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You must think like a bureaucrat to justify $25,000

Water cooler discussions of Woolwich Mayor Todd Cowan’s expense claims quickly shifted to the poorly justified decision to drop $25,000 looking into the matter.

As much as both councillors and staff echoed the party line that we shouldn’t compare the $25,000 to the $2,700 that was double-billed, the public saw nothing but wasted money. And, unlike the funds reimbursed by Cowan, there’s no way to compensate taxpayers for the expenditure, despite some people calling for Cowan to cover those costs too. (No matter how he came to claim the expenses twice, the mayor can’t be held responsible for how much money others chose to spend in the aftermath.)

Most of us recognized the $25,000 expenditure for what it was: bureaucratic butt-covering, an attempt by the players to absolve themselves of any responsibility past, present or future. Nobody at the township or region wanted to be the one to call a spade a spade in what was an easy misdeed to identify once the numbers were brought to the municipalities’ attention. Instead, we saw a classic case of third-partying it. Those involved wanted nothing to blowback on them.

This is what’s officially known as C.Y.A., where the C is for cover, the Y is for your and the A is another name for a donkey. William Safire, that master of words, describes it thusly: “The bureaucratic technique of averting future accusations of policy error or wrongdoing by deflecting responsibility in advance.”

In the case of Cowan’s expenses, when the double-billing was identified the first course of action was to spend much more money on a third party – as always, in the name of fairness and impartiality – rather than simply recognizing the existing system for claiming expenses was faulty and then fixing it. As much of the public discussion about the $25,000 legal bill has noted, surely we’re paying a considerable amount of money to more than enough people to deal with this issue.

The bureaucrats acted as they always do. Where were the politicians, elected to serve the public interest, in all of this? Right, they were in lockstep, as is almost always the case.

We’ve pointed out on many occasions the lack of oversight and much-too-cosy relationship between elected officials and staff. This is just the latest example of both groups living inside the same bureaucratic bubble, the one where even the most crass and self-serving ideas make perfect sense inside but not at all to everybody else.

With the expense claims issue, we have a clear case of a bureaucratic staple: the call for a study or review, which not only takes the work out of their hands but allows for some deflection and delay.

Almost invariably, the solution involves more money, more bureaucrats and more rules. If the studies take long enough, and the procedures and paperwork baffling and unclear enough, then the original problem or complaint may simply be forgotten long before anything is actually done. Better still if there end up being no changes that might curtail the power of the politicians and bureaucrats or, worse still, provide for actual accountability.

Posited almost 60 years ago, Parkinson’s Law remains in full effect today. Managers wish to appear busy, so they increase their workload by creating paper and rules, filling out evaluations and forms, and filing them. Then they hire more assistants, who in turn require more managerial time for supervision.

Given that mindset, wasting $25,000 is a drop in the bucket. There’s lots more where that came from.

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