Opinion
June 27, 2012

Discounting the evidence and passing the buck

The recent turmoil in financial markets, the federal government’s massive public spending to create jobs and stabilize the economy, and the threat of H1N1 to the general population are all very tangible examples of how government is involved in almost all spheres of activity in our society. They also illustrate that every country needs a first class public service to weather the inevitable crises that arise.  

Ironically, at a time when governments should be ramping up to meet some of the longer term issues to face a nation, there are a number of factors that suggest the response could be less than optimal.  

Among the Westminster countries, there continues to be an ongoing but largely invisible debate about the value of government and the role it should play in a modern democracy. We appear to be going through a phase where the public and elected politicians continue to question the value of activist and progressive government. Despite the obvious failure of the private sector to monitor its own activities in deregulated markets, the public does not appear to have become more trusting of government.

In fact, the data suggest that, overall, the public trusts government institutions less than it did a few years ago. Even public servants are less confident of government than they once were. In Canada, as part of an IPAC/ Deloitte/CGE survey, 48 percent of federal and provincial government executives indicated that government is less capable of responding to challenges than it was a few years ago. The data are less encouraging among U.S. government executives, with 60 percent indicating that government is less able to respond to new challenges than previously.    

To some degree this should not be too surprising given that it has become very popular in the media to attack government and to play a “blame game” by highlighting government failures and demonizing those who are responsible. As Bill Eggers noted in If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, “the easy answer of human error supplants a more nuanced appreciation of underlying systemic failure.”

We have developed a new culture of blame and accountability that seeks out and identifies those who are deemed to have failed to deliver. Unfortunately, in many of these cases, it is the public service that is held accountable for the poorly developed programs of their political masters that creates confusion as to where the accountability should be directed.  

In addition to the blame game, the public sector in recent years has been subjected to two other developments that promise to undermine the effectiveness of government. The first is the general discounting of evidence as a cornerstone of good policy development. The election of ideological governments in Canada and the U.K. has served to minimize data, evidence and facts and to replace them with political rhetoric and narrowcast thinking that is not based on what is known. By attacking the messenger, as we have seen in the case of federal public servant Richard Colvin, the political strategists have resorted to undermining the credibility of the analyst instead of demonstrating the unsustainability of their analysis. At this point, there are too many examples to dismiss these cases as simply idiosyncratic single outliers.  

The second development is the general inability of our parliamentarians to have or to encourage a sustained and informed conversation about any policy area given the highly charged political environment that characterizes many governments today. Whether it is climate change, health care or pension reform, the first reaction of our elected officials is to discourage any form of ongoing and informed discussion. This is often manifested as an attack on the organization or person who has done the work, a refusal to allow for a non-partisan debate on the issue, or the reluctance to find a compromise or consensus among decision makers.  

It wasn’t so long ago that Canadians used evidence and consensus to deal with one of our most pressing issues. In 1993, the federal government faced a $43 billion deficit. However, the almost decade-long conversation that former Minister of Finance Minister, Michael Wilson, led regarding the deficit and its impact on the future of Canada resulted in a very concerted effort by the Chretien government to address the deficit burden with strong public support.  

We need to have a similar prolonged and informed discussion about the pending impact that our aging population will have on the sustainability of our health care, public pension, and job creation systems. This is the time to ask stakeholders to bring forward the evidence and for parliamentarians and others to provide the platform for discussion and debate. To do anything less will simply transfer the costs of our inaction onto generations that follow us.


David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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