Amanda Lang: 17 layers of bureaucracy explain the glacial pace of government

It’s the kind of process that earns government a bad name
Minister of Labour Lisa Raitt responds to a question in the House of Commons on March 12, 2012. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

The Hub is delighted to announce The Business of Government, a special series hosted by award-winning journalist and best-selling author Amanda Lang about how government works and, more importantly, why it sometimes doesn’t work. In this five-part series, Lang conducts in-depth interviews with experts and former policymakers and puts it all in perspective for the average Canadian. Listen to the accompanying interview with Lisa Raitt on your favourite podcast app or at The Hub.

When Lisa Raitt was minister of transport in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, she was struck by something on a memo that crossed her desk. “There were 17 signatures before mine. Seventeen layers of bureaucracy,” before it hit the minister’s office, “and that happens all the time.”

It was a policy issue, so the trail of sign-offs was in the transport department alone. For an issue like the procurement of products or services, multiple departments get involved and certainly multiple cabinet committees, so those 17 layers re-occur many times.

It laid bare for Raitt something that frustrates many, namely the glacial pace of government action.

It’s also the kind of process that earns government a bad name, and the impression held by many that it is full of redundancy, unnecessary red tape, and a general lack of efficiency. But is that fair assessment?

Whatever your perspective, judging how well it functions is important. Government is the most important service industry we have and, at every level, it delivers things that make an enormous difference in how our world functions. From basic rule of law to health care and education, with a million issues big and small in between shaped by our governments. It’s also a big sector of our economy and, through its policies, touches the vast majority of our lives.

Raitt is pragmatic about why the process works the way it does, especially in this era of constant scrutiny. The “scaffold of process” represented by those 17 signatures is there to insulate against criticism, from a future Auditor General’s report, or from partisan attack. And Raitt experienced first-hand that some issues can be fast-tracked. Introducing transport rules after the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster was one such issue, driven as it was by the urgent need to improve public safety. But in general, risk aversion rules the day and slows the process.

Early in Raitt’s tenure as minister of transport she saw what seemed like a lay-up: catch Canada up to other advanced countries when it came to using a cell phone on a plane.

“They were going to tell you to shut it off and put it away. That was silly and not backed by science.” Raitt asked her staff to alter the regulation. “Nine months later, we’re still trying to make the change. And I would hear ‘Oh minister, we’ve got to go through a regulatory process. Oh, minister, we have to have these reports…’ It was just incredible. On something that was implemented by the Europeans and the Americans already. It was just a form of inertia,” said Raitt.

One change recommended by Raitt would be to keep senior civil servants in their roles slightly longer because there is a lot of movement between departments at the level just below the deputy minister, which can leave knowledge gaps and learning curves that have a big impact on important files.

It would be hard to point to a better example of the seeming ineptitude of government than the Phoenix pay system. A scathing report by then-Auditor General Michael Ferguson said Phoenix was “an incomprehensible failure of project management and oversight.”

The brainchild of cost-saving efforts from Stephen Harper’s government in 2009, Phoenix was breathtakingly simple in concept: it would replace multiple pay systems across 101 federal departments for its then 300,000 employees with one central piece of software. The savings, up to $78 million a year, would come by reducing the huge number of payroll employees managing the clunky network of systems.

Instead of solving a problem, Phoenix quite simply never worked. From its actual implementation in 2015 to this day, it overpays, underpays, or simply does not pay thousands of civil servants. The cost to try to fix it has ballooned multiple times, and even worse, it takes more human handling today than the previous disjointed system. Raitt says that as her government was at the end of its tenure in 2015 Phoenix came up for approval at the cabinet level and was rejected. “It just wasn’t there yet,” she recalls. “And we thought, arrogantly perhaps, we’d be back. And we’d pick up the file, figure out what’s wrong and move on from there.” But it would be a Justin Trudeau-led government that picked up Phoenix and has been tasked ever since with trying to fix it.

Of course, Phoenix is a spectacularly notable case of a failure to implement something, but it’s not hard to find other examples, often involving big projects or high-priced procurement like defence. Think fighter jets or vaccines. Part of the issue is the extent to which big important projects become “weaponized” by political parties. That can lead to short-term thinking, as well as odd measures of success, like the number of jobs created, which may play well politically but can be a poor measure of efficiency. At the end of the day, a well-functioning government gets things done, big and small. And that instills confidence, including in those with money to invest in Canada.

Raitt remains optimistic: “We have a unique set of qualities and opportunities that no one else has. Ingenuity. Smart people, with the highest level of post-secondary education in the OECD. And everyone wants to roll up their sleeves and dig in and help. We just need to get out of our own way.”

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