Tag Archives: cdnpoli

#Idlenomore as an existential threat

Almost three years ago (although I only worked up the nerve to post it two years ago, so sensitive is the topic), I wrote a blog post about First Nations youth, and how I suspected they were going to radically alter Canada’s relationship with First Nations, and likely change the very notion of how people understand and think about First Nations peoples.

If you haven’t read that old post, please consider taking a look.

To be clear, I’m not claiming I predicted #idlenomore, but thanks to an amazing opportunity to be part of the Environics Institute and the  Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, it was plainly obvious to me some tectonic shifts were occurring.

Now I want to go further out on a limb.

Back in May 2010, I said the next First Nations debate won’t include you (e.g. non-aboriginals). And despite what Idle No More looks like, I don’t think it does include most non-First Nations. My sense – which could be completely off-base, but which I posit in my previous post – is that there is an internal debate within the First Nations community about leadership, identity, power, institutions and First Nations’ relationship with Canada. Yes, #idlenomore is about the omnibus bill, and about First Nations’ role in Canada, but it is also about  how First Nations organize and see themselves. And it is fostering conversations and relationships within their community that will not create a single unitary consensus, but that will change the way First Nations relate and talk to the rest of Canada, their expectations of their leadership, and equally importantly, their expectations of us. They will be better prepared for the next conversation they want to have with non-aboriginal Canadians.

It will be exciting. And we non-aboriginals will be utterly unprepared.

This is because we don’t want to talk about these issues. Worse, we don’t know how to. And, most critically, we’re deeply scared to. In the minds of many Canadians, Idle No More represents an existential threat to the notion of Canada.

Why? Because it challenges us in deeply uncomfortable ways.

It challenges core notions of Canadian identity. Canadians believe people should be given a fair chance and that they should be treated equally. A conversation about #idlenomore would force Canadians to engage in a dialogue about equality and fairness on terms we might find uncomfortable. Canadians know many First Nations live in third-world conditions, but they mostly want the government to make the problem go away.

It challenges our sense of history. Few Canadians – and the current government especially – like to explore or understand the role of First Nations in our history. The First World War and our connections to “empire” earn more attention in curriculum than a complex exploration of the fact that Canada is a colony, and has embraced some of the darkest aspects that come with colonialism. There is racism in Canada. There is structural inequity. It doesn’t mean that Canada is racist, or that Canadians are racist. But there is racism. And we can’t even talk about it. Indeed, at present we seem fixated on celebrating pitched battles that defined the state, not the relationships, choices, and elements of our history that define our culture and critically explore who we are as a people.

And it challenges our institutions: Canadians fear that a conversation about First Nations threatens to undermine the role of parliament, of non-aboriginal rights to decide what happens in their community. In Vancouver – a complex place for First Nations/non-First Nations relations – many residents pass a giant glowing billboard erected by First Nations next to the Burrard Street bridge and fear that is the future in a renegotiated world. Don’t underestimate the scope and power of these fears. Just look at Christy Blatchford – a columnist who in one week mocks both the validity of First Nations as entities and the treaties we signed since they “were expected to be in place ‘as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows,'” and sees no irony in arguing the very next week that the unwillingness of the police to execute a judge’s order to dismantle a First nations barricade is a threat to the rule of law. So clearly, inconvenient treaties with First Nations – cited in our constitution – are disposable, while an order from a provincial judge is sacrosanct. It takes a special sense of privilege to believe these two ideas are compatible. Challenging our institutions will feel threatening, particularly to the beneficiaries of our current system (and let’s face it, non-aboriginals do pretty well by the status quo). This will create fear. Some of the concerns will be legitimate. Just as the fears, concerns and aspirations of First Nations are also legitimate. But fear is not a legitimate reason to avoid having a conversation.

Today, First Nations are having an internal conversation, as well as a debate with the Canadian state. But at some point, this conversation will be had with Canadians writ large. It might not be a single national conversation – it might be a million small ones that happen as an increasingly urban, educated and confident First Nations cohort become co-workers, neighbours and friends of more and more Canadians. And when that conversation happens, my hope is that we’ll recognize that it is an existential threat to what we believed Canada was. And much like #idlenomore is changing First Nations communities, this conversation will create a new understanding of Canada – in the same way a still ongoing conversation about Sikhs, Chinese, Jamaicans and other immigrants changed who we are and how Canadians saw themselves.

I just hope we handle the conversation well. And I confess I have no idea how to get prepared. Engaging the other is never easy, whether you are aboriginal or non-aboriginal. But think about attending a protest; don’t shy away from the articles (though, try to find stuff actually written by someone who is First Nations, rather than a pundit in a newspaper); and mostly, be open to the possibility for conversation and prepare to be triggered, and think about how you want to react when it happens.

So far, New Zealand is the only country I’ve seen that has had this conversation with its indigenous peoples in any meaningful way. I’m working on trying to find out more about how that process – which I’m sure was far from perfect – emerged and took place.

Because maybe it is time non-aboriginals get prepared, too. It would be a basic expression of respect.

The Northern Gateway Brief: Unhappy Political Options & Geo-Political Assessment

I spent much of last week in Alberta which, as anyone who has traveled across Canada knows, is a very different place from BC. While there, it became increasingly clear that talking about the oil sands in general, and the northern gateway pipeline in particular, was verboten. I spent my week in a Fawlty Towers episode: whatever I did… I couldn’t mention the war pipeline.

In Alberta, it seems an article of faith that the pipeline is going to be built. It was interesting contrast since, in British Columbia, it is virtually accepted that the Northern Gateway pipeline is not going to be built (and there is equally great opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline). At some point these two realities are going to clash. And that makes for interesting questions.

This post is not designed to be a definitive piece on the subject. I’m not an energy expert and don’t claim to understand this issue as well as others. However, I’ve not read anything like this to date and thought it might be interesting to outline a short intelligence brief for those curious about where things may be headed. Based on conversations I’ve had with people in the natural resource sector, government, environmental groups and first nations this is an effort to explore what I think are the likely scenarios and choices for our government, as well as what it may mean for foreign governments with an interest in the outcome.

Some Assumptions

If, as you begin to read this piece you are saying – err… what does David mean by the pipeline, I suggest a brief scan of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, which will run across Northern British Columbia and allow oil from Alberta’s oil sands to be exported from the west coast port of Kitimat. While I won’t talk about them as much, a reader will benefit from being aware of the proposed Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion and Keystone Pipeline. However, knowing about them is not a strict requirement.

In case anyone takes the time to read what I suspect will be a lengthy post… yes, I, like a large and growing number of BC residents, have deep reservations about the pipeline. My interest here however is less about whether the pipeline will happen – although I dive into that – and more about what I think that means for the choices of various players, which I think is quite interesting.

The New National Energy Policy: Why the Pipeline (Probably) Won’t Happen

I confess, sitting in British Columbia, it is very hard to imagine the pipeline being built. The fact is, most British Columbians – 60% – are opposed to the project, and that number has been growing, not shrinking. Each day, the project becomes more tarnished and unpopular.

At this point, a massive negative backlash against any political party set on ramming the project through British a very real possibility. It is hard to imagine the current government could have handled the communications around this project in a more inept manner. Environmental Minister Joe Oliver’s rant statement effectively labeling anyone opposed or concerned as a radical did more damage than any environmentalist campaign could have imagined. Those concerned about, but open to discussing the pipeline, felt attacked and grew suspicious that they would have no voice. As the polls reveal – they have turned sharply against the project.

The National Energy Program of 1980 – when a Liberal federal government forced Alberta to sell oil to central Canada at below market prices – is political lore in Alberta. It turned the province forever against the Liberals and become a major source of “western” grievance. Of course, British Columbians feel like they now are about to become the victims of a new National Energy policy, one that sees the export of Alberta’s oil subsidized by British Columbia, which will have to assume billions of dollars in environmental and economic risk while seeing relatively little economic benefit.

Given BC is about to acquire six new seats in the House of Commons, holding on to, and acquiring more of those seats is critical to Conservative’s efforts to maintain a majority. The concerns of British Columbians will not be taken lightly – one can imagine the discomfort of the BC caucus in the party. Indeed this August 2012 Abacus poll showed that “In BC… 41% of 2011 Conservative Party voters oppose the pipeline with 21% strongly opposed.”

Terrible Choices

This leaves the Federal Government in an exceedingly sticky position on multiple fronts. The government has, of course, been pushing Canadian oil across the Pacific, which has helped spur significant Asian investment in the oil sands; witness the  $15.1-billion acquisition of Calgary-based Nexen Inc. by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and $5.2-billion acquisition of Calgary-based Progress Energy Resources by Malaysia’s Petronas.

If the pipeline were now not to be built, the promises of access to Alberta oil across the Pacific would be greatly damaged; so too, I suspect, would be the access to foreign capital needed to develop the capital-intensive oil sands.

On the other hand, if the pipeline were to be built, the Conservatives would be significantly exposed to suffering major, and possible majority-ending losses, in British Columbia.

This means that all the current scenarios are not great for the government.

The first scenario assumes that the National Energy Board (NEB) – which is conducting a review of the pipeline (including an environmental review) – approves the project and that it gets built. This is a disaster. The risks of a new “National Energy Program” this time directed against British Columbia by Conservatives could wipe the party off the political map in BC much as it did the Liberals in Alberta after the 80s.

The second assumes the NEB approves it – however, the pipeline is bogged down for at least 10 years in litigation from First Nations and environmental groups (if not much, much longer). What makes this so friendly is that it may allow the government to appear to support the pipeline while nothing actually happens. It may thus be able to preserve its political base in BC since the facts on the ground don’t change much and can continue to cast its favourite enemies – environmentalists and, less publicly spoken, First Nations – as the enemies of progress. Ranting against the former could serve as a useful rallying cry for fundraising – much like the gun registry – for many years.

That said, foreign investment would probably suffer – how much I don’t know – but it is hard to imagine much Asian money flowing into the oil sands at this point.

Of course, if the NEB doesn’t approve the project, things get worse. Much worse. Now the only way for things to move forward is for the cabinet to overrule or find a workaround of the NEB’s decision (assuming this is possible).

If the Government doesn’t overrule the NEB, it is essentially telling Asia that its promises and commitments to exporting oil are empty. Do not expect a “Team Canada” trade mission to be welcome in the capitals of Malaysia or Beijing any time soon. Worse, expect Alberta – particularly Conservatives in Alberta – to be livid. The implications for the party’s internal dynamics could be significant.

However, if the government does find a way to overrule the NEB, this would constitute a direct attack on the interests of British Columbia. Conservatives would become even less electable than in scenario one. It would be a disaster. It is no wonder that even Joe Oliver – the aforementioned minister with the rant that killed the project – is softly using language that backs away from such an outcome.

The Escape Hatch

This leaves a final – and what I believe to be most probable – scenario. I expect that under intense pressure from the Conservative government, Enbridge will withdraw its proposal before the NEB rules on it.

Why?

Because this would save the government from having to make any of the damning political choices above – choices that would either damage the Conservative base in BC, damage the government’s credibility with foreign investors, or both. Yes, this would be a crushing blow to Enbridge, and significantly embarrassing for the government, but the alternatives are likely much worse, especially if the NEB does not approve the project. Of course, I’ve no idea if Enbridge would go along with such a plan, but I suspect that opposing a sitting government – one stacked with allies – is probably not appealing either.

I’m open to the possibility of being wrong about this; it is, of course, impossible to know the future, but my sense is that the interests and pressures facing the various parties involved leave this as a highly appealing option.

Out of the Frying Pan…

Of course, all of this has even more interesting implications south of the border.

There, President Obama still has to decide whether or not he wishes to approve the Keystone Pipeline, which would connect the oil sands with refineries in the United States. Approval for this pipeline was denied prior to the US election – in part, I believe, so as to not to alienate environmentalists. However, many – including myself – assumed that it would be approved after the election. I assumed in part this was to make the already controversial Gateway project less necessary (I suspect people in BC will be even less interested in Gateway if Keystone is approved) and thereby hurt China’s access to oil while securing more for the US.

However, because of the mismanagement of the Gateway project, the risks of it getting built have vastly diminished. Add on the prediction that the US will likely become self-sufficient in oil within two decades, and the calculus has changed. Now the president could further boost his environmental credentials, not worry about energy and not worry about enhancing China’s involvement in the North America energy market. Whereas I previously thought Keystone was a slam dunk decision, now… I’m not so sure.

If Keystone is not approved, this would be an unmitigated disaster for the government. The Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines – along with the political quagmire surrounding them – would become even more significant. Needless to say, if all three failed to materialize it would be hard to imagine much more development in the oil sands, if only because there would be no capacity to get the oil to any market.

You Do It To Yourself

Again, I’m sure there are flaws in the above assessment. What is most unclear to me is if cabinet can “overrule” the NEB or not. Having read some on this, it remains a mystery to me. I’ve assumed it can, but if it cannot, that would change the scenarios or, at least, eliminate some.

What I think is most interesting about all of this is that these wounds were virtually all self-inflicted. By alienating anyone with concerns about the pipeline, the government made enemies out of much of the BC public it needed for support. Of course, Enbridge has been the entity that has had to bear the majority of this negative public opinion. This has been a master stroke, since while Enbridge has been largely incompetent in its communications, it has not been malicious. It is the government, not Enbridge, that has employed an aggressive stance with environmental groups and others.

Either way, supporters of the pipeline will have a hard time blaming others for its likely failure to materialize. The project was always going to be a tough sell in a province that – while big on developing natural resources – has been home to some of the world’s largest environmental protests. But I really couldn’t imagine a worse bungled communications strategy – one that might end up having big implications for Canada’s domestic political scene, but also for its relations in Asia, and south of the border.

Launching the Canadian OGP Civil Society Discussion Group

Dear colleagues,

We are Canadians who have been actively involved with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) process, including by participating in the OGP meeting in Brasilia in April 2012. The OGP is a joint government – civil society initiative to promote greater openness, participation and accountability in countries which have already attained a minimum standard of openness. Canada joined the OGP in September 2011.

Participation by interested stakeholders is a key feature of the design of the OGP. There is equal representation of civil society and government representatives on the lead body of the OGP, the Steering Committee. More importantly, a key mechanism of the OGP is for countries to develop and then implement Action Plans setting out their commitments for moving forward in terms of openness, participation and accountability. Governments are formally required to consult extensively with civil society and other interested stakeholders in developing and delivering on their Action Plans. Civil society will also play a key role in reporting on progress in implementing Action Plans, including through its participation in a parallel Independent Reporting Mechanism, which will present its findings on progress alongside those of the government.

In several countries, civil society groups and other stakeholders have formed networks or coalitions to work together to help ensure effective external input into the development, implementation and evaluation of Action Plans. We are proposing to set up such a network in Canada and we are proposing, as a first step, to establish a discussion list involving external (i.e. non-government) groups and individuals who have a demonstrated commitment to open government and who are interested in getting engaged in this important work. We envisage this as a loose and open network, through which anyone could propose discussions, ideas or action points relating to OGP. The network would have no voice or right of action of its own, and so participation in the network or the discussion list would not involve any obligations or engagements.

As an example of how the network might work, we note that, to date, Canada has not complied with its OGP obligations in the area of consultations. There was very limited civil society or other stakeholder participation in the development of the Action Plan, which Canada presented in Brasilia in April, and there has been little consultation since then on implementation of the Plan. The network might through the e-list discuss this issue and come up with actions which interested groups and/or individuals could participate in (always on a voluntary basis).

Please let us know if you are interested in joining such an initiative. To join, visit: http://lists.opengovcanada.ca/mailman/listinfo/ogp_lists.opengovcanada.ca and follow the subscription instructions. If you have any questions, please send these to admin@ogp.opengovcanaca.ca.

Thanks for your attention and interest in these key issues.

David Eaves,
Open Government Advocate and OpenNorth Board Member
Vancouver, BC

Michael Gurstein Ph.D.
Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training
Vancouver, BC

Toby Mendel
Executive Director, Centre for Law and Democracy
Halifax, NS

Proactive Disclosure – An Example of Doing it Wrong from Shared Service Canada

Just got flagged about this precious example of doing proactive disclosure wrong.

So here is a Shared Service Canada website dedicated the Roundtable on Information Technology Infrastructure. Obviously this is a topic of real interest to me – I write a fair bit about delivering (or failing to deliver) government service online effectively. I think it is great that Service Canada is reaching out to the private sector to try to learn lessons. Sadly, some of the links on the site didn’t work for me, specifically the important sounding: Summary of Discussions: Shared Services Canada Information and Communications Technology Sector Engagement Process.

But that is not the best part. Take a look at the website below. In one glance the entirety of the challenge of rethinking communications and government transparency  is nicely summed up.
proactive-nonedisclosure2

Apparently, if you want a copy of the presentation the Minister made to the committee you have to request it.

That’s odd, since really, the cost of making it downloadable is essentially zero. While the cost of emailing someone and making them get it back to you, is well, a colossal waste of my, and that public servants, time. (Indeed, to demonstrate this to the government, I hope that everyone of my readers requests this document).

There are, in my mind, two explanations for this. The first, more ominous one, is that someone wants to create barriers to getting this document. Maybe that is the case – who knows.

The second, less ominous, but in some ways more depressing answer is that this is simply standard protocol, or worse, that no one involved in this site has the know how or access rights to upload the document.

Noted added 6 mins after posting: There is also a third reason, less innocuous than reasons one and two. That being that the government cannot post the document unless it is in both official languages. And since this presentation is only available in (likely) english, it cannot be posted. This actually feels the most likely and will be teeing up a whole new post shortly on bilingualism and transparency. The number of times I’m told a document or data set can’t be proactively shared because of language issues is frustratingly frequent. I’ve spoken to the Language Commissioner on this and believe more dialogue is required. Bilingualism cannot be an excuse for a poor experience, or worse, opaque government.

In either case, it is a sad outcome. Either our government is maliciously trying to make it difficult to get information to Canadians (true of most governments) or they don’t know how to.

Of course, you may be saying… but David – who cares if there is an added step to geting this document that is slightly inconvenient? Well, let me remind you THIS IS SHARED SERVICE CANADA AND IT IS ABOUT A COMMITTEE FOCUSED ON DELIVERING ONLINE SERVICES (INTERNALLY AND EXTERNALLY) MORE EFFECTIVELY. If there was one place where you wanted to show you were responsive, proactive and reducing the transaction costs to citizens… the kind of approach you were going to use to make all government service more efficient and effective… this would be it.

The icing on the cake? There is that beautiful “transparency” button right below the text that talks about how the government is interested in proactive disclosure (see screenshot below). I love the text here – this is exactly what I want my government to be doing.

And yet, this is experience, while I’m sure conforming to the letter of the policy, feels like it violates pretty much everything around the spirit of proactive disclosure. This is after all a document that has already been made public… and now we are requiring citizens to request it.

We have a lot of work to do.

Doing Government Websites Right

Today, I have a piece over on Tech President about how the new UK government website – Gov.uk – does a lot of things right.

I’d love to see more governments invest two of the key ingredients that made the website work – good design and better analytics.

Sadly, on the design front many politicians see design as a luxury and fail to understand that good design doesn’t just make things look better, they make websites (and other things) easier to use and so reduce other costs – like help desk costs. I can personally attest to this. Despite being adept at using the web I almost always call the help desk for federal government services because I find federal government websites virtually unnavigable.  Often I find these websites transform my personality from happy affable guy into someone who teeters between grumpy/annoyed on the mild side, to raving crazy lunatic on the other as I fail to grasp what I’m supposed to do next.

If I have to choose between wasting 45 minutes on a website getting nowhere versus calling a help line, waiting for 45 minutes on hold while I do other work and then getting my problem resolved… I go with the latter. It’s not a good use of anyone’s time, but it is often the best option at the moment.

On the analytics front, many governments simply lack the expertise to do something as simple as Google analytics, or worse are hamstrung by privacy and procurement rules keep them from using services that would enable them to know how their users are (or are not) using their website.

Aside from gov.uk, another great example of where these two ingredients came together is over at Honolulu Answers. Here a Code for America team worked with the city to see what pages (e.g. services) residents were actually visiting and then prioritized those. In addition, they worked with staff and citizen to construct answers to commonly asked questions. I suspect a simple website like this could generate real savings on the city’s help desk costs – to say nothing of happier residents and tourists.

At some risk of pressing this point too heavily, I hope that my TechPresident piece (and other articles about gov.uk) gets widely read by public servants, managers and, of course, politicians (hint: the public wants easier access to services, not easoer access to photos and press releases about you). I’m especially hoping the good people at Treasury Board Secretariat in the Canadian Federal government read it since the old Common Look and Feel standard sadly ensured that Canadian government websites are particularly terrible when it comes to usability.

The UK has shown how national governments can do better. Let’s hope others follow their lead.

 

Playing with Budget Cutbacks: On a Government 2.0 Response, Wikileaks & Analog Denial of Service Attacks

Reflecting on yesterday’s case study in broken government I had a couple of addition thoughts that I thought fun to explore and that simply did not make sense including in the original post.

A Government 2.0 Response

Yesterday’s piece was all about how Treasury Board’s new rules were likely to increase the velocity of paperwork to a far greater cost than the elimination of excess travel.

One commentator noted a more Gov 2.0 type solution that I’d been mulling over myself. Why not simply treat the government travel problem as a big data problem? Surely there are tools that would allow you to look at government travel in aggregate, maybe mashed it up against GEDS data (job title and department information) that would enable one to quickly identify outliers and other high risk travel that are worthy of closer inspection. I’m not talking about people who travel a lot (that wouldn’t be helpful) but rather people who engage in unusual travel that is hard to reconcile with their role.

While I’m confident that many public servants would find such an approach discomforting, it would be entirely within the purview of their employer to engage in such an analysis. It would also be far more effective, targeted and a deterrent (I suspect, over time) than the kind of blanket policy I wrote about yesterday that is just as (if not more) likely to eliminate necessary travel as it is unnecessary travel. Of course, if you just want to eliminate travel because you think any face to face, group or in person learning is simply not worth the expense – than the latter approach is probably more effective.

Wikileaks and Treasury Board

Of course re-reading yesterday’s post I was having a faint twinge of familiarity. I suddenly realized that my analysis of the impact of the travel restriction policy on government has parallels to the goal that drove Assange to create wikileaks. If you’ve not read Zunguzungu blog post exploring Assange’s writings about the “theory of change” of wikileaks I cannot encourage you enough to go and read it. At its core lies a simple assessment – that wikileaks is trying to shut down the “conspiracy of the state” by making it harder for effective information to be transmitted within the state. Of course, restricting travel is not nearly the same as making it impossible for public servants to communicate, but it does compromise the ability to coordinate and plan effectively – as such the essay is illuminating in thinking about how these types of policies impact not the hierarchy of an organization, but the hidden and open networks (the secret government) that help make the organization function.

Read this extract below below for a taste:

This is however, not where Assange’s reasoning leads him. He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire:

This is obviously a totally different context – but it is interesting to see that one way to alter an organizations  is to change the way in which information flows around it. This was not – I suspect – the primary goal of the Treasury Board directive (it was a cost driven measure) but the above paragraph is an example of the unintended consequences. Less communication means the ability of the organization to function could be compromised.

Bureaucratic Directive’s as an Analog Denial of Service Attack

There is, of course, another more radical way of thinking about the Treasury Board directive. One of the key points I tried to make yesterday was that the directive was likely to increase the velocity of bureaucratic paperwork, tie up a larger amount of junior and, more preciously, senior resource time, all while actually allowing less work to be done.

Now if a government department were a computer, and I was able to make it send more requests that slowed its CPU (decision making capacity) and thus made other functions harder to perform – and in extreme cases actually prevented any work from happening – that would be something pretty similar to a Denial of Service attack.

Again, I’m not claiming that this was the intent, but it is a fun and interesting lens by which to look at the problem. More to explore here, I’m sure.

Hopefully this has bent a few minds and helped people see the world differently.

Broken Government: A Case Study in Penny Wise but Pound Foolish Management

Often I write about the opportunities of government 2.0, but it is important for readers to be reminded of just how challenging the world of government 1.0 can be, and how far away any uplifting future can feel.

I’ve stumbled upon a horrifically wonderful example of how tax payers are about to spend an absolutely ridiculous amount of money so that a ton of paper can be pushed around Ottawa to little or no effect. Ironically, it will all in the name of savings and efficiency.

And, while you’ll never see this reported in a newspaper it’s a perfect case study of the type of small decision that renders (in this case the Canadian) government both less effective and more inefficient. Governments: take note.

First, the context. Treasury Board (the entity that oversees how money is spent across the Canadian government) recently put out a simple directive. It stipulates all travel costs exceeding $25,000 must get Ministerial approval and costs from $5000-$25,000 must get Deputy Head approval.

Here are the relevant bits of texts since no sane human should read the entire memo (infer what you wish about me from that):

2.5.1 Ministerial approval is required when total departmental costs associated with the event exceed $25,000.

and

2.5.5 Deputy head approval of an event is required when the event has the following characteristics:

Total departmental costs associated with the event exceed $5,000 but are less than $25,000; or

Total hospitality costs associated with the event exceed $1,500 but are less than $5,000; and

None of the elements listed in 2.5.2 a. to g. are present for which delegated authority has not been provided.

This sounds all very prudent-like. Cut down on expenses! Make everyone justify travel! Right? Except the memo suggests (and, I’m told is being interpreted) as meaning that it should be applied to any event – including an external conference, but even internal planning meetings.

To put this in further context for those who work in the private sector: if you worked for a large publicly traded company – say one with over 5,000, 10,000 or even more employees – the Minister is basically the equivalent of the Chairman of the Board. And the Deputy head? They are like the CEO.

Imagine creating a rule at such a company like Ford, that required an imaginary “safety engineering team” to get the chairman of the company to sign off on their travel expenses – months in advance – if, say, 10 of them needed to collectively spend $25,000 to meet in person or attend an important safety conference. It gets worse. If the team were smaller, say 3-5 people and they could keep the cost to $5000 they would still need approval from the CEO. In such a world it would be hard to imagine new products being created, new creative cost saving ideas getting hammered out. In fact, it would be hard for almost any distributed team to meet without creating a ton of paperwork. Over time, customers would begin to notice as work slowly ground to a halt.

This is why this isn’t making government more efficient. It is going to make it crazier.

It’s also going to make it much, much, more ineffective and inefficient.

For example, this new policy may cause a large number of employees to determine that getting approval for travel is too difficult and they’ll simply give up. Mission accomplished! Money saved! And yes, some of this travel was probably not essential. But much, and likely a significant amount was. Are we better governed? Are we safer? Is our government smarter, in a country where say inspectors, auditors, policy experts and other important decision makers (especially those in the regions) are no longer learning at conferences, participating in key processes or attending meetings about important projects because the travel was too difficult to get approval for? Likely not.

But there is a darker conclusion to draw as well.  There is probably a significant amount of travel that remains absolutely critical. So now we are going to have public servants writing thousands of briefing notes every year seeking to get approval by directors, and then revising them again for approval by director generals (DGs), and again for the Assistant Deputy Ministers (ADMs), and again for the Deputy Minister (DMs) and again, possibly, for Ministerial approval.

That is a truly fantastic waste of the precious time of a lot of very, very senior people. To say nothing of the public servants writing, passing around, revising and generally pushing all these memos.

I’ll go further. I have every confidence that for every one dollar in travel this policy managed to deter from being requested, $500 dollars in the time of Directors, DGs, ADMs, DMs and other senior staff will have been wasted.  Given Canada is a place where the population – and thus a number of public servants – are thinly spread across an over 4000 kilometer wide stretch I suspect there is a fair bit of travel that needs to take place. Using Access to Information Requests you might even be able to ball park how much time was wasted on these requests/memos.

Worse, I’m not even counting the opportunity cost. Rather than tackling the critical problems facing our country, the senior people will be swatting away TPS reports travel budget requests. The only companies I know that run themselves this way are those that have filed for bankruptcy and essentially are not spending any money as they wait to be restructured or sold. They aren’t companies that are trying to solve any new problems, and are certainly not those trying to find creative or effective ways to save money.

In the end, this tells us a lot of about the limits of hierarchical systems. Edicts are a blunt tool – they seldom (if ever) solve the root of a problem and more often simply cause new, bigger problems since the underlying issues remain unresolved. There are also some wonderful analogies to wikileaks and denial of service attacks that I’ll save that for tomorrow.