Minister overboard

Keeping meddling politicians out of the shipbuilding contract decision worked. Is there a lesson here?

Minister overboard

Adrian Wyld/CP

The Conservatives are most anxious that everyone should know what an independent and impartial process was used to decide the recent competition for $33 billion in federal shipbuilding work. And by all accounts it was. Ministers were kept far away from the file. The task of assessing the competing bids, from shipyards in B.C., Halifax and Quebec, was left to a team of senior civil servants. A “fairness monitor” vouched for their handiwork, with the help of two outside auditors. And so on.

All of which would be a lot more impressive if a) it had not already been decided at the political level that no foreign shipyards would be allowed to compete, reserving the bidding to a handful of high-priced domestic yards, b) it had not similarly been decided in advance that the work would be divided between two yards, meaning two of the three bidders were guaranteed to win something, and c) one of the three, Quebec’s near-bankrupt Davie Yards, had not been shoehorned into the bidding at the last minute thanks to a political decision to extend the deadline. Indeed, it is hard to escape the impression that all this scrupulousness was based less on principle and more on protecting the government from the inevitable blowback from whichever province lost, naming no Quebecs.

But why quibble? It would be a stretch to say the best bid won, but at least the worst bid lost, which is a lot better than these things usually play out. Indeed, the process was such a success some have been moved to ask: why don’t we do this . . . all the time? If it is a good thing to keep politicians’ thumbs off the scales on a major shipbuilding contract, why is it not also a good thing to get the politics out of procurement generally? Not only would it spare the taxpayer needless expense, but it would spare the country the regional resentments, lobbying wars and suspicions of corruption that go with most such decisions.

I’d go further. Many of the worst political scandals of recent years, from sponsorships to the G8 mess, have stemmed in one way or another from ministers meddling in their departments’ affairs, whether to the benefit of their party, their constituents, their friends or themselves. That ministers will meddle may be thought of as a given. But ministers would be a lot less tempted to meddle if they did not actually have the power to do so: if they were removed from any role in the day-to-day management of departments, by means of a statutory separation of the two.

If that sounds like an unpardonable limit on the discretion of elected officials, recall that we already do this in many areas of government. It’s why the courts are insulated from political influence, at least after the judges have been appointed. It’s also why we set up Crown corporations, at arm’s length from their departments. So why don’t we apply the arm’s length model more broadly—making departments less the plaything of their ministers, and more organizations devoted to delivering the best service for the lowest cost?

I’m hardly the first to suggest this: in fact, I’m pretty much describing the system already in effect in New Zealand. As part of a program of reforms in the 1980s, New Zealand turned every government department into something resembling a Crown corporation. Deputy ministers became CEOs, hired on fixed five-year terms. Instead of simply issuing directives to his deputy minister, the responsible minister negotiates an annual contract with the department CEO, setting out broad policy objectives, together with benchmarks for measuring progress. Then the CEO is left to get on with the job, with broad powers to hire and fire and otherwise manage the department as he sees fit.

In effect, the minister becomes the purchaser of services on the public’s behalf, rather than the provider. He is still accountable for the mandate the department is given, and for seeing that it is met: indeed, since the terms of the contracts are public, the effect is to greatly clarify expectations and responsibilities. But he no longer has any role in how they’re delivered. So the minister of transport still sets the broad outlines of transport policy: he just doesn’t get to decide which roads go through whose ridings. Conscientious ministers ought to find this quite liberating. It frees them to focus on their proper role: setting policy for the country, rather than skulking around in their departments’ backrooms, deciding where to place gazebos and the like.

What are the chances we’ll see such a system here? As always in this country, inertia reigns. Even a gentle nod in this direction by Judge Gomery, in his report on the sponsorship scandal, provoked the great and the good of the Ottawa mandarinate to descend from on high to explain how it Simply Couldn’t Be Done. But in fact we have a working example: the Bank of Canada. Every five years the governor and the minister of finance agree upon the course of policy, including the target rate of inflation. Then the governor is left to get on with the job.

It works there. It could work elsewhere.


Minister overboard

  1. Not to mention it might remove some temptation for people who want to manage the country, as  opposed to govern it, to run for office (aka, most of the current elected CPC)

  2. I dunno… you take the politicians too far out of the equation, and there’s a loss of accountability. I mean, look for instance at the G8/G20 debacle. The ministers and MPs in question who were accountable for that clusterbleep all lost their jobs.

    Oh wait. They got promotions. Never mind.

    Good idea, Coyne. Good idea.

  3. “But ministers would be a lot less tempted to meddle if they did not actually have the power to do so: if they were removed from any role in the day-to-day management of departments, by means of a statutory separation of the two”

    “Why Quibble” says AC after pretty much demolishing the tories pretty pile of blocks.

    Didn’t we at one time pretty well have such a functioning system as AC posits. Way back in the mists of time when there were effective power blocks in Ottawa to the overreach of an ambitious PM and his PMO? DMs could in fact repel the likes of wide boys like the unlovely Tony with relative ease. But the power of the bureaucracy didn’t just melt away. Years of relentless polemics and attacks from the likes of, dare i say, it Andrew Coynes, put those userpers in their place. Late you come with a solution Mr Coyne.
    You don’t appear to have any interest in critiquing D.Savoie’s worry, that we now have to wonder, if this handsoff deal developes serious flaws, who in fact will be held accountable.

    • I have never written any polemics or attacks on the bureaucracy. If you cannot be bothered to read what I have written, please do not make things up.

      • But i do read what you say Mr Coyne.
        I did sayCoyne[s]. I should have said media i suppose. But you’re right i have no idea if you personally were a part of the relentless republican attack on govt in general and the bureaucracy in particular that has been going on decades now. For that i apologize.

      • Good for you Andrew….enough of this cyber-bullying!

        • Cyber bullying…are you for real! I’ve said a ton of positive things about AC, against this one. It was stupid of me.  I got carried away and personalized a comment i shouldn’t have and apologized for it.

          • Yes…you “got carried away and personalized a comment” and be honest, if Mr. Coyne had not have confronted you, would you have taken the initiative and apologized on your own? Your behavior was bullying and it was on the internet, hence the term….no worries, it happens on here all the time.  Maybe, you don’t see yourself that way but every time you refer to someone as idiotic or stupid or say “are you for real!”….think about it.

          • That’s  a fair point,whether i would have apologzed on my own – probably i would have taken it as proving my point bout the media[ i did in facthave one]
            I knew you’d regard “unreal” as aform of bullying – frankly that’s pollyannish IMO. There’s bullying and there’s bullying. I’m pretty sure you weren’t around here much over the last 3-4/5 years during the minority. If you had you’d know what real bullying was about.
            Now that i take the time to think about it i reject bullying altogether. What i did was more in the nature of what Andrew said – make an incorrect accusation, got my facts wrong – made assumptions that turned out to be false. There was no bullying at all. Intended or otherwise.

  4. Mr. Coyne, the much simpler solution to all these problems is for the politicians to get their fingers out of the pie in the first place, and allow the system to work as designed.

    Since both our solutions require the politicos to take a step back and give up control, neither will happen, though mine at least is cheaper as it requires no start-up costs.

    The crats, unhindered, would work more efficiently were the Chinese Wall again erected. I wonder if you you know how much time is spent deflecting political idiocy while trying to enact policy…

  5. Gee Andrew, you have been beating this drum about New Zealand-style solutions at least since 2006.  Maybe you need to read what you said then – interesting how some forecasts turned out, lol.  
    Setting up Crown corporations may prevent “ministers meddling” but you are dreaming if you expect “organizations devoted to delivering the best service for the lowest cost”.  We currently have a couple of dozen Crown corporations right now.  Some, like the Bank of Canada, CMHC appear to function well, but perhaps we should work on having the rest of them meet “benchmarks for measuring progress”.  Look at AECL – bottomless money pit – finally get a big job re-furbishing the N.B. reactor and they are two years behind and a billion over-budget.  While the idea sounds good, the problem (from what I have read) is getting the right kind of business/corporate people running the show.
    Your “inertia reigns” comment doesn’t hold water if you read what you said in 2006 and what has now been put in place.  Remember what you said about a minority government not being in a position to make changes easily.

  6. “Minister Overboard” the title; Tony Clement the picture. For a minute there, I dared to hope…

    What a mean tease!

  7. Yet another reason to like New Zealand, which I – quite irrationally – have long done.

  8. I wonder if Tony Clement is offended or flattered that his picture has been used with this article.  It’s hard to tell how his narcissism will cloud his reaction.

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