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Governments serve themselves, not the public

The government is slow, inefficient and wasteful. The findings in the latest report from Auditor General Michael Ferguson apply to Ottawa, but it’s pretty much the same story for every government across the country, and for every year.

In fact, Ferguson specifically points out successive governments have ignored the mess and the proscribed remedies year after year.

That much is probably not a surprise to most Canadians, who instinctively know the faults to be true. But Ferguson is much more blunt this time in pointing out the self-serving ways of the bureaucracy. It’s something we’ve identified at every level of government: the system is designed to benefit civil servants, not the public they theoretically exist to serve.

“We see government programs that are not designed to help those who have to navigate them, programs where the focus is more on what civil servants are doing than on what citizens are getting, where delivery times are long, where data is incomplete, and where public reporting does not provide a clear picture of what departments have done,” Ferguson says of the lack of focus on citizens.

There are systemic failures identified year after year, with nothing done in part because the focus is on the administration, not on the outcome. Issues are looked at in isolation rather than as part of a larger breakdown of the bureaucracy. Looking back over years and decades of audits, for instance, puts things in perspective, but apparently the AG’s reports are just put on a shelf to gather dust … after the obligatory hand-wringing following each new release.

Ferguson notes this mindset allows the issues to persist for decades. Administrators are concerned with often trivial internal matters focused on process rather than the public good.

“[W]hat about programs that are managed to accommodate the people running them rather than the people receiving the services?” he asks. “What about programs in which the focus is on measuring what civil servants are doing rather than how well Canadians are being served? In such cases, the perception of the service is very different depending on whether you are talking to the service provider or to the citizen trying to navigate the red tape.”

If you asked the administrators involved, chances are they’d say they’re doing a great job, in part because they’ve deluded themselves about what the job is about: themselves, not the public. (The politicians always paint a rosy picture about their efforts, even when they know the opposite to be true – it’s one of the reasons people don’t trust them, or the bureaucrats, for that matter.)

Ferguson’s latest findings – seven reports detailing criticisms of everything from tax collecting to national defence – show a lack of progress on accountability, tracking finances and long delivery times for services. He was particularly scathing in describing the failures related to the country’s indigenous peoples. As with many files, there has been much talk, but little action.

“In just five years, with some 100 performance audits and special examinations behind me since I began my mandate, the results of some audits seem to be – in the immortal words of Yogi Berra – ‘déjà vu all over again.’”


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