Employees at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) vented to their minister last fall about political micromanagement inside the organization, saying it was hampering their work.
The comments came during a town hall meeting Julian Fantino had organized in September shortly after becoming International Cooperation Minister. The event cost $25,000, and featured a motivational speaker and a question and answer session with Mr. Fantino.
The event was billed internally by senior executives as a way for Mr. Fantino to have a "personal and wholesome interaction" with the agency's approximately 1,200 employees. CIDA had just lost $319.2-million in the government's deficit reduction exercise.
Right off the bat, a 12-year employee raised the issue of the centralization of control inside the minister's office.
"Let's say very narrow access to the Minister's office and the fact that the advice that we work very hard to provide has met with some tendencies of self-censorship," the bureaucrat said, adding that decisions used to be made in the field.
"These are fundamental things that you have no clue how much it can impair our ability to actually deliver things when there's no agility of the system to be able to implement without always having to go back and forth (through) 17 versions of a memo..."
One employee complained about work that needed approval getting bottlenecked at the minister's office.
"I'm wondering if you can give us an idea of whether any standards have been developed in terms of approvals and timelines for when something reaches the minister's office, when we can expect an answer," said the staffer.
"Will we be expecting the same standards as our previous minister (Bev Oda) or are there new ones under development."
Another bureaucrat said the agency needed to give its staff more freedom to talk publicly about their activities. Prime Minister Stephen Harper instituted a highly centralized system of communications when he came to office in 2006, clamping down on the ability of bureaucrats and diplomats to speak to the media.
"I'm just back from three years overseas in a field mission and I found it was unfortunate that we were at the time not always empowered to be able to tell the right story, tell the story, tell what CIDA is doing," said the staffer.
Mr. Fantino said he agreed that it was important to spread the word about CIDA, but with caution.
"I think we need to empower our people within parameters. We won't want any independent agents going out there and sort of throwing us into ... things can happen very quickly as you well know," Mr. Fantino said.
Mr. Fantino was recently put on the defensive when two highly political statements attacking the opposition parties were posted to the department's website. Government websites and communications are supposed to be non-partisan.
Mr. Fantino's office said at the time that the statements were posted in error, and they were removed from the site.
At least one sensitive question that had been submitted to the meeting did not wind up getting posed. It dealt with the Conservative government's new focus on partnering with the mining sector in the developing world to deliver assistance.