High-flying civil servants

Why bureaucrats’ travel and entertainment costs keep soaring

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.




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High-flying civil servants

  1. Disgusting. Dr Butler Jones looks like his face will explode from all his travelling.

    Given the nature of the H1N1 flu bug, should he have been travelling in person?

    I have this amazing thing on my PC called "skype" and I can talk to my daughter in Oz, and I can see her and everything.

    Best of all — FREE!

    • Conference calling comes complete with live video. Hell, some doctors assist in surgeries using same. And, how is the country getting value from the good doctor when he's in the air longer than he's in the office?

  2. I find it hard to begrudge Butler-Jones' necessity of having to travel widely, and at short notice, particularly during public health emergencies. We've got a large country, and a lot of territory to cover. What's the alternative? That Butler-Jones turn down meetings in other countries, or that he squeezes into economy for a 14 hour trip to Beijing? Ridiculous.

    That he travels more frequently than our minister of foreign affairs speaks more about the minister than it does of the doctor.

    • Why on earth do you think he needs to be everywhere in person? He DID star in a TV ad that was accessible to us all.

      What a ridiculous thing to defend. I suppose you also think Harper needs to travel to make his local announcements. This is all for them, and we pay for it.

      Cancel unnecessary travel; we can't freaking afford it — not that AND the shots for everyone, including all of us who don't want them.

      • I'm all for Prime Minister Harper traveling to make announcements in person, certainly. I'm not a fan of his, but he has every right to travel where he wants. He's the head of our government!

        Sure, there's a line somewhere, probably, that could be crossed by both the Prime Minister and Dr. Jones-Butler in their travel. But given their high profile jobs, and the necessity of being seen in person, you and Maclean's are definitely barking up the wrong tree.

  3. I was no fan of Butler-Jones during the H1N1 outbreak, that said travelling of that sort is hardly a perk.

  4. Its easy for us mere mortals to criticize the travel by bureaucrats and government officials because it does not seem necessary or it appears excessive. So it is easy for MacLeans to take pot shots. However, there does seem to be a pattern here of excessive spending in general. I don't know what can be done about it but at least they could reveal the expenses on their web sites in a manner that is easy to read and understand. The computer scientist has done a good job and as a taxpayer it is always good to have these expenses exposed to the light of day.

  5. As someone who has booked flights (for others) using the government travel system I can say that it works fairly well and will save money if you book it with the "proper" notice.

    It's often easier to book the hotel directly (and ask for the gov rate) than useing "voyage," you'll likely get a better rate, at a better hotel.

    In my 2 years with the government of Canada, I have not seen any unreasonable travel and only the odd overexpenditure on hospitality. (usually for a Minister or DM visit)

    But then, I'm just a sample of one, and certainly not representative of the PS as a whole.

    I must credit the senior execs/ finance branch in my department for keeping a tight leash on things… everything "must" be justified.

  6. "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."

    I do not begrudge him for flying a lot if the job necessitates it. However, the executive class, yes, I find it unreasonable.

    I am also a business traveler and have been elite for the past 3 years. The only time I'm allowed to travel business class is if the flight is longer than 6 hours – ie, overseas. In fact, if you go to the airport on any given Monday, I'd say a good portion of travelers are business travelers and most of us travel economy along with the rest of the herd. For a flight between Ottawa – Winnipeg (which is around 2 hours), I do not find it unreasonable to sit in economy.

    This is definitely an expense that the government needs to reign in. There is no waste in the corporate world so why should there be wasteful spending in the public sector?

    • Did you just seriously say there is no waste in the corporate world?!

      • Yeah, someone hasn't been following the news since 2008 or so. I've long since written off scolding 'private sector' types, and prefer to take these types of stories on a case by case basis. Corporate apologists have no leg to stand on when it comes to any kind of discussion concerning fiscal responsibility and waste.

        • Sure they do.

          It's no ones business how private citizens waste private money. They could spend it all on a hill of magic beans for all I care.

          But the money the government coerces from me under the threat of jail time, well, I want to see that spent "correctly".

          • Where did the money come from for the "private sector". A rip off is a rip off at the public's expense. And what about all those corporate jets, price aside what about green house gases.

  7. Thank you, Macleans, for posting the URL for Drew McPherson's website governmentexpenses.ca. As a blogger who is very concerned about government waste, it has always been a frustrating experience when trying to wade through pages of proactive disclosures on dozens of government websites in what turns out to be a futile attempt to find out who is racing to the top of the heap when it comes to wasting taxpayers' dollars. Mr. McPherson's efforts will make it much easier for Canadians to research exactly who in government has the highest expense account expenditures; having organized access to this information will allow voters to make educated decisions when entering the polling both and when contacting their MPs regarding government waste.

    As an aside, I suspect that most Canadians would not have guessed that Mr. Butler-Jones was leader of the pack. This is information that we may never have known without the work of Mr. McPherson. Thank you sir!

    http://viableopposition.blogspot.com/

  8. There should be a way that the government could discourage unreasonable expense charges. Probably, expose and post the top top ten yearly spenders in Media?

  9. But corporations do not always operate along those lines. The owners of the corporation (the board) want profits, so that they can earn dividends (and possibly to boost share prices). The managers of the corporation do not necessarily share those goals. They may benefit more from internal empire-building, or from abusing the perks of their office. Today the balance of power between management and shareholders tends to favour the former because owners are numerous and diffuse (in countries with bank-based financial systems, like Germany, shareholders do play a more active role).

  10. It's shameful, and a waste of taxpayers' money. And what does Butler-Jones do with all his frequent-flier points??? Fancy hotel suites? Classified wines of Bordeaux? There should be an immediate investigation by the Auditor-General!

  11. Thanks to Macleans and Drew McPherson we peons of Canada would never know abour this waste of travel expenses for no useful purpose. As a small business person on a marginal budget with none of the Federal Govt perks it is disgusting to read about this waste.

  12. I'll wager any bet, the Ms Alanna Mac Dougal in Ottawa is one of those high-flying "civil servants"!! I resent the fact that we have in our government a caste of people that squander the taxpayer's money with such blatant gall and disrespect for the Taxpayer. I am incessed when I read such clapp trapp when we retired taxpayers ( we still are taxpayers!!) who are looking at a .05% increase in our eager pension, and then have to look at such blatant waste. Who do these people think they are?? I find it extreme that this is tolerated in the first place and now they complain??
    If in this day and age while all the world is being electronically connected on an unbelievable level, these guys still have to travel?? There is some thing wrong here, very wrong. Have a conference call, whatever it needs, I am absolutely sure it is there. But I think with this enormous, blatantly unbelievable G20 for 1 Billion Dollars, set the stage for all the rest of the world to just blow it all.
    Where is Sheyla Fraser?
    Walter Matle, Brampton

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