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    Fun and loafing in the BC public service


    Russ Francis

    Taxpayer dollars are wasted doing things that are unnecessary or wrong—while important records management tasks are routinely ignored.

     

    UPON JOINING THE BC PUBLIC SERVICE, new employees gather in a Downtown auditorium, listen to a few hackneyed words of wisdom from the deputy attorney general, sign the public service oath—and never think of it again. A high-level document, the oath is seen less as something to consult for guidance on how to behave and more as a chance to get a couple of hours’ paid time away from the office—or as yet another annoying little bit of bureaucracy needed to keep the higher-ups content. I don’t recall ever seeing a copy posted in a government elevator, on an employee bulletin board, or stuck onto a lunchroom fridge beside posters advertising yet another dreaded, compulsory, day-long “team building” clambake.

    For the most part, public servants go about their business serving their respective ministers appropriately, without needing a reminder of what they can and cannot do. But there are also others among the 31,350 full-time equivalent workers in the BC public service (this estimate doesn’t include those in Crown corporations and other arms-length organizations); there are miscreants whose memories could do with more than an occasional jog as to how to keep disrepute out of the public service.

     

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    One of the more concerning situations I encountered in my 10 years in government involved a fellow employee. Or perhaps “seat warmer” would be more accurate, for he spent most of his days openly running his own business from his government desk. One day, his manager came over to the employee’s cubicle and began describing a new assignment for him. Less than a minute into the manager’s request, however, the employee’s taxpayer-paid desk phone rang. To my astonishment, ignoring his manager, the employee answered the phone, and launched into a conversation with what sounded an awful lot like negotiating with a client of his personal business. Meanwhile, interrupted in mid-sentence, his manager stood there, waiting till the phone conversation ended, some minutes later. And I suspect this wasn’t the first time.

    There is little more depressing in a workplace than to see a co-worker blatantly act in his own interest rather than for the good of the government (covered by another clause in the oath); even more so to do it in full knowledge of management and get away with it. In my view, he should have been fired, along with his manager—for acquiescing in the employee’s behaviour. The manager’s supervisor, and likely several further up the chain, also knew about the employee, but did nothing. All of them should have been fired too. Yet none were.

    Another category of public service behaviour, while not as flagrant, is no less worrisome and far more widespread. And it costs taxpayers a small fortune: the abuse of meetings.

    In one ministry, our assistant deputy minister (ADM) became concerned that a team of about 10 people had been meeting weekly to complete just one task: produce a single, short, relatively simple document. But after more than a year of one-hour meetings, the team—which included several directors and managers—had yet to finish the task. Knowing that I had experience working on tight daily newspaper deadlines, the ADM asked me to step in and wrap up the project. Easier said than done.

    The team members rebelled, initially even refusing to allow me into the room for the next meeting. Following a direct order from the ADM, they relented, if somewhat reluctantly. The reason for their reticence soon became plain. The endlessly repeating meetings were primarily social gatherings. The well-paid, senior drones began the meeting by discussing not the supposed task at hand, but the “pretty colours” appearing in the latest draft of the document—a result of Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature, in which each edit appears in a different colour. That afternoon, I completed my own edits of the document, and shipped what I assumed would be the final version of the document back to the team leader. There it sat. Not to be upset by the ADM’s “interference,” the team resumed its regular social gatherings. Attendees at such meetings can spend much of their time trying to look busy to others in the meeting—who are also trying to look busy. Your tax dollars at play. That ADM resigned shortly afterwards, to “pursue other interests.” She obviously did not fit the ministry’s meeting-centric culture.

    I expect that every single one of those socializing team members knew deep down that what they were doing was of no value to either the ministry or society. That view may be widespread. As London School of Economics anthropologist David Graeber vividly explains in his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs, “Huge swaths of people…spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary.” He estimates that up to 50 percent of workers privately believe their jobs accomplish nothing of value. Though his interview-based research primarily deals with the worlds of corporations and academe, his conclusions may apply even more strongly to government.

    Of course, not all meetings waste time and money. There are some circumstances that call for numerous lengthy meetings. For instance, last year it must have taken an inordinate number of BC government person-hours to spin a new greenhouse-gas-spewing liquefied natural gas project into a planet-saving plan to improve the environment.

    If the number and length of meetings were to be substantially reduced, what would public servants do with their newfound time? In fact, there is no shortage of important work now left undone. For example, it is current government policy that public servants document significant phone calls, instant messages and the like—the so-called “duty to document.” This rarely happens. The result: There is no complete record concerning the development of many policies. So a freedom of information (FOI) request would draw a blank: “No records exist.” Arguably, not documenting such important interactions brings the public service into disrepute.

    A few senior government officials are well-informed about the requirements of FOI, and do their best to ensure that appropriate documents are retained—subject, of course, to the political requirements of the government. The same cannot be said of all lower-level staff, including managers. All public servants are required to take an online FOI course. Yet much of its generally welcome content is forgotten or conveniently ignored. For instance, an FOI manager told a ministry meeting that drafts of documents did not need to be retained, so she routinely deleted them. That’s not correct, I said. I was immediately overruled by the meeting chair. After all, I was not the FOI manager.

    It’s difficult to hold ordinary public servants to account for paying minimal attention to the duty-to-document requirement, since two successive governments have essentially told them not to bother. A March 8, 2017 finance ministry press release—following the BC Liberals’ 2015 “triple delete” scandal—claimed that the government was legislating a duty to document by introducing Bill 6, the Information Management (Documenting Government Decisions) Amendment Act. And as recently as March 31, 2019, NDP Citizens’ Services Minister Jenny Sims said in a statement that new amendments “respond” to recommendations from two former information and privacy commissioners, David Loukidelis and Elizabeth Denham, to legislate the duty to document.

    But in each case, information activists were quick to denounce both claims. The problem with both the Liberal and NDP announcements is that compliance is left to a public servant, the Chief Records Officer. How is that working out? Darrell Evans, executive director of the Canadian Institute for Information and Privacy Studies, told Focus in June: “As far as I know, there’s never been any enforcement.” The lack of penalties is akin to a bank ditching its locks, cameras and other security measures, and replacing them with a sign imploring customers: “Please do not steal the money. Thank you for your cooperation.”

    The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’s executive director, Sara Neuert, said in an interview that not only should there be penalties for failing to document, but that those penalties should be enforced by the independent Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. “We’d really like to see external oversight,” Neuert said.

    So it’s little wonder that public servants while away their idle hours looking busy in useless meetings, instead of dutifully documenting. One government lawyer once told me that the government’s internal instant message system—which does not keep records of exchanges—was desirable, because “it’s not subject to FOI.” Of course, he is wrong: under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, instant messages are records just as much as a hard-copy briefing note or a video recording. I rarely heard someone explicitly state: “In order to avoid FOI, do not send an email. Instead, phone, or meet in person.” But it is universally understood that for sensitive issues, personal meetings or phone calls are desirable, precisely as a mechanism—legal or not—to dodge FOI.

    This is not a great way to improve the public’s view of the government. At least, that’s if anyone knows about the practice. Please don’t tell anyone: it might bring the public service into disrepute.

    During his time with the government, Russ Francis did his best to follow advice, in the spirit of the Westminster system, from a deputy minister: “What interests the minister, absolutely fascinates me.”

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