Michael Ferguson said Ottawa's culture had to change. Things got worse.
You’re forgiven if you haven’t heard that the Government Operations committee of the House of Commons will be investigating the Trudeau government’s increasing use of private consulting firms, including McKinsey & Co., in deciding government strategy and figuring out how to deliver programs. My piece here two weeks ago was part of a smattering of coverage of the issue following some fresh Radio-Canada reporting.
Pierre Poilievre then announced that MPs on the Government Opps committee will team up to ensure the committee looks into the matter. This news received less coverage than much of what Poilievre says. “Poilievre says something outrageous” reliably gets more coverage than “Poilievre says something managerial.” Anyway, watch for committee hearings on the McKinsey contracts soon.
And to prepare, McKinsey today sent reporters a statement about its relations with the federal government. I’ve posted that lengthy communiqué over on my Medium page, which I used these days for boring but useful stuff. Their argument: McKinsey won its business fairly, it isn’t partisan, and it’s hardly the only consulting firm to do business with the feds.
I’m willing to buy all of that. I don’t see the ballooning recourse to outside contractors as necessarily a matter of corruption. To me it’s a sign of growing disillusionment with what used to be the standard venue for figuring out how government should work: the public service. The problem with handing the work of government to outside contractors, as I’ve said, is that it erodes accountability, responsibility, transparency and follow-through. And that it’s likely to become a vicious circle: the more dysfunctional the work environment in government becomes, the likelier political staffers are to reach outside government the next time. Rinse and repeat.
I hope the opposition MPs on Government Opps will try to use their inquiry to better understand these processes, rather than announcing they’ve found a scandal and daring witnesses to deny it. The latter path will certainly procure a powerful sugar high for MPs who indulge it. But it won’t help any of them if they ever find themselves having to govern in the Liberals’ place. And I don’t know anyone who looks at Ottawa and says, those MPs aren’t getting nearly enough sugar highs.
Meanwhile, perhaps you’re saying: If only somebody had seen this progressive decline in faith in government coming.
And I’m here to say: Somebody did.
Michael Ferguson was the auditor-general of Canada from 2011 to 2019. He came from outside the Ottawa bubble. He’d spent his entire career in New Brunswick’s public service, including as that province’s auditor-general and as its deputy minister of finance. When Stephen Harper appointed him in 2011, Ferguson was criticized for not knowing French. He promised to learn it, as appointees always do. The surprise is that he delivered. By 2018 he was able to defend his spring audits vigorously at bilingual news conferences and in French-language TV interviews.
The spring 2018 audits ended up being Ferguson’s last public appearances. The fall audits were released under his name, but a cancer relapse kept him from commenting on them. He died on Feb. 2, 2019.
A seasoned observer of the federal scene reminded me of all this when I asked about the outside contracts and the renewed calls for a royal commission on the state of the bureaucracy. Michael Ferguson said much of what needs saying, Seasoned Observer (S.O.) said. Maybe it’s time to look again at what he said.