Risk
May 7, 2012

Risk management at risk

Timing may not be everything, but it certainly can sound an entertaining note in the public policy arena every now and then.

Like the other day, when the Ottawa Citizen reported, via a front page headline, on plans to put “billions in federal IT projects under review.” Reporter Kathryn May went on to describe what could be an exhaustive look at federal spending on information technology, to “help MPs determine whether the multibillion-dollar price tags are justified.”

That news landed on the doorsteps of the nation’s capital about two hours before no less than Mel Cappe – former Clerk of the Privy Council, more recently in the think-tank business, generally a widely respected sage on such matters – took to a stage before of an audience of those most directly concerned by the Citizen’s advisory.

“You can have too much accountability, which can be a crushing burden on creativity and risk taking,” Cappe told the Government Technology Exhibition and Conference without specific reference to the Citizen.

Cappe moderated his argument a little, by conceding that “it’s really a question of taking the right risk.” But there was no mistaking his general defence of risk management in the public sector – a thesis, shared by his fellow panelists Jodi White of the Public Policy Forum and Ian Clark of the University of Toronto, that is entirely at odds with the spirit of the planned review of IT spending.

The review, to be sure, isn’t driven by the kinds of backbench zealots to whom the only good bureaucrat is a newly unemployed bureaucrat. Its parliamentary voice belongs to New Democrat MP Paul Dewar, known as a champion of the very public servants who labor on, say, IT projects. “The whole IT thing needs to be looked at,” Dewar told the Citizen.

Plus: The exercise will be headed by Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, who seems to approach it in a spirit of objectivity.

“In our consultations with parliamentarians,” Page said, “concern has been expressed with regards to the business cases underlying large capital projects including information technology. We plan to examine those projects, on a forward looking basis, that are fiscally material and with higher levels of risk.”

Still, the notion that public servants might “risk” public funds is at the very least controversial, as even the risk-takers themselves acknowledge. “People are very risk-averse within the government of Canada,” said Marj Ackerly, CIO with Natural Resources Canada and a key player in the development of a much-lauded – and risky – IT project.

On the other hand, the rule books which govern federal public servants are hardly foes of risk. Treasury Board Secretariat, for example, has specifically endorsed risk management:

“Risk management is not new in the federal public sector. It is an integral component of good management and decision-making at all levels. All departments manage risk continuously whether they realize it or not – sometimes more rigorously and systematically, sometimes less so.”

Indeed, the same lengthy Treasury Board screed even looks back at the roots of the modern approach to government risk management, in a 1997 task force report which stressed the need for:
·    “…executives and employees [to be] risk attuned – not only identifying but also managing risks…”;
·    “…matching more creative and client-driven decision making and business approaches with solid risk management…”; and
·    “…creating an environment in which taking risks and the consequences of doing so are handled within a mature framework of delegation, rewards and sanctions.”

Which, when you think about it, makes Mel Cappe less provocative than he seemed to be in the immediate shadow of the Citizen’s report. Not to mention: It also affords some context for Budget Officer Page as he pokes at those big IT projects – which, from the newly disgraced Secure Channel to the newly celebrated GCpedia, are risky in the first instance. We should all wish him good luck; he’ll need it.

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