I’d really like to call this post something else, but it’s time I stopped holding back on what some people think is their God-given right to complain about how they think the public servant’s job should be done, and that all public servants will “obviously” agree. What triggered my lack of inhibition? Johanna Read’s incredibly biased and non-factual article in today’s Ottawa Citizen (Read: Trudeau is ready but the public service isn’t).
Let’s break her argument down, because there are very few points I can agree with as a career civil servant.
- Public service has been cut too far;
- Public service is gagged and under-utilized i.e. “scientists”;
- Public service is demoralized by previous government;
- Accountability measures created by civil servants pushed decision-making upward;
- Core business is fearless policy advice;
- Challenges in loyally implementing decisions;
- Public service values in treating each other are lower;
- No market for advice under previous Prime Minister;
- Public service policy is now about power games, cliques, and close-mindedness due to empire-building;
- Therefore public service is not ready as capacity has been weakened and need management agenda for culture change, including new values, new attitudes, new behaviours.
Not all scientists are created equal
Let’s start with the second one first — scientists are gagged. That’s the biggest, most popular refrain you hear. From those who bemoan the loss of the long-form census, to the cuts at Stats, to the scientists who have a supposed “right” to have their science studies published. It was heard repeatedly throughout the last few years, unions made the claims and shook their fists, scientists started websites to bring attention to their important issue. And it sounds incredibly damning. Except it’s not entirely true.
Most of the people making the claim are not actually scientists. You see, scientists writ large have a core requirement to have that job description — they actually have to be “doing science”. You know, the basics…posing an hypothesis, writing down their assumptions and control variables, designing an experiment to test their hypothesis, having other scientists review their approach and methodology, doing the actual experiment (primary research to test the hypothesis), repeating the experiment, having others review the results and preliminary conclusions, ensuring others can replicate and test your conclusions, publishing your results. People claim to be scientists because they work in a field like health and health is a science; but a major-league baseball pitcher uses linear physics to launch a projectile with spin, torque, and lift, but that doesn’t make him a physicist.
If what you are doing is at best secondary research, and primarily working with publicly-collected statistical tables and data, you’re a researcher. Mostly you’re a statistician, but I’ll grant you “social (science) researcher”. And true scientists who work in labs and do real research think government “scientists” are mostly jokes, only a narrow few meet the standard definition in the various science fields. So I’m not alone in my labelling them researchers, not scientists. The public service DOES have some, but way fewer than those who claim the title.
Now, go back to those claims the “scientists” made, and ask if you have a different view of their claims when you substitute researcher for their claims. Most people do because while “science” is about hard-core facts, i.e. cold, objective, quantifiable, truth, “research” is about trends, margins of error, assumptions and limited conclusions. It’s why you frequently, even in “sciences”, have research studies that show completely opposite results. Those variables back at the beginning are way too important to say “we have cold hard facts”. We have “findings”. Findings which have to be interpreted.
Look at the WHO — they did enormous studies to come to the conclusion that processed meats are carcinogenic. Is it a scientific fact that they will cause cancer in a specific individual? No. They have no way of saying for sure. They can, however, say it will raise the likelihood 18% for every 50g consumed daily. Probability. Statistics. Likelihoods. Rationalizing from the group to an individual. A pretty far drop from the type of “facts” that Canadian public servants claim they are being muzzled from reporting to Canadians as “scientists”.
Let’s go further though. Do Canadian researchers “test” hypotheses? No, most of them never said what their hypothesis was, it wasn’t required, they’re just doing research. They’re looking to “see what is there”. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is the same phrase used by painters and sculptors — they just “revealed what was there”, they didn’t create anything. Did other scientists review their results? Of course! Well, at least, other “scientists” within the bureaucracy. The same ones who said their approach was sound, and approved or managed them in their project. Science requires independent verification and replication. Preferably BEFORE publication, since after all, you are about truth, not credit, right? Well, academics can do that. They can publish first, get the credit and have others then validate what they did. And that’s what Canadian scientists claim they have the right to, just as academics do, just as all scientists do. Except they forget three very important facts.
First and foremost, not all scientists have that right. Most R&D scientists, or any academic on funded research, can’t publish, the results are owned by whoever paid for the research. Basic intellectual property rights. In this case, you know, the Government of Canada who paid for it all, gave you a job, office, resources, access to the data, etc. And that whole contract you signed when you started working for the Government basically said you have a giant “non-disclosure” clause taped over your mouth. Because all public servants do, unless it is a whistleblower situation. But sure, forget what you signed, let’s now claim you have a right to remove that tape.
Second, academics get to publish whatever they want because they’re academics — there is a giant difference between someone saying a “University of Ottawa researcher found” and the “Government of Canada has declared that”. Canadian government research comes with a giant GoC logo behind it. That raises the bar to astronomical levels as to what we have to be absolutely sure of before we print something…take the falsified autism studies a few years back. Suppose that we looked at that and went, “Oh my god, we’ll have to ban all vaccines immediately.” Umm, no, we won’t. But if that falsified study had come out with a GoC or WHO wordmark attached to it, the results would have been a million times more devastating. Equally, if a researcher said they had evidence that processed meats cause cancer, people would have mostly ignored it after a day. But it’s WHO research. That means something. Even more so than GoC. Logos matter.
If an academic releases a false alarm about broccoli, it might make the front page for a day and be gone once someone debunks it. If a Canadian government researcher says it, the entire broccoli industry might be toast and every Canadian will suddenly be unable to find broccoli because lobby groups will attack grocery stores, medical associations will start to question if they should recommend against it too, etc. If a Canadian researcher finds a result in their stats work that suggests a major conclusion, that doesn’t mean we should rush to press without scrutiny — it actually INCREASES the level of scrutiny way beyond what any private sector company or public sector academic might be able to do or say. That whole “PUBLIC TRUST” requirement that goes with the job…it doesn’t mean we print everything, it means we have to manage it professionally too.
Third, let’s look for a moment at a related evidentiary claim. “1000s of studies every year” are muzzled. Shocking, right? Umm, wait a minute. 1000s a year? That means a minimum of 40 per week (assume a minimum of 2000 over 50 weeks). And someone thinks the Government of Canada should release all 40 of those each week. Because that would be a good communications strategy, right? Dumping 40 studies a week on the public and the press, because the civil servant put a lot of work into it? Or, perhaps, just perhaps, if you cared about things like, I don’t know, policy, accountability, communications, you might say, “Hey, wait a minute, not all those 40 studies are created equal nor are all the results equal in weight, nor have all of them been equally vetted.” Maybe, I don’t know, you might think, is there some way to ensure that WHO-level research on meats doesn’t get buried by the latest stat on car thefts in Calgary or that a recall on medicine doesn’t get lost in stats on a .005% change in fish stocks over the last three years? That we might, I don’t know, prioritize our publication of studies so that truly significant ones get attention? How might we do that? Oh, right, we might control which ones get released and when and how. Heck, we might even want to think about which studies have resources attached to it in the way of spokespeople to further promote the work and which ones we want people to do nothing on, and to get back to other work.
The CBC published an article back in May about examples of muzzling. They searched for damning evidence of the muzzling. Here’s what they found:
- An NRCan scientist wasn’t given interview permission in time to meet a reporter’s story deadline about a flood that happened 13000 years ago — I’m sure the story was really compelling, ground-breaking and URGENT, but I’m unsure how disastrous it was that no one immediately dropped everything to approve the interview (which, btw, was approved, just not “in press time”);
- Environment Canada published a paper about climate change and then didn’t grant interviews about one of the findings…hmm, wait, didn’t we say they were muzzled? But the paper was published, so I’m confused, maybe they think muzzling means something else; or,
- DFO blocked someone from talking about viral infections in salmon…hmm, we have an entire set of provinces whose livelihood depends in large part on salmon fishing…is it possible, even arguable, that pushing one study suggesting a link between viral infections and increased salmon mortality might be considered a bit alarmist? Or can we go back up to the top where I mentioned “responsible control of messages” and then note that the STUDY WAS STILL PUBLIC, they just weren’t pushing it higher with a GoC logo on it by giving out interviews to fuel the story;
- A reporter asked for data from radiation monitors. This one seems pretty damning because no one was allowed to talk to reporters about it. Scary, right? It seems, from some other reporting at the time, that the government decided it was a sensationalized non-story that would risk unnecessarily scaring people, and the government decided not to play along. Because, again, GoC logos are kind of important.
If muzzling is occurring at the alarming rate as cited by EVERYONE and assumed to be true, there is something else I would expect to see. A very clear evidentiary line. Whistleblower cases. Clear cases where safety and security were compromised by data being withheld. Cover-ups. Scandals that lead to RCMP investigations and lawsuits around negligence and reckless disregard for human life. Like the radiation monitors one. A whistleblower flagging a lapse in safety and security, or at least a subsequent study showing higher levels during that period.
What do we actually have? Nothing. Not a single case where government was found to be HIDING A PROBLEM, but a lot of evidence of a government arguably saying, “We’re not promoting all stories equally.” Just as they do for all policy issues too where they felt a smaller government was better than a larger government, and less intrusion into people’s lives not more. And not a single case where a whistleblower came forward. How strange, in a climate where “muzzling is the norm”. Because civil servants are apparently not shy about complaining about how we’re being treated, so why shy about an actual potential problem? Somewhere?
The real question then becomes not whether supposed scientists were “muzzled”, nor even which researchers should get a chance to speak, but more importantly, who gets to decide?
Before moving on, I have to indulge myself a bit to take a small swing at the long-form census types. The argument is simple, basic policy work requires research, research requires solid evidence, and the long-form census is how you get the data. Ergo, we need the long-form census. And it is so blindingly obvious, that anyone who disagrees must be an absolute idiot. That last part isn’t always stated explicitly, but it’s definitely there in the rhetoric.
I’m going to state right upfront my confession. I totally agree with the stats people. It is important data. It is required to do the job right. And yet, I don’t disagree with both a government having the right to decide not to do it AND that there are some issues that need to be addressed or mitigated if someone wants me to agree that it has to be done one specific way.
First, we need the data to do modern, professional analysis. That’s clear.
Second, the long-form census is how we get it and it’s the only way. Wait a second. I understand the methodology. I know there are many ways to get data. So how come you’re saying it’s the only way? It’s the most efficient, sure, but that’s not the claim. The claim is we have to have “the long-form census” as is. Why? We can do focus groups, smaller targeted surveys, interviews, third party data analysis, proxies, etc…hundreds of options. Yet everyone arguing says its the only way. That’s a bald-faced lie that no one calls them on. I see it every day…evaluators regularly make the same claim about income tax data. “We need it and this is the only way.” Well, if we don’t get it for you, are you going to close up shop and it can’t be done? No, we’ll do it another way. Other sources, other methodologies. None of them as good, a lot less efficient, more costly, less accurate, all those things. And *THAT’S* a compelling civil service argument, and one that should have been made. Transparently. Not lying to Canadians that the long-form census is the only way.
Third, advocates argued the long-form census had to be mandatory. Again, I have to ask why. Well, it was the only way to ensure a perfect sample. Okay, but how would you normally adjust for that? Over sampling would be the standard answer. Mandatory is more efficient, but it’s far from the only option. Drastic over-sampling would get you pretty close. And with a government that felt less-intrusive was better than intrusive, it seems like a legitimate consideration to address. But no debate was held, advocates just said it had to be long-form and had to be mandatory. And what happens if it is voluntary and they successfully over-sample to get the rate up? They run the risk that the data isn’t as accurate/representative as before. In short, larger margins of error. Not as compelling as “we need it”.
Fourth, what exactly does mandatory mean? It means there has to be a penalty for not doing it. Without the penalty, it’s not really mandatory, it’s just targeted. What’s the penalty? Fine or imprisonment. Whoa. The criminal justice system is an incredibly powerful instrument. We literally stack the entire state against a person — from cops to prosecutors to judges, all employees of the state, arranged against you. Because you didn’t tell us where you lived and how much you made last year? I have a huge philosophical and professional concern with any census having the criminal justice system attached to it in any form, all from the perspective of the role of the state and the way it interacts with citizens. I also have a view about whether civil servants should be basing their arguments of options on those normative views.
Fifth, is there any reason why a citizen might not WANT to share the info? Sure, because it is incredibly intrusive. And the GoC doesn’t have the best record on privacy. Or maybe because they also know it’s valuable…companies who want your data elsewhere might pay you for it, but citizens should give it up to government for free? How about instead of going back to paying for completion (we used to attach the coins to the form, didn’t we?), we attach it to the income tax form, run it annually instead of every ten years, and give people $10-$50 in credits for filling it out? What kind of data would we get then? Better, worse? Fewer, more? Don’t know, never addressed.
So, on the one hand, we have a mandatory census that is great and gets us the data we need, and on the other hand, we have a government that doesn’t like it, a heavy instrument like the criminal justice system tied to it, and privacy concerns. And that’s what other objective civil servants could see. With even a basic understanding of stats, they could see it even more clearly. So, the responsible response is for the civil servants to say “here are the options”. We can do A, B, C, or D (with A being the same mandatory long-form census). “A” would have likely been the recommendation all the way through, because it is the best. But we owed it to the government and the taxpayer to be transparent with all our arguments, not to dig in our heels to say A is the ONLY solution.
Because when other civil servants saw that, they got real uncomfortable. I know, because we talked about it. Because that’s not the job. We provide options, the politicians decide, and we implement. We certainly don’t paint ourselves into corners to say “A or BUST!”, cuz you end up with nothing, and then everyone’s job is harder. We also don’t bitch after the fact that implementation would have been better or easier if they chose a different option. Because then you not only lost the battle, you lose a lot of support from civil servants who otherwise would have been more supportive if you did the job properly, not became advocates.
Basic principles of democracy and the public service
Let’s now look at a bunch of inter-related claims — #1 (cut too far), #5 (core business is policy), #8 (no market for advice), and the second half of #2 (under-utilized). Really what Ms. Read is talking about in the article is the role of the public service under the previous government, how it worked or didn’t work, etc.
I’m not sure how to say this without seeming both incredibly rude and condescending — that’s the job.
You see, a long time ago, people started this thing called democracy in a modern state. The basic principles are both profound yet incredibly simple. A bunch of citizens band and bind themselves together to create this thing called a state. Often with theoretically fixed boundaries, but let’s not digress too much. They have many citizens, and they want a common way to have everyone’s relations managed the same way (fairness) in interacting with the State who, in exchange for citizens giving up certain liberties (the right to declare war on others), will provide services (police, defence, roads, hospitals). And, with more services demanded, and more citizens to deal with, and more disputes to resolve between citizens (courts), they need two things. First, they need servants of the state to perform the services of the state. Second, they need someone to rule the state servants to ensure they are delivering on the needs of the citizens. In Canada, we have organized our citizens into 338 constituencies so they can send representatives to Ottawa to rule the Government of Canada. Those political reps are the decision-makers, the public service is the implementer.
So, we claim the service was cut too far. Who gets to decide the size of the public service? Obviously, it can’t be the public service itself. And we can’t survey 38M Canadians for every decision. So the “decision-makers” get to decide how big the public service should be. Whether a waiting time should be 5 days and needs 100 staff, or the service standard should be 20 days with 75 staff. They get to decide. Because the citizens elected them to make those decisions.
We (cuz apparently all civil servants think the same thing) claim there was no market for advice. Hmm…what a coincidence. A government that was elected, partly with a mandate that they were in favour of a smaller government, didn’t look for advice on how big the public service should be (for example).
Let me clue you in to a little secret…lean close…psst…they also get to decide what advice they listen to, or not.
I hate to bring a parental metaphor in here, but I will … when you moved out of your parent’s house, and you started living on your own, your parents probably told you things you didn’t want to hear. And eventually, you got to decide if you even WANTED their advice. Because you were in charge of your own life. And you got to decide whose advice you were going to listen to, and whose advice you were not. And if you change caregiving roles and start telling the parents what to do, they’ll decide if they listen to you too.
And, if you go back to core mandates of the government, the elected party seemed to be of the mindset (at least according to external analysis) that the elected party’s job was to make policy decisions (based on whatever evidence they chose as relevant), and the public service’s job was more implementer than policy developer. Yep, they get to decide that too. Public servants may not have liked it, we may have thought we were under-utilized (and Ms. Read as a former “policy executive” may have felt it more so than others), but that was the ruling government’s decision to make.
Let me digress too to dispute Ms. Read’s view of the core function of civil servants. We like to wrap ourselves in a giant policy flag, the noble civil servant providing fearless policy advice to elected Ministers. It almost makes me want to salute the flag. Except that the public servant’s CORE role is not policy advice. Its core role is very clear — to implement. To provide services. Of the 250,000 civil servants in this country, most of them have nothing, in fact, to do with policy advice. They are service delivery personnel.
Over the last 50 years, the world has gotten more complicated, and governments have professionalized the civil service so that experts in policy development and policy areas can provide advice to Ministers who, generally speaking, do not have in-depth knowledge of a subject area, and thus will welcome the advice. But just as the single person newly living on their own doesn’t have to listen to the advice of their parents, nor ageing parents the advice of their children, so too do Ministers get to decide what our role is. If, as Read and others are correct (and I’m not entirely convinced that they are), that Ministers didn’t want the civil servant’s policy advice, nor did they even ask for it, then that was their elected right.
In actual fact, civil servants have six separate functions that can be easily broken down:
- Direct support to Ministers and Parliamentarians;
- Strategic policy;
- Program policy;
- Operational policy / delivery design;
- Service delivery; and,
- Internal administration.
A and B are the smallest by number; C, D and F are moderately sized; and E is the largest. Yet according to Ms. Read, B & C are the fearless core functions of government.
Pick up any policy textbook of the last twenty years and you’ll see decent coverage of a basic element of policy work — internal government bureaucrats no longer have a monopoly on that function. Think tanks, academics, NGOs, and the private sector all have detailed policy positions, often backed with decent research and evidence, and all ready to be sent through the internet at a single click. If, as Ms. Read claims, that function was not valued and thus “under-utilized” by the previous government, was it simply that they felt they had enough of B &C from other sources? I don’t know. It will be a question for historians and archivists to debate.
But the basic premise is still as solid as ever under any government. They get to decide the size of A-F, and they get to decide how resources across A-F are deployed. If the public service has an inalienable right, a core function, it is in E, and from E, a small claim to D (delivery design based on the evidence of how E is working). No more, no less. Everything else is up to the elected government in power to decide.
Because that’s the job we signed up for. Too bad Read and others didn’t understand that when they signed their contract.
Accountability, Values and Ethics, and Power Games
I find it really curious that Ms. Read and others make claims that the public service has changed dramatically and it is all the previous government’s fault. So, she notes that accountability measures (#4) pushed decision-making upward. And that public servants did it, but the government is to blame. Ignoring the second part, let’s look at standard command and control research.
Cuts do that. People with less resources tend to be more cautious, more risk-averse. They delegate upwards for awhile, they manage horizontally. They do that in government, private sector, everywhere. It’s basic org theory. Until it stabilizes and the “new normal” shakes itself out. Almost every department has noticed what Ms. Read is talking about — the need to delegate downwards, blah blah blah. As it did in the 80s, and the 90s, and the 00s. It’s standard org theory for any organization going through structural change or directional change. Guess what? It also happens in government after EVERY GOVERNMENT CHANGE.
Because people aren’t sure if the advice they gave yesterday that they thought was good solid non-partisan advice was as non-partisan as they thought. Or that the current government might not have a different view of the role of service delivery. Maybe we should be in primary education, not just leave it to the provinces. Maybe we should be regulating universities. And so change causes uncertainty, and uncertainty forces delegations upward. Oh, and then we add in accountability measures (which are somehow bad according to Ms. Read), to show that the decisions are made at that level. I’m wondering if she has ever seen an audit. The first thing they do in an audit is look at how control frameworks in place reflect the work on the ground. So, what a surprise, we modified (in some departments) control frameworks to match the decision-making structure. Oh, wait, because that’s what they’re SUPPOSED TO DO. Does it look like a bureaucracy? Yep. Cuz it IS a BUREAUCRACY. That’s where the pejorative use of the damn word comes from!
The part that most concerns me is after completing misunderstanding (or at least misrepresenting) how policy and decision-making work in an elected world, she then turns to how civil servants can’t loyally implement decisions (#6). Well, they can, if they know what their ACTUAL job is, not what they think it should be or would like it to be.
It’s not unlike what you do in an ideal world if you give advice to a Minister and they don’t agree. In the world of the fearless advice, you make your case, Minister may disagree. If you feel strongly about it, or think perhaps the Minister didn’t understand, you try a second time. You might, if you’re really passionate or stubborn, try a third time. After that, you’re not providing advice anymore, you’re simply second-guessing your Minister who, and this truly sucks, has the elected right to be wrong.
You may not like it. You may not agree with the decision. You may disagree with it fundamentally. But there’s a reason why you’re supposed to be NON-PARTISAN and IMPARTIAL. Because whether it is a red, blue, green or orange government, you are supposed to give your best neutral advice, albeit perhaps couched slightly in red/blue/green/orange language since you’re trying to be persuasive, and then LOYALLY ACCEPT THE DECISION. If you can’t do that, then you aren’t fit to be a public servant. Because that’s the job.
Equally, she argues that the civil servants are devaluing one another (#7). In that, she’s partly right. This rant is part of that. Because I’m sick and tired of so-called scientists claiming that the government, to whom they owe a duty of loyalty, were horrible, no good, very bad people. Guess what? If you think that, quit. That’s your only option. Otherwise, shut the hell up and do your job. Because THAT’S WHAT THE JOB IS.
If you were truly impartial, you wouldn’t notice. You signed a contract, swore an oath, and are bound by multiple codes of behaviour, but somehow they must apply to other people or were just words. They weren’t. Not to me. And not to a lot of public servants who find the constant “woe is me” attitude incredibly inappropriate. Unbecoming, unprofessional, and downright rude. But we don’t normally say that. We ignore people instead who say, “How come you’re not supporting our complaints? How come you aren’t waving our science flag too? We’re all public servants, we’re all in this together.” Well, no, apparently we are not.
Because you apparently don’t know what it means to be a public servant. You forgot that whole “loyalty” thing. Regardless of who is in power or what direction they are going. And when fellow public servants forget that and become partisan, it makes the rest of us incredibly uncomfortable.
Equally, this applies to the power gamers. Sure, they exist. Truth is, they have always existed. Empire builders who play political games, build their little empires, and move up the ladder. Truth is, they exist everywhere. I know, absolutely shocking, isn’t it? Hospitals. Board rooms. Law firms. NGOs. Private companies, public companies. Family companies. The sycophant who gets better shifts at the local coffee shop because they are boot-licking SOBs. But I hate to say this, some of them are moving up because they are doing something better than others. LOYALLY IMPLEMENTING WHAT THEIR BOSSES DECIDED. You know, their jobs.
Not all, but you know who succeeded? People who could “speak Blue”. Who could offer advice focused on delivery more so than policy. Who recognized that the government’s view of the role of the public servant was different, and when they got resistance, they moved people. Cuz they get to decide that role, not us. And then those “power mongers” hired like-minded people who would do things the current way (i.e. “Blue”). Because they adapted to their bosses while others didn’t. Sure, there were people who crossed the line, there always are — people who stop spinning things blue/red/orange/green for the government of the day and start only speaking one of those colours and ignoring the impartial advice requirement. It’s nothing new. And many of them will be powerless shortly because they find it really hard to go back to the right way.
Where we go
Ms. Read argues that the public service is demoralized (#3), and along with a new policy agenda, there is a need for a new management agenda that will drive cultural change through new values, new attitudes, and new behaviours (#10). On this, she is dead wrong. Not about that demoralization factor, it’s real. But the solution isn’t to have new values, new attitudes and new behaviours.
It’s to actually DO THE JOB the way we’re supposed to do it:
We provide direct support to elected officials (like with Departmental liaison officers in Ministers’ offices).
We provide impartial information on strategic policy issues, including research — both R&D-like science and (science-related) research on long-term trends, issues, and relationships between economic, social and environmental factors.
We provide non-partisan advice and options on program policy questions, such as the effectiveness and efficacy of various instrument choices and the partners that would be involved in each one.
We provide expert analysis on operational policy and customized delivery design to maximize results.
We professionally deliver services to our clients, regardless of other factors — what party they voted for or what they’re wearing on their heads or the sex of the person they married.
And we find ways to manage and administer the connections between the other five parts in as professional and efficient as we can.
Once we do those six things, we can honestly say we’ve done the easy part of being public servants. The same values, same attitudes, and same behaviours we’re supposed to be doing now, and have been doing for some time, just not as uniformly of late as we perhaps should have been. And then we have to do the hard part — accept that when we do all of the above, the government of the day may still decide to do things differently than we recommended, and we have to be okay with that too.
That’s the job. No more, no less.
And if you can’t do THAT job, you shouldn’t be in public service. You should take the buy out and leave. Then shut up about what the role of a public servant is or should be because you were apparently never one to begin with…