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Mediacheck

Let My Bureaucrats Go!

Civil servant 'orientation' trips to Ottawa are worth the money.

By Peter MacLeod 11 Jul 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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Wish they were here.

Did it work? Will the government immediately denounce and suspend its new orientation program for recently hired civil servants? Apparently, someone at the Vancouver Sun hopes so.

Last Friday, the Sun ran a lengthy article on a new program that will see all new and recent hires -- from Mounties to mail clerks -- sent to Ottawa for a two-day orientation program. Never mind a discussion of the program's merits. Instead the Sun called up the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation and got its quote. "This program is a silly waste of money."

It was merely filling in the blanks to write the headline. "New job with the feds? Take a free trip. Orientation junket for every new civil servant from across the country angers taxpayer group."

It probably didn't take long before the Sun realized it had a scoop and the makings of a campaign. The themes are well practiced: government waste and cozy public sector jobs. Who wouldn't want to pile on?

Roll presses

A day later they had their review. A spokesman for Treasury Board president John Baird said that while a 'properly designed' program might merit funding, the government will make sure that this issue receives "close attention."

By Monday, a third article had lined up MPs for their views. Conservatives Chuck Strahl and John Cummins poured cold water on the idea, as Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff tried to bail, suggesting that while it might be good in "theory," he didn't want to endorse a junket.

The Globe's Roy Macgregor got in on the act. With the help of a friendly but anonymous bureaucrat, he was ready to muse about the inanities these new staffers will have to endure, like learning to make their PowerPoint presentations even more impenetrable, and polishing their Blackberry etiquette.

The program doesn't start until August. Now it's unclear if it ever will.

Ignored questions

Should editors at the Sun congratulate themselves for blowing the whistle on what is easy to characterize as yet another abuse of tax dollars or are there other questions that deserve to be asked?

For instance, did a Sun journalist file a request to attend one of these sessions in August before deciding to report the story in July?

Could anyone besides the director of the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation be found to comment? Were there really no former deputy ministers or anonymous senior civil servants that could provide a rationale for such a bold idea?

If they were interested in demonstrating relative value, a sensible reporter might ask what fraction of the government's total payroll this program will consume and what fraction in the total lifetime pay of a civil servant enrolment in this program represents.

Just because the director of the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation calls it silly, is it right to automatically label this program a junket?

And if folks in B.C. really want to shake the effects of Western alienation, wouldn't some face time in Ottawa be a good thing for officials in this province?

MPs on a plane!

Other questions could only be answered later, once the program had begun. Then we might know whether it had succeeded or failed to meet its objectives. Only then could its participants tell us whether the program had made any difference to their work or the pride they take in serving the public.

After all, funding a program where the police have a direct experience of Parliament, where agricultural analysts might visit Ottawa's prized experimental farm and where immigration officers have a chance to meet their department's minister sounds like a reasonable initiation to what used to be considered important, valuable and publicly-useful careers.

MPs, of course, should be the last people to grouse. They'd shout murder if anyone suggested that flying back and forth to their constituencies each week was lavish and unnecessary. And so they should. Crazy as it may seem, those air tickets are a small price to pay for keeping politicians even marginally connected to their communities. In a country as big as Canada, spending a King's ransom on travel should surprise no one.

So the problem isn't that we have too many publicly-funded government travel programs. It's much more likely that we have too few. We need programs that bring civil servants to Ottawa -- especially as the civil service struggles to replace thousands of retiring baby-boomers -- and we certainly need programs that bring Ottawa-based civil servants to spend far more time on the frontline in other parts of the country as well.

Having it both ways

It might not be fashionable to defend government spending but there are good reasons for making this a test case. The critics, it seems, are trying to have it both ways. Quick to decry low morale, poor service and the lack of accountability in government, their newest target is a program aimed at creating a more responsive and accountable culture.

According to the government's School of Public Service, the program is designed to ground "new recruits in the values, ethics and accountabilities of the Public Service. The program is delivered [so that] new employees have the opportunity to see their work in the context of Canada's democracy and the Parliament that embodies it."

The gall of civil servants spending two days in the Nation's Capital learning about the mechanics of government!

You know, there are some corollaries. Join a top-flight consulting firm and you'll be spending a minimum of two weeks at an Ivy League university, boning up on your maths, learning the company lore and all the while staying in a premier hotel. Become a taxpayer-supported academic and it's almost required that you attend a conference or two a year, which usually just happen to include cushy accommodations in comfy climes.

Tell this to the civil servants booked at the Ottawa Ramada and enjoying the pancake breakfast.

The usual targets

Evidently, those Canadians who decide to join the public service to promote our heritage, represent our interests abroad, run our courts, rescue us from peril, attend to the needs of our veterans, manage our immigration system, or run our elections merit little investment.

So low have civil servants fallen in the public's mind that even those programs designed to restore a sense of professionalism and reinforce an ethos of public purpose are immediately derided as waste.

This is the real tragedy and the real scandal. That civil servants make an easy target -- well, unfortunately, that's not news at all. The government should continue to spend this money.

Peter MacLeod is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and convenor of The Planning Desk, an evolving studio for public systems design.  [Tyee]

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