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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Keep everything under the dome

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Report tabled at Muskrat Falls inquiry shows civil servants toiling under an information chill

I don’t know whether to be fascinated or horrified.

Thursday, Memorial University political science professor Kelly Blidook was on the stand at the Muskrat Falls inquiry, answering questions on his report surveying issues about potential problems in the senior civil service of the province.

I was fascinated, because this is a group that rarely spills.
And horrified, because some of the allegations made suggest a real problem with governance that has to be investigated further.

There are some real issues here, with the report as well as with some of its findings. The caveat has to be that the quotes from senior civil servants in the report were edited for clarity and to remove repetition — so, though they appear in quotation marks in the report, we might not have the full sense and context.

The other concern? The sample of former executive-level managers is a small one — just 15 people, only three of them currently employed with the province. There’s been huge turnover at the deputy minister and assistant deputy minister level, and it’s not even clear from the report which political administration may have been in charge for the array of executives involved.

But as a starting point, all I can say is that the report screams out for followup.

Blidook did the report for the inquiry, asking two central questions: “Does record keeping within the NL public service appear to be sufficient?” and “What constraints, if any, exist upon NL public servants communicating different viewpoints to superiors and why this may be so?”

The report also speaks to a deep malaise among the province’s top civil servants; the interviews suggest senior bureaucrats are afraid to tell politicians uncomfortable truths.

The present and former directors, assistant deputy ministers and deputy ministers were interviewed for an hour to an hour and a half apiece.

It’s always interesting for a media outlet to find itself in the midst of an issue. Here’s Blidook, writing about the chilling effect of the province’s access to information legislation (ATIPPA) on politicians and civil servants. “Perhaps the most common phrase coming from interviews is some version of the statement ‘Do you want to see it on the front page of the Telegram?’, in reference to the practice of writing down information that will be subject to ATIPPA. This highlights the prominence of concerns around ATIPPA among public servants, and the degree to which it influences behaviour.”

I didn’t know that, as a newspaper, we were so scary.

“Most people are cautious not because they don’t want to document, but again, one piece can so easily be taken out of context. Giving advice to my superiors, whether in the political office or in my various roles as a civil servant, I always said to them, ‘Look are you comfortable with this decision on the front page of the Telegram? If so we are fine. If not we need to rethink it,’” one assistant deputy minister was quoted as saying.

That was echoed by a director: “The expression was ‘don’t write anything that you would not want to see on the front page of the Telegram.’ So that’s something that was said quite often, and people took that to heart.”

The report also speaks to a deep malaise among the province’s top civil servants; the interviews suggest senior bureaucrats are afraid to tell politicians uncomfortable truths.

Think about this comment for a moment, from someone at the assistant deputy minister level: “We joke about ‘decision-based evidence making.’ It does happen sometimes. ‘Here is what we want to do, so justify it.’”

Or this, from a deputy minister: “A lot of the executive operate out of fear because they see the way the executive is managed is ‘Screw up and you are out the door.’”

But the concerns are broader than that. An allegation about a civil servant being told to delete an email chain, senior bureaucrats being asked to manufacture justifications after the fact for political decisions, bureaucrats moving from using bound notebooks to record things to jot pads, so the pads can be discarded. Bureaucrats being told specifically not to put information in government files for political reasons, or to deliver that information verbally; “particularly in the past 4 or 5 years … even ministers getting briefings on critical pieces of policy wouldn’t accept information that was provided to them, would pass the paper back, saying, ‘I don’t want this in writing. Talk to me.’ That was frequent. Frequent. And it crossed administrations,” one interviewee was quoted as saying.

These are big-league, frightening allegations.

Bottom line? The Blidook report is alarming, but it is only a starting place. It simply raises more questions than it answers.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.


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