Monday, 4 January 2016

WANTED: A FEW SENIOR PUBLIC SERVANTS WITH SPINE

"Speaking truth to power" is a euphemism for powerful people taking a stand contrary to the one held by those more powerful. 

In “Old Tales and New of Leadership, Organizational Culture, and Ethics”, a Paper by James O'Toole, the author writes that “Speaking truth to power is perhaps the oldest and, certainly, one of the most difficult of ethical challenges because to do so entails personal danger.”

The popular cliché "shooting the messenger" is recognizable for the risk of exercising moral courage by one “unlucky enough” to have to speak, honestly, to a superior; one able to demote and fire or, if you happen to be employed in the government of North Korea, a fate far worse. Our senior public servants don't have to worry about that. Yet, as O’Toole states plainly, "nobody likes the bringer of bad news."

When Dwight Ball and Cathy Bennett delivered the “Fiscal Update” on December 23, 2015 the utterance of “not a crisis” caused one to conclude the very first days of the new Liberal Administration were not filled with warnings of the province’s accelerated journey off a fiscal cliff.  It seems no thoughtful analysis, from the most powerful senior public servants, was delivered to the pair.

Had the bureaucrats not told the politicians that the province is running a $2 billion deficit on Current Account against $8 billion of expenditures?

Had they advised the Government that even the disturbing forecast rise in the “Net” public debt, to almost $23 billion by 2020-21, still contains a large element of “hope”; one inseparable from the price of commodities, especially oil?

Had they informed the new Liberal leadership that Muskrat and Nalcor’s equity investment in offshore oil were beasts that had to be fed with more debt that cannot be serviced, except through taxation and program cuts?

Had they really made that connection for the Premier and the Minister, knowing that they were too "green" to do it on their own, and that Ed Martin would offer no help? 

In short, had they given “truth to power”?

Ed Martin, long ago, was viewed as out of touch and with good reason.

But the three senior bureaucrats: the Clerk of the Executive Council and the Deputy Ministers of Finance and Natural Resources have been a timid lot.

During their tenure, Ed Martin acquired a level of power within government that exceeds any historical norm for one positioned well outside the traditional hierarchy of the public service.

It takes spine to oppose bad decisions and opaque government; but they have watched as the “100 year” man, increasingly a caricature of himself, became the real power.

All three public servants have propped up the “fake” Muskrat Falls Oversight Committee, each having recorded not just frequent truancy, but an unparalleled exhibition of coy; the Minutes of each Committee Meeting so sanitized, that they seem bleached with cower.

Three examples, randomly selected, mirror the others; here and here and here. Quarterly Reports, too, constitute no record of oversight; each one has to get the stamp of "Nalcor approval" first. 

Did the Cabinet Clerk not go to Ball to explain public service participation on the Oversight Committee was coerced, that he really ought to give the Committee the legitimacy it never had? 

Was it because they required no coercing; that they were content to follow, as Ed Martin lead?

Who among us would anticipate that “fake” and “career” would enjoy such symbiosis in the architecture of personal advancement?

How can a “comprehensive independent review” of Muskrat be undertaken if, as Ball has stated, the “review will focus on construction design and budget concerns, not methyl mercury concentrations or the stabilization of the North Spur”?

Would the government really have omitted review of the structural foundation of the whole scheme, unless Nalcor and compliant public servants feared what might be exposed?

It is not as if the two-thirds of a single page, written by Dr. Serge Leroueil, one of the Reviewers of Nalcor’s remediation plan, could be deemed even minimally adequate.

Indeed, who seriously believes that Dwight Ball and Siobhan Coady achieved a sophisticated understanding of the project within a day or two of being sworn, such that they are capable of understanding the distinction between a full Review and one that omitted a matter involving complex science?

Of course, the politicians were willingly complicit in the EY Review; but the idea could only have been inspired by another agenda; the public interest be damned.

Even that Review must first be vetted by Ed Martin, whether the government likes it or not. 

Did the Clerk suggest that the Premier might want to exhibit leadership early by stating he would do away with such unwarranted authority, as soon as the House of Assembly opens? 

Or, is her survival, as Clerk, and that of the other senior Deputies more secure if they don't offend the real power?

Ball and company always wanted to believe in the Muskrat Falls project; that was confirmed while they were in Opposition. But the naiveté did not lift with time, cost overruns, or growing fiscal realities.

Funnily, his recent acknowledgement that Muskrat will require $3 billion over the next three years can only lead one to suggest the conclusion is known; the $1 million that EY will be paid seems a high price for a nice "bow" on a Review already in.

Ed Martin must have thought he was blessed to have won another accommodating Premier, on the heels of no fewer than four compliant Tory predecessors.

Of course, “truth to power” is never found among the self-absorbed or the conflicted.

More mature societies are capable of sacrificing one or two brave souls who will put their jobs, even their reputations on the line, in an effort to counsel sanity. But not here. The public interest does not count for that much.

Mr. Ball should begin to understand that when all is considered, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians might be more willing to place their trust in the Bond Rating Agencies of New York and their ability to impose realism, than in public servants who eschew any antidote but “hope”.  

Such a reliance on New York might seem like an act of undeniable desperation, to be sure.

But it offers a far better chance than the feint hope anyone, here, has the capacity to speak truth to power.

5 comments:

  1. A friend of mine who spent decades in Central Canada advising several provincial governments recently returned to Newfoundland. She was dismayed with NL public service. Not really by the quality of the people, more the culture of fear, indifference, and lack of decision making ability. Her conclusion is that we need to bring in public servants from other jurisdictions to provide some new life. But it is a cultural issue, which the public servants are not truly even aware of. It was a really depressing conversation really.

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  2. salt beef junkie4 January 2016 at 09:51

    this article hits the nail on the head but may not go far enough.... the beaurocrats that punch the proverbial time clock and have done so for decades are, I think more complacent that proactive. either by inability or simple bad habit. it takes a knowledgeable minister and knowledgeable govt to remove those that are just biding their time in the deputy, and ass deputy positions and to openly embrace the full meaning of whistleblower legislation.....just like the hierarchy of organized labor that gets lost in its own aura of importance, so too do the ones that hold leadership beaurocratic deputy and ass deputy seats in some departments...... cheers

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  3. There needs to be a massive house-clearing. If Dwight Ball is not willing to do that house-clearing, then he needs to be house-cleared first.

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  4. First of all,the update was Dec 2015, not 2014..typo.
    I am appalled at the lack of transparency in the meeting minutes…they serve absolutely no purpose.
    It is impossible to believe that the Liberals did not know the provincial situation is so dire. I have followed the Provincial spending fairly closely, but only as a busy employed resident, and knew it was dire since the huge increase in Provincial salaries was announced, after there were reclassifications and huge salary increases to doctors, nurses, social workers, etc. prior to the general increase, and the subsequent large increase in the size of the Public Service. Also, the streaming out of millions to Nalcor, consultants, etc. It had to crash and burn, and we can't afford to wait a year and a half to start the serious cuts and revenue increases needed. The HST cut was very short sighted. I am worried for myself, my family and my children.

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    1. Thanks for pointing out the error. I have made the correction.

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