The Ottawa Bubble(s)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

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

I was home in PEI for the last week, which means that public service renewal hasn't been on my mind much. But the one thing that strikes me every time I go is how it momentarily pops the Ottawa bubble.

The "Ottawa Bubble" isn't necessarily restricted to the city itself, referring more so to the people that interact with the government. These are the people that know, work with, lobby, report on, or are politicians or public servants. There's a certain jargonous way that those in the bubble talk about things like the politician-public servant divide, the writ, election campaigns,and jurisdictional boundaries.

There's a degree of self-awareness. It's noticeable when, for instance, journalists flip back and forth between a policy's actual merit and its political merit, recognizing that many Canadians will interpret things differently than they do. It's also why Aaron Wherry can easily spill 3,000 words explaining the counter-intuitive way our elections work. It's also worth reading this explainer on how the government works during an election: the Caretaker Convention.

Our governance structures are not exactly intuitive. Recently I quoted the Clerk in a tweet and then thought to clarify that the Clerk of the Privy Council is the head of the entire Canadian federal public service; to many the term would be confusing. So much of the ebb and flow of public administration in Canada is based on a long, quirky history, much inherited from the UK, and with all of the very un-plain language that follows (the (Queen's) Privy Council (for Canada), the Usher of the Black Rod, the Governor General, and on and on). There's only ever one context in which you hear about a "writ" and even then, some think we're all using the term wrong anyway. Can we reasonably expect most people to genuinely understand how their government works?

Do our rich governance traditions come at an public understanding cost? A civic engagement cost?

In the Public Service

On top of that, there is a general "public service bubble". Nick noted as we were discussing Tragedy in the Commons, a collection of interviews with outgoing or former Members of Parliament, that in discussing Canadian governance they rarely mentioned the public service. We all have a tendency to see our fields and functions as more important than others do, but before reading the book we drastically overestimated how much the public service would play into conversations. (I joke that CPSRenewal is written for a niche market of about twelve people.)

And we have our own (actually) Ottawa bubble: 41.7% of the workforce is in Ottawa and, as of 2007, 71% of the executives. This doesn't seem to be an accident - the question of whether or not the public service is better centralized or decentralized was asked in a 2005 Library of Parliament paper and it seems the lower travel costs argument won out. (For reference, the UK has 16.6% of its civil service in London; Australia, 35% in Canberra; and the US, 16% in Washington.) From the paper:

"The high concentration of federal employees in the NCR is considered to be undesirable because public servants at all levels run the risk of losing sight of the interests and concerns of the regions and the people across the country they have a duty to serve."

It's not just a matter of us getting outside of our bubbles periodically. It's hard to write in "plain language" when the subject matter simply isn't plain. Or if what seems plain to us is incomprehensible to others. It's hard to put things in terms that would be meaningful to citizens if we don't understand what's meaningful to them in the first place. And its hard for citizens to trust a system they cannot be reasonably expected to understand.