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Behind the Image.

Government employees are everybody's favourite target of scorn. The popular image is that they are overpaid, underworked, and incompetent, but most of them are hard working and help keep our part of the world in order

The Auditor-General's annual report continually reminds us that the federal government could provide better services to Canadians for less money if it was more efficient. The report usually sets out billions of dollars worth of spending excess, waste and poorly designed, poorly administered programs. In 1997, the government accounting watchdog said it was a lack of clear purpose and measurable results for federal programs that cost Canadian taxpayers about $104 billion. The list of government goofs is long:

* $2 billion wasted on failed efforts to restructure the Atlantic fishing industry (the program was thrown together too quickly, poorly planned, and badly run, failing to coax people out of the fishery and retrain them for new jobs);

* The sale of Nav Canada, the country's air-navigation system, to a non-profit company in 1996 for at least $900 million less than it might have been worth;

* Environment Canada's failure to track shipments of hazardous waste, despite signing an international agreement to control trans-border traffic (customs agents were not trained to spot hazardous wastes, relatively few rail cars were examined, either coming into or leaving Canada, and there were no targeted inspections of containers exported by ship).

Yes, there are some horror stories but the public rarely stops to think about the good work the bureaucracy actually does.

Health, education, policing, justice, garbage pick-up and disposal, food inspections, weights and measures, highway construction and maintenance, protection of civil rights, ensuring elections are free and fair.

Imagine having a government similar to that which exists in most countries in the developing world where there is no regulation of the environment, or safety standards, for example, and where bribes must be paid for even the smallest service.

Canada's bureaucrats often get blamed for mistakes that should be pinned on politicians. The decisions of our elected representatives are often based on ideology, which doesn't always reflect common sense. Right-wing ideology, for example, says the way to deal with criminals is to punish them severely; government officials who work in corrections know this is not the best way. In November 2000, a report by the Ontario Auditor Erik Peters challenged the government's policy of keeping prisoners in jail rather than letting them out on temporary-absence programs, for instance. According to the report, "These community programs contribute to the protection of society by enabling offenders to maintain community and family relationships and responsibilities, and to attend continued education, employment, and other rehabilitation programs."

Jail superintendents will be among the first to say such programs are more cost-effective than incarceration. But, conservative ideology says: "These are bad people and we should lock 'em up and throw away the key."

Mistakes can be made by those driven by left-wing ideology as well. Socialists generally believe in providing generous welfare benefits to those in need, yet social workers know that this is likely to create a circle of dependency. What the poor really need are educational programs, child care, and job training - tools to help them become independent.

There's plenty of evidence that some of the spectacular blunders uncovered annually by auditors-general are the responsibility of politicians, not bureaucrats.

Ontario's Ombudsman, Roberta Jamieson, reported in 1999 that senior government officials were reluctant to fix problems or policies in their departments because they were afraid of losing their jobs if they questioned political decisions.

It's the Ombudsman's job to help members of the public solve problems they're having with the provincial government. But Ms. Jamieson said funding cuts and a shift in the government's values led to a general decline in the level of service offered to the public. She criticized the shift from an emphasis on fairness in delivery of service that governed the public service in the early part of the 1990s to the business-like, bottom-line values espoused a decade later.

This sort of attitude can lead to serious problems. In June 2000, there was a massive recall of ground beef because of fears of contamination. More than 122 tonnes of beef was recalled from stores across Canada after E. coli bacteria was found in at least three separate shipments of meat from slaughterhouses in Brooks, Alberta, and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency carries out visual inspections at slaughterhouses but the Canadian Health Coalition says that's not enough: the agency should also do routine testing for pathogens.

The inspection process is essential to make meat as safe as possible, and protect consumers from rabies, tuberculosis, salmonella, lead poisoning, and E. coli. Even so, illegally slaughtered (uninspected) meat finds its way to market. According to a November 2000 article in the Toronto Star, there are more than two million cases of food poisoning in Canada every year from meat contaminated with E. coli and salmonella. Part of the problem is poor law enforcement. Ontario's Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs admitted that it didn't always charge people for selling uninspected meat: when it did, many suppliers were fined minimal amounts of between $200 and $500, not enough to halt their lucrative business.

But, even provincially licensed meat plants have their problems. Government inspectors are supposed to oversee the operation of slaughterhouses. It's their job to file reports to the ministry on food safety, hygiene, structural conditions, and food handling practices in the plants. Those with chronic problems are called before a tribunal, which issues penalties, including suspending or revoking licences. But, the provincial government has made deep cuts in the number of inspectors over the past few years.

In 2000, Ontario had the equivalent of 80 full-time inspectors overseeing meat safety inside its 220 licensed abattoirs, about 50 fewer than in 1995.

The same year, the people of Walkerton, Ontario learned how tragic a poorly administered water system can be. Stan Koebel, the self-confessed incompetent who missran Walkerton's water system, was offered $100,000 to take a hike. He was not properly trained for the job. Add to that the move by Mike Harris's Conservative provincial government to shift responsibility for financing water and sewers to financially pinched municipalities - thereby loosening provincial monitoring - and the result was disaster. Seven people in the community died as a result and about 2,000 others became ill.

Operators of summer camps and parks in Ontario also blame the government for inadequate testing of their water supplies. Many small, private wells and septic systems across Ontario are not tested frequently enough for contaminants and their owners say they are struggling to stay in business and can't afford the water tests since the government closed its laboratory in 1996. Tests performed by private labs are twice the price of government tests carried out before the services were privatized. When a group of trailer-park operators complained to the government in 1998 about the increased costs, the Environment Minister at the time said she would consider reducing the required number of tests. (In 2000, the government maintained that operators still were required to test their water for E. coli, coliforms and other contaminants a minimum of eight times a month.)

The government further jeopardized the safety of Ontarians when it decided to privatize public safety regulations, including the safety of elevators, amusement park rides, and gas storage tanks in 1997. The move left many industries regulating themselves, which the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy pointed out could cause problems with conflict of interest [that could lead to unsafe conditions for the public].

Moving west to British Columbia, and back in time two years, news reports were full of B.C.'s fast-ferry project, with headlines like `Megaproject creates megamess'. The FastCat project was initiated by then-Premier Glen Clark (NDP) as a solution to the problems facing the province's threatened shipbuilding industry. No private company would build the ships, so the government created a company and ordered three ferries, with the hope that more would be sold around the world. Construction of the first 1,000 passenger vessel started in July 1996. It turned out to be a disastrous string of cost overruns, long delays and questions about the ships' ability to meet the goal of cutting 30 minutes off the 100-minute voyage between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. The first ferry was 27 tonnes overweight, used up to 8.5% more fuel than planned, couldn't reach its expected top speed of 37 knots when fully loaded, and was expected to produce wakes twice as high and nine times as powerful as conventional ferries, a major environmental concern in narrow coastal waters. All this for a price of $462 million, more than double the original estimate of $210 million.

In 1999 one government critic described the scheme as "a devastating chronicle of mind-boggling incompetence, mismanagement and political interference." The province's auditor-general's report concluded that inept governance was to blame for the fiasco.

In the same year, plans for a $900-million convention centre in downtown Vancouver collapsed in what was described as another financial flop for the province under Glen Clark's NDP government. The harbour-front centre, called Portside, originally was expected to cost $200 million. The project would have included an expansion to Vancouver's existing convention centre, as well as a 1,000-room hotel, a cruise terminal, and a shopping complex.

On a national scale, Transport Canada was under fire when it decided to shorten its inspection period for new aircraft. In May 2000, it was reported that the government had given in to industry pressure to shorten its certification period for new planes. The move put more testing in the hands of the industry, raising concerns that getting the aircraft to market was becoming more important than safety issues. Ottawa maintained that safety would not be compromised. However, critics said that so many aircraft parts are manufactured by third parties and often in other countries that companies such as Bombardier have become more assemblers than manufacturers, making testing more important than ever.

FACT FILE

In April 2000, Ontario Premier Mike Harris, who said public servants, teachers, and hospital workers should be content with pay increases of 2%, said a 27% pay increase for his chief of staff was appropriate because it involved a promotion and increased duties. In November 2000, he approved a 42% pay increase for Members of the Provincial Parliament.

FACT FILE

In October 2000, the Alberta government found itself running a toxic-waste plant that already cost taxpayers $441 million, five years after paying a private company to take over the troubled facility.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES:

1. In 1999, the federal government financed more than 300 millennium projects worth about $41 million. Projects included the restoration of churches and the construction of parks and trails, as well as many smaller projects such as museum exhibitions, websites, films and videos, historical books, calendars, and time capsules. Federal money went to a flag park in Regina ($10,200), a ceramics exhibition in Toronto ($76,333), and a Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario ($1,057,933), for example. Critics said if the millennium was special to people they should have a great party at their own expense. Ottawa said it was all part of building better communities. Discuss both points of view.

2. The Sierra Club of Canada works to influence public policy and environmental awareness. In September 2000, the Club said we need legislation to protect government workers who speak out on matters that will affect public safety. The suggestion arose after a Federal Court ruling that upheld the rights of two Health Canada scientists to raise concerns publicly about pressure from within Health Canada to approve a bovine growth hormone, a genetically produced drug that increases milk production in cattle. Research the case, which involved Dr. Margaret Haydon and Dr. Shiv Chopra, and find out what other projects the Sierra Club has tackled.

3. Write an outline of what a day in your life might be like if there were no government of any sort in Canada..
Websites

Office of the Auditor General
of Canada
http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/

Public Service Alliance
of Canada
http://www.psac.com/


RELATED ARTICLE: BUREAUCRAT BURNOUT

In the 1990s, Canada's public sector cut a lot of jobs while the private sector was steadily creating them. All levels of government and the institutions they control, such as schools and hospitals, were downsizing in a big way: in 1997 there were 2,538,000 people working for the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, down 6.9% from the 1992 peak of 2,725,9000. As a percentage of population, the drop was even greater: in 1997 there were 83.8 public servants for every 1,000 Canadians, down 12.3% from 95.5 in 1992.

The federal government made the biggest cuts, reducing its work force by more than 73,000, or 17.8%, between 1992 and 1997. Staff at provincial governments dropped by 6.7%, at municipal levels by 2.1%.

By 2000, Ottawa had 100,000 fewer employees in the federal bureaucracy, and the heavy work loads on the remaining public servants was causing burnout, illness, and stress. Many blamed lack of personnel for the problems at Human Resources Development Canada, where auditors said $1 billion in grants and programs was poorly managed with little monitoring or follow-up.

One study found executives in the bureaucracy work significantly more hours weekly (52.9) than their private-sector counterparts (43.2), with an average of 7.2 hours a week worked at home. And, few took all their vacation or overtime entitlements, More than 90% of public service executives reported sleep-related problems, nearly 60% had some form of gastrointestinal upset, and 52% had frequent headaches as a result of work pressures.

But, by August 2000, after a decade of downsizing its work force, the federal government planned to spend the next decade hiring up to 12,000 new full-time workers a year as waves of baby boomers retire, creating job opportunities not seen since the 1970s.

RELATED ARTICLE: OVER THE POND

In March 1996, Britain's government admitted that there probably was a link

between "mad cow disease" and a new, fatal, degenerative brain disorder in humans, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (VCJD). It took ten years to finally make the admission and a public inquiry report on the issue - all 16 volumes of it - was released in October 2000.

According to The Economist, the report "is one of the most intimate looks at the slow-turning wheels of government policy ever produced. Like the entire [mad cow] saga, it manages to bore, scandalize, disgust, and terrify, all at the same time." The report criticizes the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for its secretive, bureaucratic culture, for its inertia in the face of changing scientific advice, and lack of rigor in imposing regulations. When it should have been warning the public, the government chose to take a reassuring stand for fear of creating public panic and hurting farm interests. Several government ministers and civil servants were criticized for downplaying the risks and misleading the public about the threat to human health. By October 2000, 85 cases of VCJD had been reported and it was estimated that as many as 100,000 people might eventually be affected by the disease, which has a long incubation period.

The report, which took two and a half years to complete, blames the tragedy on poor communication between government departments and bureaucratic delays in responding to scientific warnings about the risks of the disease.

The current Labour government in Britain announced a multimillion-dollar compensation package for bereaved families as well as a special program of care for those still suffering from the disease, which leaves its victims with dementia and in need of extensive nursing support.

The Economist says the report raises important questions about how governments should cope with scientific uncertainty, and how much information they should share with the public. The incident, not surprisingly, eroded public trust in science and the government's ability to regulate it.

RELATED ARTICLE: CANADA TOPS FOR NEW BUSINESSES

According to a study by the World Bank and Harvard University, Canada has the least regulatory red tape for new businesses. The study, which released its findings in November 2000, ranked Canada at the top of the list of 75 developed and developing countries.

New small businesses have to fill out tax forms and a licensing application that takes about two days to process and costs about $400 in application fees. Many countries take up to two months to clear small-business applications. In some cases, the process is so costly and time-consuming that it's not worth the effort. Australia came second, followed closely by New Zealand. The United States ranked fourth with a four-step process that takes around seven days to process and costs about the same as in Canada.

The South American nation of Bolivia was at the bottom of the list, "in a class of its own," according to the study. A small-business there has about 20 different procedures to plough through, including six labour procedures, and 11 screening steps. It all takes about 82 days to process and costs $2,696.

RELATED ARTICLE: OVERZEALOUS BUREAUCRATS

During the summer of 2000, the Toronto School Board, spent $700,000 demolishing millions of dollars worth of playground equipment in 172 elementary school yards in the city. The decision to scrap the equipment started with the publication of a national safety code for new playground equipment in 1998. Although the code did not say existing equipment had to go, the board approved the removals and then was looking at a bill of $30 million or more to replace or repair the equipment.
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Title Annotation:civil servants, Canada
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1CBRI
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Words:2955
Previous Article:Passing the Buck.
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