Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rearranging the Briefing Room Chairs on the Bonaventure

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Yesterday, my colleague joked on Twitter that his son had agreed to make the family lunches as part of his allowance, but the bread, mustard, and cheese sandwich from day one wasn't exactly up to snuff. I joked back that he should institute a sandwich accountability framework and make a portion of his son's allowance at-risk, contingent upon results.

Er, it's just something bureaucrats do.


And Speaking of Segues

My colleague responded – as any normal person should – that in fact, he was just going to teach his son how to be a better sandwich maker. And then simply let said sandwich maker, well, make sandwiches.

My colleague is accidentally following the advice from the 1962/1963 Glassco Report. This report, formally the Royal Commission on Government Organization, published recommendations for the management of the public service of Canada. The most memorable of which was this lasting soundbite: “Let the manager manage.”

How'd that work out?

Shortly thereafter, the Canadian House of Commons spent a considerable amount of time debating the minutia of contracts for the retrofitting of the aircraft carrier Bonaventure. As Donald Savoie explains in Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher:
“During the debate, opposition members from all parties hurled accusations at the government and concluded with pleas to introduce 'administrative integrity.' Specific details were brought up, including the awarding of two separate contracts – for different amounts – to remove fifty-two chairs from the Bonaventure's briefing room.”

That was 1970. Despite it being less than a decade after the Glassco Report, the resounding call was for increased oversight, rather then letting managers figure out the underlying issues and manage on. Increased oversight may protect the public purse in the short term, but it may also lead to important questions going unanswered, or worse, unasked.

Did decision-makers have the information they needed to make solid decisions?

Were they generally well-equipped to do their jobs?

Asking Tough Questions

I suspect Glassco would prefer the story of Tom Watson Jr., former CEO of IBM. As legend would have it, a young executive once walked into Watson's office after making a decision that cost the company millions, expecting to be fired. Watson's response was that firing was out of the question because, as he put it, he had “just spent a couple of million dollars educating” the executive.

No kneejerk reaction, no changes to accountability regimes. Watson recognized the difference between structural deficiencies and management issues. In that case, the issue was an ill-prepared executive. In my colleague's, it was an inexperienced sandwich maker.

Asking tough questions about the why behind events is the sustainable approach. And it leads to good results. For sandwiches and management.

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