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Doing what’s right often demands making the hard choices

Given the failures related to the pandemic and vaccine rollout in Waterloo Region, who gets fired? Asked to resign? Sanctioned?

The questions are rhetorical, as accountability to the public is never on the agenda where local municipalities are concerned – the thought has yet to occur to regional officials, yet alone any attempt to act on the public’s behalf.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, of course, from Ottawa on down.

Hand-wringing and finger-pointing aside, there will be few repercussions for bureaucrats and elected officials who’ve dropped the ball.

We’ve come to expect that with almost everything government does. A scandal will occasionally require a sacrificial lamb – someone eventually back at the trough after the heat dies down – but typically no one pays a cost for poor decisions, whether that leads to the loss of life as in the pandemic or, with regularity, the loss of taxpayers’ money.

In the region, the pandemic has bureaucratic failings front and centre, though we have the next transit boondoggle in the works and a host of other poor decisions from which to witness both suspect administration and financial waste.

Right now, regional government has only one priority: get vaccines into people’s arms. That’s not getting done. The registration system is slow and cumbersome. Appointments don’t go smoothly. Clinics are slow and bureaucratic, with very few drop-in options, and yet fewer quick and convenient ones. These are all hurdles to people getting inoculated, which in turn allows the virus to spread and slows the reopening of the economy, though that’s also the result of bureaucratic thinking.

The federal and provincial governments both share in the blame for inadequate vaccine supply and distribution, along with a host of other failings, particularly where ineffective lockdowns are concerned. But with local officials responsible for frontline responses, Waterloo Region is in the spotlight: the results here have been worse than in other jurisdictions in the province, including neighbouring municipalities.

Here, they’ve been too slow in getting shots into arms. Online registration is a hassle, there have been long wait times and long lines for those with appointments. Far too few quick, simple walk-in options, the kind needed to move the process along. The slow pace is directly responsible now for what is still mostly a lockdown situation, though political decisions based on groupthink at the provincial level share much of blame.

This isn’t to simply lambaste politicians and bureaucrats. They, like the rest of us, are in unchartered waters, though they also bear responsibility for failing to carry out the mapmaking some had warned was necessary: the likes of better pandemic planning, safeguarding long-term care homes that would eventually bear the brunt of the fatalities and strengthening domestic pharmaceutical capacity.

“It is now apparent that Ontario cannot vaccinate its way out of the crisis. The way out requires effective public health measures based on solid risk communications. With over one year of real-life crisis opportunities to figure out how to effectively communicate pandemic risk, why are mistakes still being made?” wrote Jack L. Rozdilsky, associate professor of disaster and emergency management at York University, in an April piece for The Conversation.

“Confusion, mistrust and despair are now the predominant public attitudes in Toronto as Premier Ford first announced more restrictions and shortly thereafter walked back certain measures, like increased police powers and a ban on outdoor playground use.

“Meanwhile, an increasing number of health experts are expressing the opinion that the Ford government’s failure to act quickly and decisively on dire warnings that were known months ago, has exacerbated the disaster and has ultimately cost lives.”

The bottom line? Poor decision making and poor communication made the situation worse.

That’s not limited to the Ford government, of course. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Nor should this be a partisan issue – we’ve avoided much of the circus seen in the U.S., but we’re not immune, as Scott Gilmore notes in Maclean’s magazine.

“While Americans are emerging from their homes and hugging loved ones, we are being locked down yet again. While the British methodically immunize their population, we are forced to scroll through Twitter in hopes of finding an appointment. While the Australians are filling stadiums to watch rugby, we aren’t allowed to walk through our local park. Or maybe we are. It’s unclear. No one is certain. But our political leaders universally assure us there is no confusion,” he writes of the polarization that has emerged even here.

“Again, if any of you culpable partisans have read this far, you are almost certainly saying one of two things: ‘Yes, it’s a mess because the premier is incompetent.’ Or, ‘Yes, it’s a mess because Trudeau is an idiot.’ And that is why it is a mess.

“Because partisans on all sides are creating the cover that is allowing political leaders at all levels to confidently avoid blame.”

Avoiding blame is precisely what politicians and bureaucrats do best, whether that’s going along with each other for mutual support – their favourite time of consensus – or writing the rules so they can’t be held accountable.

But accountability is precisely what we need if the public’s trust in government is to be restored.

That’s an uphill battle, as governments have been working diligently for years to make themselves untrustworthy, padding their own pockets, wasting much of the tax money collected and foisting ill-advised policies and projects on an overburdened public.

Beyond being annoyed with government waste, what’s really at stake is the legitimacy of government itself. That may sound dramatic, but if the bureaucracies are seen as bloated and self-serving, it becomes easier to write off all of the good thing that governments do. There is already a strong contingent that would downsize and eventually neuter government, which is essentially our way of working together for common goals. Every wasted tax dollar, every politician focused only on keeping his or her job, every entitled civil servant, every incident of corruption erodes the credibility of government.

Any hope of regaining even a modicum of public trust starts with each level of government getting its fiscal house in order – the long list of waste and corruption has been reported widely. Failing to act properly in a time of crisis when there is only one job to be done – every non-essential function should have been dropped or put on hold – only confirms the public’s suspicions of bureaucrats.

Partisans turn a blind eye to all of the negatives, whether that’s in support of a particular party or a pet project. The rest of us look on apathetically, often resigned to the fact graft and corruption abound. A few note that incompetence is commonplace, from municipal bureaucracies through to the boardrooms of multinationals.

The only way that’s going to change is through the political will to push for true accountability. The politicians won’t do it, however, unless we force them to: they’re happy with a self-serving system that allows unfettered access to the cookie jar for themselves and their financial backers.

That there has been no talk of accountability for failings in the pandemic, particularly here in the region, shows government interests trump the public’s.

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