In the corporate world, there can be signs management doesn’t have a tight grip on the organization. Costs rising without clear goals, or CEOs buying company jets for a firm with a sky-high debt ratio.
In government, where the mission is more complicated than making a profit, there are still indicators that could be warning bells. One is when the government displays a growing predilection for pricey consultants while its own work force is expanding at a rapid clip. Another is when the boss shrugs it off, the way Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did on Wednesday.
The figures suggest government is not just getting bigger but bloated. It’s worrying that the PM doesn’t seem to think that is even worth thinking about.
Yet it is. Not only about the cost, but what it tells us about the way government is managed.
Look at the figures The Globe and Mail reported this week: Since 2015, when the Liberals took power, the federal government’s spending on outsourced contracts has increased 41.8 per cent, to $11.8-billion in the 2020-21 fiscal year. In roughly the same period, the federal public service grew 24 per cent, from 257,034 workers to 319,601.
There could be some partial explanations for that, but the Prime Minister didn’t see the need to explain the trend. It’s normal, he said. All good.
“There is tremendous capacity within the public service, but it is normal and to be expected that we would also need to turn to outside experts for further help on improving the efficiency and the delivery of services to Canadians,” he said.
If we were talking solely about the pandemic, when federal civil servants rolled out emergency benefits in crisis mode, it would be understandable. But this was a steady trend before COVID-19.
Once upon a time, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals weren’t so carefree about Ottawa’s increasing use of consultants. In 2015, they promised to cut back on them.
The problem now isn’t so much the broken promise. It’s the lack of concern for discipline. The promise was part of a package of ideas to establish some efficiency controls, such as reviewing programs and cutting inefficient ones – not to reduce overall spending, but to make it more effective.
Now, Mr. Trudeau is telling the country that improving efficiency requires a lot of consultants on top of way more civil servants.
Outsourcing isn’t always a problem. A chunk of the contracting is information technology, an area the government of Canada has mishandled mightily. Sometimes outside expertise can help, as long as costs are controlled. They have a tendency to expand, with contract amendments hiking up the cost.
Occasionally, it’s a good idea to have someone outside the civil service consider how something might be done better.
But the history of the federal government’s consultant contracting is not one of better mousetraps being built in every field of endeavour. There are a lot of reports on shelves.
So Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada may get a game-changing plan from its $24.8-million contract for McKinsey & Co. to dream up transformational strategies. And perhaps Parks Canada’s call for a consultant to “assess its current state in terms of its resourcing, operating model, and revenues” will offer insight government employees cannot.
But the long list of such consulting deals suggests there are few constraints that limit the contracts to a small number likely to provide value – or even produce something that will be put to use.
Without controls, there is an environment where waste is more likely. Now, opposition parties are asking Auditor-General Karen Hogan to look into McKinsey’s increasing volume of business, suggesting it may be a result of political ties.
The broader trend should worry Mr. Trudeau, too. It suggests his Liberals don’t have a good grip on the machinery of government. They can set a few political priorities, but apparently they don’t know how to get the bureaucracy to bring forward ways to do things differently. They don’t seem to have a tight focus on what things to do differently. How do you do things? Throw more at everything.
These are indicators Mr. Trudeau should be watching. Hiring so many people for advice on doing things better, and so many more to do them, suggests some carelessness about how things are done.
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