Is our public service as ethical as we would like to believe? For years, it held a treasured and storied reputation of professionalism and excellence. But is this reputation still well founded? An investigation by The Globe and Mail this week has suggested that the Canada School of Public Service may be failing to live up to these standards.
This school’s forerunner was called the Canadian Centre for Management Development, which was located in a set of cozy offices in the historic Byward market of downtown Ottawa. During the mid-1990s, hopes were high that the centre would serve as a learning platform for public-service high fliers and also to train Order-in-Council appointees on conflict-of-interest issues and ethical guidelines, with the help of stellar speakers such as retired Supreme Court justices.
Retired or retiring bureaucrats were appointed to administer the centre – which made sense. The public service, like any other large organization, has its own culture and set of rules and guidelines. In order to build trust, the managers of the centre needed to know the lingo and understand the history. These were not jobs for outsiders.
Such a school is still a good idea. Like everyone else, public servants need to be trained, challenged and motivated. However, the current model seems to fail on a ethical front – which is sadly ironic, given that the School’s website promotes a course that teaches “values and ethnics foundations for managers.”
Dubious teaching-contract arrangements for former public servants seem to violate the spirit of a a longstanding taboo against double dipping – the practice of receiving two incomes from one source, namely, the federal government. (Cabinet ministers are prevented by law from doing this). Clearly, this type of arrangement serves as a less than perfect ethical role model for younger bureaucrats.
Lack of transparency seems to be another issue. What is the criteria for selecting the “teachers?” How many individuals apply for these teaching contracts? How are they advertised?
Thirdly, while it is important to have “insiders” directing the school’s vision, it is equally important to introduce new ways of thinking and speakers from outside the bubble of cocooned Ottawa. Is this happening or is teaching reserved only for a privileged few?
It’s really unfortunate that a good education model has become the target of ire directed at the government. But nevertheless, answers need to be provided to elected representatives in order that the institution be sustained in a responsible, open manner. (The suggestion that the current Treasury Board minister assumes the sole responsibility for the awarding of contracts is a ridiculous suggestion of micro-management).
Are these questions fair? The private sector often turned a blind eye when a former CEO was hired by his company in a consulting or management position. However, modern corporate governance ethics suggest a growing discomfort and unease with this type of arrangement. But corporations, unlike the civil service, are not answerable to the public at large (although some would argue that they should be).
Tough as it may be, our public service needs to live up to the highest ethical standard. They must not only be squeaky clean but must be perceived that way. History demands these excellent ethics, and the future needs them.
Penny Collenette, a former senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office, is an adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law.