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Time to rein in the process police Add to ...

Not long ago, a senior civil servant travelled for work to a budget hotel in northern Ontario. In the morning, he went downstairs, got breakfast for $8.50, and left a $1.50 tip. Then he expensed it, and so began an adventure in accountability.

First, a more junior bureaucrat called to ask for an itemized receipt, to ensure liquor hadn’t been ordered. When he wasn’t able to provide it, she commenced a lengthy process to obtain the itemized receipt from the hotel. And when she finally acquired it, she called the breakfast-eater back with some bad news. Although he hadn’t expensed booze, it turned out he had overspent his daily limit for breakfast – by a grand total of less than two dollars.

This is what Ontario’s government, $16-billion in the hole and facing threats to its credit rating, pays a good chunk of its bureaucrats to worry about.

Most everyone who deals with the province tells the same story: The “process police” are running the place. It’s a situation born of good intentions, with the government having responded to a series of accountability controversies by layering on more and more red tape – a pattern familiar to those who interact with various governments in this country, including by some accounts the one in Ottawa. But it’s wholly incompatible with the supposed push to make the public sector leaner and more efficient.

It’s impossible to know just how much money is being squandered, and how many resources misused. But anecdotal evidence is legion.

For starters, there’s the obsession with tracking relatively minor expenses. Sources suggest that, in some agencies, less money is spent on travel and hospitality than on monitoring hospitality and travel. And that’s little wonder, when you consider how much money that bureaucrat earned in salary while tracking the breakfast receipt, relative to the actual cost of the meal.

Then there’s the incredible glut of paperwork that surrounds bigger expenditures. A small-town hospital, for example, reports that in return for provincial funding, it has 123 different contracts – hardly a way to make the most of limited human resources.

Perhaps most significant, in terms of bogging down the public-policy engine, are the rules to prevent contracts from being sole-sourced. In general, that’s a laudable goal. But if taken to extremes, it leads to competitive bidding processes just for the privilege of running competitive bidding processes – causing important investments to take years to get out the door.

The irony is that these policies don’t always achieve their real purpose, which is to spare the government political headaches. Earlier this year, a competitive process led the transit agency Metrolinx to bypass a company in North Bay for a contract worth more than $120-million because a rival bid from Quebec had come in about $2-million lower. The resulting outcry in North Bay, fuelled by the provincial opposition, contributed to the governing Liberals losing their seat there.

More importantly, the policies make for bad governance. Beyond driving up costs and slowing output, there’s an obvious impact on morale. At a time when politicians will expect them to come up with innovative solutions to huge budgetary challenges, which requires taking a few risks, many civil servants are more preoccupied with covering their own behinds.

None of this is to say the pendulum should swing so far back the other way that there are no safeguards. When individuals or agencies behave recklessly, there should be consequences. But the recent rules and regulations have mostly bought a phony sort of accountability, in which the process matters more than the outcome.

Once all that process is in place, it’s not easy to trim it back. For Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals, doing so would be an open invitation to the provincial opposition – and, yes, the media – to scandal-monger.

But as he tries to get it onto a stable financial footing, Mr. McGuinty purports to want to modernize government; to make it function a little more like the private sector. Worrying less about what its officials eat for breakfast wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

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Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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