Public SectorRenewalTransformation
September 30, 2015

A Serious Error in Judgement: Former PBO throws Public Service Leadership under the Bus

Written by Jason McNaught

Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page doesn’t put a lot of faith in the future of the public service. Even with new leadership in the PMO, Page has all but written off the current generation of leaders in the public service to affect meaningful change.

“Unfortunately,” he tells the National Post, “if any renewal is to take place within the public service, I sense it must come from a new generation of civil servants.” Page doesn’t mince words, continuing, “My generation has failed miserably in that regard.”

Page holds the public service accountable for allowing the PMO to turn their signature omnibus bills into standard practice in the House of Commons, and points the finger at deputy ministers for not providing spending plans to Parliament or being upfront with Canadians about the impacts of budget cuts.

“What I learned from my PBO experience is that our public service has become good at avoiding accountability and transparency,” Page says.

It won’t take a lot of guesswork to figure out how the former PBO feels about Blueprint 2020, a plan he says is filled with “bland and uncontroversial principles,” none of which will be realized under a politicized leadership that refuses to be transparent with Canadians.

But a recent Huffington Post Op-Ed penned by Clare Beckton, a 25-year veteran of the public service and the Founding Executive Director of Carleton University’s Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership, sees things differently.

While Page has resigned the public service and the senior leadership within it to fail regardless of what political party forms the government in October, Beckton puts a lot more faith in her former colleagues.

“Public servants believe in accountability and service to the public and their ministers,” she says. “That is not the issue. Rather, it is when rules are so abundant that they cross the line between accountability and immobilization of the ability to act effectively in the public interest.”

Beckton, like Page, believes that the past government didn’t do much (or any) good for the public service, but she doesn’t seem to buy that senior leadership rolled over and evolved into a pack of boot-licking toadies. Quite the contrary, actually.

“When you are committed to making a difference and serving the public, yet do not feel heard nor trusted, it’ demoralizing,” she says. “When public servants are not asked for advice, are blamed for mistakes, feel a lack of trust and are subject to excess rules, their health and well-being are affected. Add to that a negative public perception and we can see the reasons for high levels of stress.”

Beckton acknowledges that there are public service executives that do not contribute positively, but they can be found anywhere, she argues.

When Kevin Page was the PBO, he stood up to government — repeatedly. It took a lot of courage and he deserves a lot of credit for refusing to kowtow to the PMO. But this is not a Hollywood movie, and things don’t always work out the way they do in scripted films. As we know, Kevin Page lost his job.

Perhaps Page feels betrayed by public service leadership for not rallying alongside him during his dark and final days as PBO. Maybe he wanted other public service executives to threaten resignations en masse to affect real change … or maybe he’s just trying to sell books … BUT, condemning the public service to failure in a national paper – regardless of circumstance – was a serious error in judgement.

The Public Service is looking for meaningful change, and despite the presence of seat-warmers in top-level positions, there are many, many more leaders in the public sector that are willing to work hard for it. Page could have inspired his former colleagues to want the same kind of change he was obviously looking for as PBO; instead, he threw them all under the bus.

 

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