I am doing a series of articles on the book “Rethinking Canadian Aid” (University of Ottawa Press, 2015), and now it’s time for “Chapter 10: The Management of Canadian Development Assistance: Ideology, Electoral Politics or Public Interest?” by François Audet and Olga Navarro-Flores. Remember as you read my comments that my interest is not in reviewing it from an academic perspective, but rather if it has any value-added from a managerial perspective. Where it doesn’t, my comments may seem a lot harsher than they are — it may be perfectly fine as an academic contribution, I just have little use for it as a manager.
We specifically consider whether [decisions by the Conservative government] were made on the basis of ideology, electoral politics, or the public interest. Our goal is to reflect on Canadian aid from a public administration perspective.
Colour me intrigued. Very few academics will pull themselves out of a policy paradigm and get their hands dirty with public administration, so I’m curious to see how the framework works out.
In the context of public administration, Thomas (1996, 96) characterized ODA management as Development Management, a union between management and international development that implies the inclusion of aid-related values, such as equity, political participation, and gender equality. Development managers in public administration thus distinguish themselves through specific attributes and skills connected to challenges and realities that are different from those found in other areas of the public sector. They must therefore reconcile notions of NPM efficiency with “Third World” ideals (Dar and Cooke 2008, 15).
And there went most of my interest. First and foremost, all the rhetoric about “new public management” is in my opinion, well, rhetoric. It is more like a four-letter word starting with C and rhyming with RAP, but there isn’t much room here to destroy it in detail. I’ll have to suffice with a few small critiques.
If one looks at the elements of NPM theory, you see arguments that the “new government approach” is distinguished from previous approaches by a set of key elements — decentralization, privatization, results orientation, management practices, and participation. On the extreme end, some argue that those elements never existed before; others say they are just so different that they represent a whole new paradigm.
But here’s the reality, and I’ll look mainly at program design. In the 1920s, “modern government” had the underlying theory that the only reason to do something in government was a basic market failure — the private sector couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. Ergo, nobody considered “private sector” policy instruments because the decision was already made. Fast-forward through 90 years of experience, and the evolution can be seen that in some instances, a component can be done by the private sector. That doesn’t represent a whole new paradigm, it just means we have a broader understanding in government of possible instruments beyond tax, regulate or spend. Equally, some things end up being privatized over time — not because it’s a new paradigm (although that can happen), but because the government comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t have to manage that part of some service area. But that is just a variation on realizing that the choice of instrument and choice of who delivers it is really the unpacking of two choices, not an embedded single decision.
Similarly, results orientation and participation are not new concepts, but they do “look and feel” different. Some of that is simply computer-based. Back then, many of the program design ideas like consulting stakeholders were also done, but not in the way we understand it now. Now we would ask the stakeholders what their needs are; back then, we didn’t have any real mechanism to do that well and roll it up into anything interesting so it was more low-end qualitative research or estimations based on small in-house peer groups. More anecdotal extrapolation because the data we have now wasn’t available. Over time, we have improved our ability to collect and analyze “evidence” in ways that didn’t exist in the 1920s. Even something as simple as tying policy design to census data wasn’t possible without a computer to tabulate and sort census data quickly and reliably, let alone real-time applications now.
Academics wrap NPM in a private-sector flag and say, “Hey, look, the public sector looks like the private sector finally”, when in fact, much of what the private sector is doing has changed too. Back in the 1920s, there wasn’t a lot of market research being done. Companies took things to market and then waited to find out if they worked, just like governments did. Now they do deep penetration research on market niches, which government types call consultation with stakeholders.
So when someone says, “Let’s talk about public admin”, I’m in. If they then say, “And all these new things government does”, I don’t think it’s true. I don’t believe the construct called “new public management” really exists, except in a theoretical academic exercise, and even then, there isn’t a lot of rigour in what they claim is “new and different”. Which then means when someone says “let’s look at aid from an NPM perspective”, I’m doubtful it will reveal much.
If development managers make the decisions, they should be based on development considerations, which entails separating politics from the administrative functions.
Only an academic exercise could suggest development in any form isn’t inherently small p political. Distribution of resources? Power? If development doesn’t inherently affect those, it isn’t development and all of politics is about the same. There is no way to separate them. And only the most ardent lover of mandarin stories would list donor managers as separate actors from the political realm that gives them their power in the first place. If so, it totally misunderstands the entire basis for the link between “governance” and “government”. The only realm it would be relevant is in the NGO sector, not the public provision of aid. Equally ridiculous is to take announcements by the government, backed by the stated rationale at the time, as the sole reason why something is done. Things are almost never one thing or the other.
One of the key factors that emerges from this list of decisions has to do with the public administration’s management effectiveness. Influenced by the NPM perspectives, the budget cuts and merger of CIDA and DFAIT to downsize government, along with the fact that 13 percent of the ODA budget went unspent, seek to improve program management efficiency and reduce operating costs.
Sure, those are valid reasons. But they are not the only reason. Questions of merging CIDA and DFAIT did not suddenly crop up as a way to reduce costs. In fact, those pressures to merge have been around since they were separated in the first place. Audits, the machinery of government (MoG) discussions, program reviews, all had the same question. Could you save money if you merged them? Sure, in some ways. But does it make good policy sense? Up until recently, the answer was “no”, and they weren’t merged. NPM be damned. Other departments have been split, and merged, and resplit and remerged in the same time frame. Same TBS people, same MoG pressures, but the policy direction didn’t show a benefit. It wasn’t NPM that made the decision, it didn’t even drive the decision. In fact, it was irrelevant. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. It did affect one thing — timing. Not surprisingly, during times of great upheaval and large scale reviews, many things get done that could not be done as one-off items. But with a confluence of events — budget reviews across government, an ideological desire for down-sizing, an ongoing pendulum swing towards efficiency vs. effectiveness, and a dissatisfaction with a lack of demonstrable development results — perhaps the Government saw an opportunity to address multiple pressure points all at once.
It is instructive to examine Harper government decisions and one case in particular of political intervention in aid program management, in which Bev Oda, then Minister of International Cooperation, overturned a CIDA administrative funding decision regarding KAIROS, an NGO working in Palestine, by inserting the word “not” (see Fitzpatrick 2011).
I might expect such an example from a pop journalist. A tabloid’s coverage of the political process. But not a respected academic publication and the sources they cite. Do they have any idea how a government office of the Minister actually works? Not the theory of public administration, but the day-to-day reality. I’m going to let you in on a secret here: Ministers almost never say no to memos. They never reject the recommendations of their public officials.
That doesn’t mean what you think it means. I don’t mean they say “yes” to everything that the public servant recommends, I mean that the public servant doesn’t send a memo to the Minister that will result in a “no”. This is a fundamental flaw in the theory of public admin. It suggests that mandarins offer blind, impartial advice to the minister. Impartial, yes, but never blind.
If there is a project or policy proposal that the Minister isn’t keen on, and it lands on their desk in such a form, a meeting will happen. And the Minister will ask questions, mostly giving guidance to say “You are recommending X, but I don’t think you gave adequate weight to problem Y with the proposal.”(That’s the clean version, anyway.)
Which likely will result in the public servant going back to their desk, rewriting the memo, resubmitting it, and now saying, “Overall, this part is quite solid…” (matching what they said before) “…but there are other considerations that are deficient” (the Minister’s criticisms and concerns). Sometimes they will even go so far as to recommend against it (which is fair, since it doesn’t represent the Minister’s latest policy direction), other times they will present 2-3 options, one of which is not to proceed and let the Minister choose. But the Minister isn’t saying “no” in either case, they are saying “yes” to a well-written recommendation that is in line with their direction. This is so pervasive that memos will sit unsigned for extended periods of time rather than the Minister outright saying “no”. It happens in many departments if not all. Decision memos that the Minister does not want to agree to, or more pointedly, are simply unconvincing to them, remain in decision limbo.
So it is almost unheard of for a Minister to say “no” (or “not”) on a Memo. It almost never happens. And it NEVER happens by them just adding the word “not” to the memo. But let’s look at this case because it appears to be the way it happened. People assumed when they heard the Minister signed the memo and added the word “not” that these two events happened at the same time and by the same hand. Then, later when they learned it was supposedly approved and then later disapproved, it was also by the same hand. But was it?
There is a dirty little not-so-secret that lurks in the halls of power across the Canadian government, England, Australia, New Zealand, and quite a few other Parliamentary democracies (it’s not limited to them, but seems to be oddly more prevalent). Ministers don’t always sign every memo they approve. They don’t. This is particularly true in organizations that have a lot of memos going through in a given year (CIDA averages about 800-1000 per year), memos that are often programmatic rather than detailed policy proposals (about 600-800 of the CIDA ones) and thus more administrative/technical, or where the Minister is travelling often (hello, the I is for International!). Almost all of the Ministries have a technical solution if the Minister can’t keep up with the signing workload — they have a mechanical arm. The Minister still approves the project, often by putting them in a pile of “approved” and “not approved”, and then the Chief of Staff will take them and have them signed by the mechanical arm.
Did that happen in this case? I have no idea. I don’t work in their office, and don’t know any of the players. Some Ministers are very comfortable using the mechanical arm, as long as the only person who can use it is their Chief of Staff. Others refuse its use at all and sign everything. In this case, I see three possibilities:
- The Minister signed the memo and wrote “NOT” on it, and not returning it the way any other memo would be rewritten;
- The Minister signed the memo, and then changed their mind later and hence wrote NOT on it as it had already been put into the system as approved;
- Either the Minister approved or someone thought the Minister approved, the memo was put under the arm, and then later when it was discovered already “signed”, the word “not” was added.
Personally, I have no trouble believing that the memo was accidentally signed in person or on the arm, and then the word NOT added later (either through option 2 or 3 above), but I have a lot of trouble believing the entire system was changed for one single memo (option 1) and that this represented a significant instance of political interference.
The short version is it doesn’t matter how the memo was signed or not; what matters is that all approvals of that size are decided by Ministers. If they had rejected it outright, nobody would even raise it as significant, and if the manner was merely a correction of an accident, it’s not any more significant. Put differently, dozens of decisions are made every year about development assistance with input from PCO or PMO, dating back to the 1940s, ranging from the choice of recipients to announceables on foreign visits to even which countries are selected for foreign visits. That doesn’t make this one example a special example of “political interference”, more likely just one of administrative irregularity.
Third, some NGOs’ refusal to toe the Conservative line has had other repercussions, as well. Some Canadian organizations have lost government funding for their projects relating to sexual and reproductive health, notably those providing access to safe and legal abortion for women who have been sexually assaulted or are HIV-positive. This decision can be attributed to the Conservatives’ ideological position on abortion. Organizations such as Doctors of the World Canada, which has much expertise in maternal health and fighting HIV, can no longer rely on funding from the Canadian government for those issues.
I love this example because the purity of it is so clear. The Government has an ideological bent against certain types of reproductive health programming; as a result, organizations that do that type of work have received less funding. Gasp! Cue the NGO harps! How dare they!
Except, I hate to be a little snot about this, but isn’t that the whole point of democracy? Two, three, four parties running on the basis of what they think should be done about a certain problem; citizens voting for the candidate/party/approach they think will do the things they want; the party with the most votes gets to form the government; and then they do those things the way they think they should be done. While the election wasn’t run on the basis of a single issue like reproductive health in developing countries, is there any evidence the election was rigged? Did an armed force take over the Parliament and impose its will on the electorate? Is there anything to suggest that the party in power is illegitimate in how it gained power, some evidence that would now dethrone it from making decisions? I haven’t seen any such evidence. I may not agree on a personal level with the party platform, but there’s nothing illegitimate about it. So, shouldn’t we expect them to govern according to their party platform, ideology, etc? And when they do, why do so many people suggest that they can do so only as long as they fund others (who don’t agree with them) too?
But here’s the real kicker. Arguing that it is less efficient or effective developmentally is almost a non-starter because to do so, you have to define what the benchmark criteria are going to be. If you set it up that the primary condition is that you think religion is important to people, the approach chosen must respect the sanctity of life and their religious beliefs, that the best way to reach those goals is to do programming that is in line with those values and not actively opposes them, then any other type of programming would automatically be less effective and efficient as it couldn’t possibly meet those objectives. And who sets the internal objectives for Canadian aid? The Government in power. There is no moral absolutism that can be pointed to that will say one method is “better” than the other because you are already comparing apples and oranges. They aren’t trying to accomplish the same thing, it’s more like the guns and butter argument in economics.
Remember guns and butter? One party wants to build guns to protect the populace, another wants to make butter to generate trade with other countries. If the party that wants to make butter wins the election, why would you expect them to support gun manufacturers? You wouldn’t. In fact, if you voted for the butter group, wouldn’t you expect them to NOT support the gun crowd?
Yet in development or even environmental policy, we claim this is somehow unfair. That the government is only funding those who “agree with them” (i.e. so they can deliver on their platform) rather than funding those who “disagree with them” (i.e. who wouldn’t then help them achieve their objectives). I see the arguments, including about “promoting debate”. Really? That’s the best argument you can make? There was a debate. It was called an election. The other side lost. They won. You should probably expect them to fund the groups that are going to do what they want to be done. Cuz that’s how democracy works.
Note the government isn’t saying those other groups can’t exist. They’re not funding terrorist groups to attack them, or sending in the military to crush them. They’re just saying “Just because you believe something, doesn’t mean you are entitled to government funding”. And in this case, it isn’t a grey zone. The government purely disagrees. And as the governing party, they not only have the right to do so, they’re supposed to do so. That’s how elections and decision-making works.
However, unlike the claims of simply replacing a Liberal bias with a Conservative bias, or reflecting economic self-interest (which Swiss already disproved), the switch is simply to match the “current ruling party”.
However, downsizing creates new public service problems because the layoff of experts impairs institutional memory and reduces the government’s ability to make informed decisions (Tait 1997).
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest neither of the two authors nor the cited one has ever worked for a large organization. Because here is the nature of organizations with indeterminate staff or tenure and the simple passage of time — they grow. They will. Everybody wants you to do more, more, more and that pressure to expand (not in empire-building, which can happen) drives growth and expansion. It’s also extremely hard to correct without a sustained effort. Private sector organizations do it through layoffs. Public sector organizations do it a bit differently.
Both for Program Review and the latest Deficit Reduction Action Plan, pretty detailed options were put in place to manage the downsizing over time. Do you know who the main exit group is? Those who were within five years of retirement. The ones who could afford to go early because they got a slightly better retirement package than they had without the program. It doesn’t change that they were going to retire anyway (with concurrent loss of institutional memory), it just affects timing. Most of them volunteered to depart.
Do other people leave? Sure, it’s not perfect alignment that you cut only the aged, which in and of itself would be problematic. But if the old-timers volunteer to leave, it’s an easy way to handle attrition without having to fire people who want to stay. For the rest though, here’s the reality. Very few people actually left the government who (a) were a good fit and (b) wanted to stay. In the Program Review era, the government actually goofed — they made the buyout so generous, more people jumped than they were expecting. In DRAP, the timing of implementation made it possible for many people to find other jobs in government. I don’t mean it wasn’t painful, the resulting jobs were not always dream jobs, but most people who wanted to stay managed to find other positions. In a government that frequently sees a 4-8% attrition rate, lots of positions opened up and the vacancies left behind were deemed surplus. Of the ones who were “forced” out, some of them had productivity problems and nobody else wanted them, some of them had skills sets the government wasn’t looking for, some of them were poor fits for government, some of them were awesome and just didn’t find a new position. Everybody on the “out” list thinks they were in the last of that group, but it was a very small percentage.
How do I know? Check the priority list that resulted. Managers in some cases were dying for replacements after the first year. Attrition hit some areas harder than others, and some managers needed to hire. And when they went through the priority list, the managers chose NOBODY. They chose to have NOBODY rather than some of the people on the list. Why? Because they checked them out. And found their references cited poor performance; found their skills were too narrow for the new area; found those who were poor fits for the new jobs. Lots of them.
Based on what I have seen from some of the priority lists, I would say about 10% are decent options who will find something, will just take time; 30-40% who are good in certain types of jobs, if they can find a position with the right skill needs but it will take even more time to find the right match; 20-30% are poor performers that the government used reviews to dump; and another 20-40% who were probably just poor fits for government in the first place. Working in government is hard for certain types who don’t want to be constrained by a lot of legislative rules and red tape that derive from being paid by the taxpayer’s purse. HR people are a good example — there are some private sector people who attempt HR in the government and see how many rules that legislation and the Charter impose on hiring, and go crazy fast. There’s even a small sub-set of that 20-40% who took the job in the first place thinking it was just easy money and “nobody in government does anything.” Then they started and found out it was more work than they were expecting.
So, does downsizing hurt informed decision-making? Certainly, there are challenges to corporate memory, but it’s the same challenge as people retiring any time, and oddly enough, we don’t chain them to their desks to prevent it. But one of the key aspects of government is that no one is irreplaceable. Do you lose some info? Yes, but not as a challenge to “informed decision-making”. What you MAY lose, and this is debatable, is efficiency. A senior officer, who has seen 200 TBS submissions and knows 8 different formulations of the same instrument choice, might be more efficient than the newer officer who has only seen 100 and 4 formulations. However, the trade-off is the newer officer may also be more innovative than the near-to-retirement officer who runs the risk of only doing things the way they’ve always been done before. For the non-volunteers, most who are worthwhile retaining are not lost — they may be temporarily, and painfully, displaced, but they eventually find homes and ways to continue to contribute their knowledge and expertise.
So, to recap, from a managerial perspective:
- NPM adds nothing but academic fluff to the argument;
- Development, governance and politics can never be separated, nor should they be in analysis;
- Governments are elected to do things they said they would do, not fund the opposite;
- Single anecdotes, badly understood, rarely are good examples of anything; and,
- Downsizing doesn’t mean decisions are less informed.
Of all the chapters so far, this is the one that I felt most bothered by…there were some nuggets in there that could be really interesting to analyze, this chapter just wasn’t it.