Who’d a Thunk It?

Canada’s Auditor General used his fall report to Parliament to break 2016’s least surprising item: the federal government is a mess that stubbornly refuses to clean itself up. The litany of chronic problems that Michael Ferguson notes include the following:

  1. “Programs that are managed to accommodate the people running them rather than the people receiving the services.”
  2. “Programs in which the focus is on measuring what civil servants are doing rather than how well Canadians are being served.”
  3. “Regulatory bodies that cannot keep up with the industries they regulate.”
  4. “Public accountability reports that fail to provide a full and clear picture of what is going on for a myriad of reasons—such as systems that are outdated or just not working, or data that is unreliable or incomplete, not suited to the needs, or not being used.”

“Our audits,” he laments, “come across these same problems in different organizations time and time again.” “Even more concerning,” he adds, “is that when we come back to audit the same area again, we often find that program results have not improved.” He notes a “lack of focus on end-users, Canadians.” Ferguson then cites several examples of federal agencies making little to no effort to improve service or even measure results from the public’s perspective, all while patting themselves on the back for a job well done.

The most interesting passage is the following:

“At this point, government may already be lagging behind its citizens. In a 2013 audit, we found that government online services were not focused on the needs of Canadians, and that accessing those services was complex and time-consuming. These findings highlight the gap between government’s capacity to provide technology-based services and Canadians’ expectations. Government departments and agencies need to look differently at their positions as service providers. Government as a whole needs to identify the services that will be disrupted by technology, and it needs to be good at service delivery to remain relevant […] It is critical for government departments to understand that their services need to be built around citizens, not process—or they can expect that those services will be disrupted.”

Having just remarked upon the state’s unyielding dedication to business as usual, he asserts that the solution is… for the state to improve. Since I’ve already argued in detail that government failure is part of the nature of the beast and that the problem is insoluble, I will not repeat myself. But it is fascinating – and disheartening – that even a man who has spent every workday for five years peering deeply into the sausage factory that is the state cannot wrap his head around the idea that the thing is simply irredeemable. Ferguson knows that there will be no consequences to the civil service for failing to heed his advice, apart from yet another stern finger-wagging in a report to come. He knows that there is no incentive for bureaucrats to change, and no earthly reason to expect them to do so. And so he is reduced to pleading with them to mend their ways because that sure would be nice.

Ferguson concludes his statement with the observation that in “a few years” both he and the government will be nearing the end of their mandates. At that time, he asks, “I wonder if I will find myself repeating these words, or if I will be able to talk about real improvements in government services built around people.”

Bereft of clairvoyance though I am, if Michael Ferguson ever finds the suspense unbearable I’ll be happy to give him a preview of the answer to his question.

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