Procurement
January 24, 2014

What’s in a word?

Last month I wrote about accountability for procurement. I like this definition of the term: “If you are accountable for something, you are in a position that requires you to report to or answer to someone for your actions and decisions.” I would add this twist: the reporting should be accurate, complete and public.

Accountability today is far from that. Calls for someone to be “held accountable” usually mean a search for someone to blame.

The government is getting really good at blaming people and, while doing so, paralyzing itself as people seek to avoid any possibility of being blamed. Personal safety to support career advancement has taken centre stage. Appearances matter most.

A career public servant (one of many, I think) was shunted aside recently. The professional experience of a working lifetime now sits in splendid isolation, neither acknowledged nor taken advantage of because this person has a habit of telling people both the truth and how similar files have evolved in previous administrations.

A lot of people don’t want to hear that. Anyone advancing a “new and innovative” idea designed to support career advancement has no interest whatsoever in having a person of experience explain how that idea was advanced years ago, and what happened to it. Fast-trackers purvey smoke and mirrors, avoid making decisions that could derail their advancement, and move to new jobs before the train wrecks they have caused can derail. They seek appearances, oblivious to reality.

That makes it difficult to create a solid foundation for accountability, rather like building a house on quicksand. Accountability becomes a nice idea increasingly difficult to implement.

At the highest apparent level of public accountability – the House of Commons with its elected representatives – this accountability is severely lacking. Questions are asked because MPs (a.k.a. the people) want explanations: direct and complete answers are few and far between and transparency is opaque and distorted. The House has no rules about answering questions and the Speaker has no authority to do anything to an MP who refuses to answer. In the House, questions and answers are about politics and appearances, not accountability.

Elsewhere in government, straight answers to straight questions – offering a full and due reporting to the public – are also not likely to happen.

Under the federal Access to Information Act, many bureaucrats seem to avoid putting anything in writing that might lead to possible criticism and blame sometime in the future. This is made worse by people higher in the food chain who only want to hear good news. Pros reign; cons are minimized or ignored. No longer do public servants speak knowledge to power; they are expected instead to pander to known already-made decisions and biases.

Internal audits suffered from this malaise some years ago with the government decision to post them on the Internet. Almost overnight anything in an audit that could possibly lead to criticism seemed to disappear: the real substance – observations where managers could actually improve things – was put into unpublished management letters, or verbal debriefs, because no one wanted to risk blame for less than perfection.

The global result is that documents, the “proof” required to support and confirm accountability, are incomplete and slanted, although they are well massaged and elegantly formulated.

A lack of knowledge in the upper levels of the bureaucracy does not help. Although the executive position classification system places major emphasis on the knowledge needed to do a job effectively, too many executives simply have no knowledge of – let alone experience in – the subject fields they are supposed to be leading. That’s fine as long as they are prepared to seek and consider the advice of the experienced people with whom they work – but I have already talked about that!

Self-interest reigns for the micromanagers who are so concerned about being found at fault that they will not let $90,000-a-year professionals sneeze without “checking with me first.” Risk identification and management are now risk avoidance: doing nothing is better than doing something that could lead to criticism.

The Values and Ethics Code for the Public Services says that federal public servants must “[provide] decision-makers with all the information, analysis and advice they need, always striving to be open, candid and impartial,” and “never [use] their official roles to inappropriately obtain an advantage for themselves or to advantage or disadvantage others” (emphasis added).

How many public servants can look in the mirror and honestly say that they and the people they work with are in full compliance?

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