Saturday, April 08, 2023

Missing the Boomers

So here is the problem: The Line offers this commentary on the story:
This military fiasco is alarming because it’s a sign that our state-capacity issues are now extending into areas that previously worked. Not only are we struggling to do new things, we’re forgetting how to do things we used to be able to do. This goes beyond what our typical gripes about state capacity. This is something else. This is state atrophy, or rot.
Now that the public is paying attention, we suspect we’ll see some reasonably rapid progress. The government will throw bureaucrats and maybe consultants at the problem until it goes away. This is how they have reacted to similar issues: we hurled ground staff at airport delays until they cleared, and bureaucrats at passport offices until the backlogs eased.
But we have to ask why we now require exceptional redeployments of staff to maintain typical levels of service. And we don’t like the answers we can come up with. Ottawa has added tens of thousands of civil servants, at an annual cost of tens of billions, in recent years. During that time Ottawa has also sharply ramped up spending on consultants; the annual cost now surpasses $20 billion.
And yet.
What the hell is going on?
I'll tell you what's going on.
I retired.
And of course its not just me. Its my sister and my brother and my husband and my neighbour and my friend and thousands of other Boomers just like us.
We worked as civil servants for 40 years, from Trudeau Pere to Trudeau Fils, and we knew how to get things done within a government bureaucracy that always had changing priorities, newly announced programs, shuffled deputy ministers, temporary program directors, acting managers, part-time technicians, job-sharing leave replacements, and out-of-date technology.
We knew how to walk a requisition through a dozen required signatures in an afternoon, persuading the technical and financial staffers with smiles and donuts, to get something authorized and get the cheque issued.
We knew how to phone up a director and tell him that something was going haywire and he'd better get on top of it before some reporter noticed. And his assistant knew who to call to get the problem fixed before it could explode all over everyone's desks.
We knew how to jury-rig the new improved systems so they would work the way we knew they were supposed to, after the consultants and technical experts had set it up and gone home.
Then we retired. 
And now, the people who have only ever worked with computers are trying their best to do the job. They're great people, and they're working hard, but they don't know the systems like we did, and more importantly they don't know how to get around them like we did.
Its not easy to cajole a computer into working a little overtime, just this once, to help out our brave troops in Poland.


e.a.f. said...

I think you're on to something there. Worked for the government for 10 yrs in the 1970s. When we were young baby boomers we learnt a lot from the people who had been there since WW II. They trained us, gave us informal information, and also told us how the system worked and to be polite, and what phrases to use.

People I worked with did the whole career there. Started working there at 19 or early 20s and retired after 30 or 40 years. When they left so did all their knowledge. It is amazing though, people who work for the federal government had their pay totally screwed up for years and they still came to work every day. some even lost their homes due to the phonix pay system Harper bought. Prior to that computer system there were people who dealt with a lot of the paper work and pay cheques rolled out every two weeks, no problem.

There is little to no need for all those consultants. Sometimes I think its just a way of rewarding their political supporters. At one time the federal government had people in departments who were relied on for the messes, audits, etc. They didn't need consultants, they had the experts on staff. Mangers actually knew what they were managing.

Cathie from Canada said...

Yes, they never seemed to realize that the whole system may have made perfect sense when you looked at an Org chart and a Responsibilities list, but in reality it was held together with spit and duct tape. But that was OK because the system basically worked most of the time anyway.
And we actually didn't realize that it wasn't the system that worked, it was the people who made it work.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Cathie. There's no substitute for experience, and losing institutional memory is bound to harm service and efficiency. That said, I was impressed with how well the feds got money out to people at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, so they can still get results when there's enough urgency.

E.a.f. is also right to point out that the use of consultants has grown out of hand, both in government and in the private sector. Part of it may be rewarding cronies, but there are other factors. Cost-cutting is a big one, as replacing unionized employees with non-unionized "contractors" who aren't entitled to benefits and severance pay saves money in the short term. Avoiding accountability is another, since big contractors like McKinley aren't subject to FOIA requests and can be bound to secrecy through NDAs.

Then there's the plague of contractors pushing the latest management fads, such as diversity and inclusion training, which has been shown to be counterproductive. Who knew that blaming and shaming "cis-het" white people as privileged oppressors and painting all others as marginalized victims wasn't a great way to get people working together? But governments at all levels spend millions on consultants to deliver this dreck and waste employee time in taking it. While DEI's time will soon be up and it will join "management by objectives" and Six Sigma on the scrap heap, the consultants will move on to the next big thing and governments will eat it up. That waste won't be easily tamed.

12phil34 said...

Your retirement isn't as pivotal an event as you seem to think. Governance will continue to evolve, newbies will continue to learn its ropes just as you did and the civil service and government will stumble along as always.