s; these days you will find more than three times that number in the Cabinet Secretariat, despite Intergovernmental Affairs and Aboriginal Affairs, for example, having been ‘spun-off’ to become separate Departments.  If you want to know all about ‘bureaucratic bloat’, start with the Office of the Executive Council. 
Then, there is the esteemed Ministry of Finance.

Premier Danny Williams must have found the ‘old’ Treasury Board structure confining.  The stern dictum of the bean counters has been silenced, possibly blunted by a more compliant, political Deputy of Finance.  
While, ultimately, the Budget mess is the responsibility of the politicians, it is proof that the last and the most recent Deputy Ministers have either not been engaged or they have been ignored. 

Last September, the current Deputy, gave a Speech to the local Chapter of the Financial Management Institute.  Her message was one of public support for the Muskrat Falls initiative.  It wasn’t enough that she was unmindful of Muskrat as a political boondoggle; she had to display that she could be oblivious to the financial risk inherent in the undertaking.
In a world in which senior advisors are expected to counsel common sense, she might have used her senior status to defeat Ed Martin and the empire builders, at Nalcor.  Both she, and her predecessor, might have worked ‘tooth and nail’ to save the the Province from a long road of financial stress.  They could have made their own sums available, even to the ‘naysayers’, possibly demonstrating that Nalcor might not have gone rogue. Likely they found such an initiative required excessive leadership risk and, anyway, ‘cheerleading’ has a motion that favours prevailing winds. 

The Department of Finance is staffed by many excellent people possessed of knowledge and skills to independently assess the viability of Muskrat Falls. It is incredulous that they were not given a mandate to model the Project, to check Nalcor’s numbers, or to challenge that Agency’s financial analysis and conclusions.  Nalcor reserved that role entirely for itself.  Of course, Nalcor would have had to share its data base and agree to provide on-going updates.  No Deputy Minister of Finance, I ever knew, would have been refused the information.
What is the result? The Deputy Minister of Finance has no ability to run to her Minister or to the Premier, armed with an 'independent' analysis or the capacity to give her elected masters fair warning, if Ed Martin is blowing smoke.   

Who would know that Nalcor’s Cabinet Submissions are routed through the Department of Natural Resources and not through Finance?  Few would even care that that Deputy Minister does not get to play the role of Ed Martin’s courier!   But, they might be shocked if they knew that the Deputy stood in a public place and supported the Muskrat Falls Project, using the third party information of Nalcor.  Even today, a large part of the NL public believes that, even if the politicians are unwise, the most senior bureaucrats in the Government will have their back!  
Isn’t this where a wise Secretary to the Cabinet might whisper in the Finance Deputy’s ear and express puzzlement at her oversight?  Evidently he, too, has checked the direction the political wind and chose to be quiet.

Little wonder I might suggest that the Premier look outside of Government for help.

2 comments:

  1. In Canadian history there was a huge project of similar cost and size that was driven by politics. It was a huge failure. A thousand men were on the construction site from 1913 to 1917.It failed because of poor investigation of site condition. Dozens of Nflders worked there . Several Nfld steel sealing ships were hired to tranport hundrens of men and material north. The similarity struck me following Cabot Martin's North Spur disclosure and after I posted here last week a possble stabilation solution. I realized then the similarity of the problems of late stage investigations of critical components that should have been evaluated prior to DG3 stage. The other fiasco was a port project in Hudson Bay at the mouth of the Nelson River. There were problems with mud, water depth, and proceeding with designs that were inadaquate for the site conditions. There is an online summary written some 20 years ago. It was the Port Nelson Project in Hudson Bay. A Nflder, Capt Esau Adams had an inside track on the fiasco, saying (in his unpublished journal)that the lead construction engineer beleived the project was doomed from the start. A year after the start, he undertook costly, improved engineering modifications to help save the project. The project was finally was shut down entirely in 1918, after many millions were wasted. Online aerial photos show the remains of the structures, including a man made isalnd a half mile square, and a string of 17 steel bridges from the shore to the island. Capt Adams' journal is known to Maurice E Adams, of the blog site Vision2041.com. Perhaps he should consider posting the journal under his "article' section, as an example of how a mayor engineering blunder can go wrong, when driven by politics. It may be of value to the current debate.

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  2. Mr. Sullivan, didn't you know that this Premier is omnipotent? Surely it would be beneath her and her ministers to take any advice that is contrary to their "always right" mentality!

    It is most unfortunate, both here and in Ottawa, that high-ranking public servants are being largely ignored while the governments in power make dangerous decisions that will have a negative impact for decades. The impact of their decisions will be very serious and, in some instances, severe when it comes to projects such as Muskrat Falls.

    A weak leader never consults anyone else and we have had weak leadership for the past decade in that respect. Any leader who is always right is indeed a dangerous demagogue and will almost invariably make decisions that are not in the best interests of the masses. Such has been our infatuation with their bluster that we have often lost sight of what they really are....arrogant and egotistical tyrants, operating under the guise of democracy.

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