Are public servants becoming dinosaurs or are they just too professional?

May 26, 2014

All Canadians should be concerned when a former cabinet minister seems to be suggesting that public policy should be informed by unverified, unscientific and unreliable statements and pseudo-analysis searched on the Internet. David Emerson, the outgoing chair of the prime minister’s advisory committee on the public service, is quoted as saying “the public service can no longer rely on traditional sources of ‘structured’ and ‘cleansed’ data,” i.e., the kind of reliable and scientific data produced by the likes of Statistics Canada and other public service departments. According to an article published May 16 and updated May 22 on the Ottawa Citizen website, the former minister goes on to suggest that scientific data can be replaced by what amounts to unverified, self-serving reports, since the Internet is the way of the future and it meets politicians’ need for an immediate response to whatever is being said (he forgot to mention that this is a recent trend embraced by the government of the past eight years). According to Mr. Emerson, “… there is no end of places to look, ranging from think-tanks, academics and lobbyists, to advocacy groups and even political staffers who have easy access to information on hand-held devices…” In his view, the public service needs to adapt – by which he seems to mean lowering standards and ignoring scientific principles by providing fast rather than reliable information to politicians. Why have well-founded policy positions directing expenditures in the billions of dollars when you can get your policy from the modern equivalent of a crackerjack box by combing through the worldwide web?

It is surprising to note that Mr. Emerson seems unaware of the fact that unverified, skewed, self-interested and therefore unreliable “information” has always floated around in the public domain, churned out by think-tanks, academics, lobbyists, advocacy groups and political staffers. This is why the structured and cleansed data from public service entities is so important, and why former politicians built up the public service’s policy capacity. Produced by applying the most exacting scientific standards of reliability, the structured and cleansed data allow readers of reports from think-tanks, academics, lobbyists, advocacy groups and political staffers to have a reliable basis upon which to judge what information out there is dependable and what information is merely garbage.

And we have certainly had our share of garbage lately: public utterances about sick leave abuses in the public service, skewed and incomplete information about public service pension plans and pension plans in general, reports in support of proposed legislation concerning election fraud that are quickly proven to be lies, reports from think-tanks sounding more like government lobbyists than respectable centers of knowledge. But others in Canadian society, our public service analysts among them, have been responding to this wave of garbage with thoughtful and reliable analysis. Yet Mr. Emerson seems to be arguing that this reliable information is becoming irrelevant.

Canadians have the right to know. Canadians have the right to not be misled. They have a right to the truth, to transparency, to respect. Moreover, they have the right to demand that their tax dollars be spent on the basis of reliable information, not garbage knowledge. To have a government representative even suggest the contrary is simply unacceptable.

Claude Poirier, President
Canadian Association of Professional Employees