Thursday, May 23, 2024

Opinion: Results? That’s not Ottawa’s business

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals might well be the apogee of the prioritization of political marketing over governance in Ottawa.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

You might think that a program to set aside 5 per cent of government contracts for Indigenous companies would be designed with checks to ensure the work is actually being done by Indigenous people. But perhaps that’s based on a misguided notion about which business government is in.

This week, in another unseemly spinoff from the ArriveCan files, The Globe and Mail’s Bill Curry reported that since 2016 the government had only done four after-the-fact audits on contracts under the Procurement Strategy for Indigenous Business – a large chunk of the set-aside – to see whether the required 33 per cent of the work had been done by Indigenous people.

All four audits were launched in the past two years, when the contracting debacle around ArriveCan sparked a lot of questions about the Indigenous procurement strategy. Questions like, “Does this program do what it is supposed to do?”

The answer is that the government doesn’t know.

Why doesn’t it know? Because the answer is beside the point. The government is not in the business of results. It is in the business of announcements.

Number of companies listed as Indigenous jumps sharply as Ottawa adopts procurement target

The Liberal government announced three years ago that it would expand the Indigenous set-aside so that 5 per cent of all federal contracts would go to Indigenous companies.

But all the picking through the entrails of the $59-million ArriveCan project has raised questions about how the Indigenous set-aside works.

One contractor, a two-employee company called Dalian, received ArriveCan work under the Indigenous set-aside because the founder, David Yeo, is great-grandson of former Alderville First Nation chief Robert Franklin. Dalian does a lot of its work in joint venture with a non-Indigenous company called Coradix. But until two years ago, the federal government didn’t audit to see whether, in fact, 33 per cent of Dalian’s contract work was done by Indigenous workers, as the program requires.

The PSIB set-aside has grown fivefold in five years to $862-million. But the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business has warned the program is open to “phantom joint ventures.” And Ottawa hasn’t really checked.

Clearly the current Liberal government deserves a heap of blame. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals might well be the apogee of the prioritization of political marketing over governance in Ottawa.

But it didn’t start with them. The Indigenous set-aside dates back to 1996, when Jean Chrétien was prime minister. It’s been there the whole time since, 28 years, under four prime ministers from two political parties. All of which didn’t bother to set up proper after-the-fact auditing.

It wasn’t that no one thought of it. Bureaucrats realized it was necessary. It’s just that Mr. Chrétien’s Liberal government didn’t provide a budget for audits. It scrimped on the essentials for the integrity of the whole program. Reviews of the program during Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s tenure found a need for – you guessed it – audits.

This isn’t really a one-off. It’s a reflection of a capital where political marketing pushes governing down the list of priorities. There’s a current fashion in wonkish circles to fret about the public service’s capacity to deliver programs, but that might partly be the by-product of a system set up by political masters who think the announcement is the deliverable. Politics has moved farther away from government. So far, there isn’t much reason to believe a Conservative government under Pierre Poilievre would change that.

In Mr. Trudeau’s early days in power, he called in former British prime minister Tony Blair’s results guru Sir Michael Barber, the author of a book called Deliverology 101, in what was widely seen as a faddish attempt to teach the old bureaucracy new tricks.

A lot of what Sir Michael emphasized was actually pretty straightforward stuff, and it is pretty easy to see why Mr. Trudeau’s government abandoned it.

Sir Michael wanted the government to clearly identify what the success of an initiative would be – not the announcement, but the outcome – and tell people. He suggested the government measure progress, with data. And to change things when they weren’t going as planned.

The zeal for all that drifted away. It’s politically risky. Measuring progress with data – or audits, for that matter – asks questions you might not want answered. Acknowledging mistakes means – heaven forbid – acknowledging mistakes. None of that makes good marketing.

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