The Rule of Clerks – Canadian Government Executive

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May 7, 2012

The Rule of Clerks

CGE Vol.13 No.1 January 2007

Nicholas I, Czar of all the Russians, realized, after 30 years in the job, “I do not rule Russia, ten thousand clerks do.”

In view of that wry approach to hierarchy, Nicholas would perhaps be struck by a certain familiarity in today’s public sector. It’s not exactly a place where clerks “rule,” maybe. But, partly because of that pesky sponsorship item and years of consequent to-ing and fro-ing about accountability and delegation and the like, it is increasingly a place where the most unlikely types can be calling the shots.

As a f’rinstance, take personal services contracting, long a staple in the business of government. Deputy ministers, assistant deputy ministers, directors-general and the like are variously responsible for same and are expected to sign off accordingly. Which, by and large, they do.

Except that, being hugely pressed, they usually – and appropriately – restrict themselves to identifying the requirement for a contract and, later, turning the results into policy, program or both. The fine details of the actual contracting are delegated to points which may be well down the food chain – dedicated toilers whose scope of work roughly matches the marching orders carried by the clerks of the aforementioned Nicholas I.

And they can be sticklers for detail, these modern clerks, zealously crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s to make sure that nothing is awry in post-Gomery contracting.

All well and good, to be sure. But what happens when zealotry crosses the line, into the kind of literal pedantry that is the stuff of contractors’ nightmares? Where can the aggrieved widget consultant go for his fair hearing?

Technically, the answer is simple enough: To the office of the appropriate assistant deputy minister or similar. Someone’s in charge somewhere, after all; go there, embattled one. A contract that seems to be headed off the rails can indeed be adjusted by fiat from the top.

Except (there’s that word again): The folks at the top are increasingly loathe to direct said adjustments, especially on paper. They’ve seen it all too often; an apparently routine memo or email turns out to be Big News a few years later, argued about by legislators, analyzed by journalists, parsed before committees of all types, in and outside the political and media circuses. Sometimes you can’t see it coming until it bites you . . . wherever. Best, as a rule, to leave well enough alone and let the clerks do their clerk-ish thing.

In other words, the clerks are effectively calling the shots. ‘Tis at least ironic.

Most of the time – nearly 100 percent of the time, actually – all this unfolds without incident. Contractors do good work for satisfied public servants, from clerk to deputy, and the sun continues to rise in the east and set in the west.

That being said, however, there’s ample anecdotal evidence of a bit of a problem here. Decision makers who are reluctant to make decisions aren’t really doing their jobs, the New Sensitivity be danged or somesuch.

It’s low-level kin to the practice lamented in November by former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci, in a properly celebrated address to the Public Policy Forum. In the wake of the sponsorship scandal, he said, what disturbed him was a response that assumed that “more rules and more complex procedures will make us safer from this kind of abuse.”

Iacobucci went on to call for “a clearer articulation of values” in public sector management. “Codes of conduct, rules, prescribed procedures and the like are just the window dressing,” he said. “They are not the reality of values. Rules only work if we are already disposed to respect them in our work.”

Sage stuff, you could say – and a sound foundation for the taking of sound decisions by a sound public sector.

Robert Parkins is an editorial director with Canadian Government Executive.

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