High-flying civil servants - Macleans.ca

High-flying civil servants

Why bureaucrats’ travel and entertainment costs keep soaring

by

Newscom/ Sandor Fizli/ Pawel Dwulit/CP

Even by the standards of a globe-trotting public-health physician, the summer and fall of 2009 was a frenzied period for Dr. David Butler-Jones. The world was bracing for the onslaught of H1N1, and Butler-Jones was in charge of this country’s preparations.

He travels a lot at the best of times, but from the moment the first case of swine flu was confirmed in Mexico in late April, the bespectacled physician single-handledly sent the federal government reservation system into overdrive. Three trips to Vancouver. Four to Toronto. One to Mexico City. Another to London, England.

Calgary, Edmonton, Yellowknife, Montreal, Iqaluit, Regina, Moncton: all figured into the doctor’s schedule during those hectic weeks. And these trips did not include Butler-Jones’s oft-travelled route from his former home and base of operations in Winnipeg to the nation’s capital. In those eight months, he took an astounding 47 flights to Ottawa. By year’s end, with less than half the country vaccinated and swine flu proving much less than the three-headed monster advertised, he had racked up $210,393.66 in travel and hospitality spending, exceeded only by Gen. Walt Natynczyk, the chief of defence staff, who was overseeing the military mission in Afghanistan.

But any discussion of Butler-Jones’s travel expenses should delve much deeper than the 2009 flu scare. The previous year, he topped $192,000, and since he took up his post in late 2004, his myriad journeys have cost taxpayers just over $1 million—which makes him the grand champion of travel and hospitality spending in the federal government, at least among the cabinet ministers and elite bureaucrats who are required to reveal their claims on their departmental websites. How do we know? Because an unknown computer wizard in Nova Scotia named Drew McPherson has invented software that scans the stew of expense filings on so-called “proactive disclosure” pages of departmental websites, tabulating, ranking and generally making sense of what was hitherto a useless mélange of unrelated, uncollated and untotalled data.

So we now know that Butler-Jones has outspent ministers of foreign affairs in four separate years, and beneath his grand total are some jaw-dropping individual charges: a three-stop flight through Ottawa, Mali, and Washington that alone cost $18,231.27; a trip to Brazil in February 2009 for $12,673.48. The tolls for his Ottawa flights routinely exceeded $3,000 before he finally gave up this spring and moved to the capital. Under civil-service travel rules, the doctor’s executive status allows him to fly executive class—a privilege it’s hard to begrudge someone who travels so much. But a cursory search of airline websites reveals that round-trip business class tickets to Ottawa from Winnipeg can be had for about $1,800 with a couple of weeks’ advance booking. Could whomever was booking his travel not have done better? Does he always fly on a moment’s notice?

This sort of overspending is one of Ottawa’s oldest stories, but it’s safe to say McPherson has given it new life. The 33-year-old IT consultant was inspired to act by the cover story in Maclean’s May 19, 2006 issue, when we combed proactive disclosure sites and found a travel and hospitality system ripe for abuse. He’s not what you’d call an ideologue—McPherson belongs to no party and doesn’t vote. But he was appalled to see the information scattered in a manner seemingly intended to discourage taxpayers from using it. “It was,” he says, “a ridiculous mess.”

Even for someone with a combined degree in computer science and engineering, imposing order wasn’t easy. The information was scattered over hundreds of sites and pages, he explains, “and there were a lot of peculiarities in the underlying codes. When you asked a machine to read it, it basically makes the machine choke.” But he stuck it out for more than a year, hunching over the off-the-shelf PC in his basement apartment in Darmouth, N.S., to write software to wade through endless links on departmental websites, then grab the information at the end of each mini-odyssey. All, that is, in the blink of an eye.

When collated and tabulated on McPherson’s website, governmentexpenses.ca, the data puts a lot into perspective. Back in 2006, federal officials had assured Maclean’s that a planned travel booking portal, including an online booking tool, would halt the runaway train of government travel costs. McPherson’s updated stats show spending by ministers and senior bureaucrats actually increased in each of the following two years, to nearly $30 million. It then dipped by about $2 million with the recession in 2009, as the Harper government clamped down on civil-service spending. But this year it’s on pace to match the previous high, and that squares with what public accounts tell us about travel spending across all of the federal government. It has increased every year since the Maclean’s story came out and now stands at $1.6 billion, fully 25 per cent higher than in 2006.

Nor is there any sign of public employees reining in their spending due to tougher economic times. In 2009, ministers and senior officials booked 772 plane tickets worth more than $5,000; that’s a 28 per cent increase from three years earlier (since mid-2003 they’ve booked 4,438 worth more than $5,000, including 61 worth more than $20,000). Some of the cash drains are familiar to fiscal hawks—not least Canada’s embassy in France. In October 2008, Ambassador Marc Lortie hosted a dinner for 72 guests at the official residence in Paris, ostensibly to discuss international trade issues. Price tag to taxpayers: $12,820.91. A few months later, Lortie took a one-night trip to Montreal to give a speech at a seminar, purchasing a plane ticket that cost a whopping $6,171.94. Executive-class tickets can be had for $1,800 less than that with a few days notice.

Newer to the spending party is something called the Advanced Leadership Program, which is run by the Canada School of Public Service. Its intent is to “expand the world view” of senior civil servants by “maximizing their direct experience” in other countries, according to the school’s website. Under last year’s program, Anil Arora, an assistant chief statistician at Statistics Canada, racked up $17,081.60 in airfare and hotel bills hopscotching from Sacramento, Calif., San Francisco, Washington, Port au Prince and Mexico City. The same program took Barbara Ritzen, head of integration at Justice Canada, who is based in Edmonton, on a three-week journey from Banff, Alta., to Houston, Washington and Brazil.

Cost: $17,909.53, including $3,883.49 for accommodation. A spokeswoman for the public service school, a kind of in-house academy for bureaucrats, said in an emailed response that all flights booked for the program are the fully refundable—but more expensive—sort to allow late changes due to unforeseen circumstances. The program, she added, was a “response to demographic pressure facing Canada’s public service and the importance of developing the top level of public servants.”

Maybe. But it and other treats for top bureaucrats are part of a drift that even the best-intentioned bean-counters seem helpless to stop. Officials with Public Works Canada, which oversees the government’s travel booking portal, say all 96 government departments now use the new online booking tool, awkwardly christened “Travel AcXess Voyage.” In fiscal 2008-09, the government figures it saved $47 million in airfares and $42 million in hotel costs by negotiating lower rates with vendors, a spokesman said in an email. But it’s each department’s responsibility to look for bargains. While the new booking system raises flags when a traveller is not booking the lowest possible air fare, the traveller can override it using “justifications” based on time efficiency, flight availability, availability of seats and last-minute booking.

Such is frequently the case with Butler-Jones, says James Libbey, chief financial officer of the Public Health Agency of Canada, who fielded questions about the doctor’s expenses. “He’s very mindful of his expenditures, and of the responsibility of the agency to make sure taxpayers’ dollars are spent wisely,” Libbey says. But Butler-Jones’s job involves extensive consultation with international health organizations, he adds, and public-health crises like H1N1 and the 2008 listeriosis outbreak require travel, often last minute, to meet with his provincial and territorial counterparts. “Last year, H1N1 really took over his travel schedule.”

That said, Libbey isn’t disputing the results as laid out by McPherson’s website. “I had my people take a look at it on a sample basis and I think his reports are factually accurate,” he says. “We might as well work with them.” That it took an unknown computer whiz from the Maritimes to bring us to this point speaks to the government’s reluctance to face up to the truth, says Derek Fildebrandt, research director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “Accessibility of this sort of information was terrible when I began doing this a year and a half ago,” he says, “and it’s only got worse since.” As for McPherson, he’s hoping his attempt to “do a bit of public good” opens a window onto a world where economic laws that apply to the rest of us seem to hang suspended. An experimental vaccine, you might say, against a spending pandemic.