Canada has a network of think tanks, university research institutes, policy advocate groups and other institutions trying to influence government policy. Do any of them succeed? In the field of defence policy, apparently not.
What removes the wax from the government’s ears is the threat or reality of media coverage. If the “dog howls,” as one unnamed defence official described media coverage, the Department of National Defence will jump. Otherwise, the department’s instinct is to belittle, criticize and discount all outside analysis critical of government policy. Rather than give ministers information they do not want to hear – the proverbial “truth to power” role of the public service – advice is most often tailored to what ministers, and especially the Prime Minister’s Office, wants to hear.
Such are the conclusions of Let the Sleeping Dogs Lie, a fascinating, short study from two Queen’s University researchers, Douglas Bland and Richard Shimooka. They looked via Access to Information requests at internal Defence Department documents related to reports by parliamentary committees, defence policy analysts and think tanks, including the one Prof. Bland runs at Queen’s, to see if any of them made any impact on the department from 2000-2006.
The Liberals were in power for most of the period under study, but anyone who watches the Harper government would conclude that nothing has changed. If anything, centralized control by the PMO over every aspect of government has increased. This government has also developed a well-deserved reputation for not taking criticism gently.
In addition, the Harper government’s mania for making sure that every communication is vetted by the PMO has become so ingrained that civil servants are throttled everywhere. This throttling might explain why so many public affairs officers have resigned from the Defence Department. Some of them were disillusioned by their lack of ability to do anything but mouth lines from the PMO.
Messrs. Bland and Shimooka concluded that outside analysis “had at best a minimal direct impact on the policy process within the department.” They continued that “officials – and military officers to a lesser degree – routinely ignored, dismissed, criticized, discredited and otherwise attempted to negate” analysis from outside studies and reports.
Civil servants, and in this case military officers, fought back against outside advice, preserving their privileged position as ministerial advisers. What really galvanized action, however, was media coverage. The prospect or reality of media coverage sent the department into overdrive to prepare ministers with sound bites and briefing notes to rebut critiques. The briefing notes always counselled ministers to say, falsely but pro forma, how much they welcomed the contribution that the outside group in question had made to public debate.
In fairness, outsiders often get things wrong. They often don’t know as much as the civil service. They have agendas of their own. They are most definitely not always the fount of all wisdom. Nor are they to be dismissed as routinely and remorselessly as this study suggests has been the case.
The Bland/Shimooka paper arrives at a moment of truth for the Defence Department, which has been subjected to withering critique from one of its own – Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, who has now left the department. The Harper government asked Gen. Leslie to study the structure of the department, with particular emphasis on the army of tomorrow. He found that DND was top-heavy at head office at the expense of personnel deployed in the field. He found consultants and outside contractors had grown hugely in number and cost. The structure of the department was too Ottawa-centric with too many layers of bureaucracy.
Predictably, this report was immediately debunked by the man who created much of this structure, former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier. Other military people anonymously criticized it.
Who knows what eventually will emerge from the Leslie review? The Harper government has asked all departments to present plans for spending reductions of 5 and 10 per cent as part of a deficit elimination program.
The Leslie report could provide a template for reduction. But unwelcome ideas from the outside, even if delivered by a former military man, will rub against the self-protective nature of the department and, indeed, of all bureaucracies.