Corrupt or incompetent—Why is government so bad?

Bar talk—encouraged by media portrayals— proclaims politicians corrupt or incompetent and bureaucrats lazy and inept. Decisions and mistakes, as reported in the media, are so obvious and foreseeable, and the corrective responses so slow, that one can only conclude our governments and the people involved are bungling or crooked.

In my 26 years involved with politicians, campaigns and government, this has not been my experience. I have met many exceptional people, working incredible hours for relatively little pay because they believe, whether in a better way, a better government, a better life for all, or a better country.

So why the disconnect?

First, the issues that rise to the top levels of government are, by their very nature, the most difficult and contentious, often with equally compelling arguments on both sides. No matter which way government goes, there will be plenty of criticism. Think about the recent debate around physician assisted dying: media chose to focus almost exclusively on the side of the personal right to choose, ignoring the very grave concerns of vulnerable people—those with physical or mental challenges, etc.—and many doctors who have serious concerns about this huge jump our society is making.

Second, the media is not here to inform and educate; they are here to provide stories that sell ad space, whether air time, column inches or click-throughs. Even CBC must compete to stay relevant, so all media need conflict, corruptions and outrage. Media often pick the most contentious snippets, pulled out of context or dumbed-down to 3rd grade levels, then find the most extreme commentators to chime in.

Thirdly, there is the volume. I am occasionally asked what my biggest surprise was upon becoming Director of Communications for the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada? It was the sheer volume of material passing through the office. Ministerial staff are essentially triaging issues as they pour through the door, hoping they don’t miss the one that catches the media’s attention—and catches fire across the country.

For some context, here are the average numbers I observed:

  • 351 emails sent per week (aprox 70 per day). It was difficult to count the number of incoming emails, but this was the number deemed needing some response.
  • 5-15 Access To Information & Privacy (ATIP) requests per week. ATIP requests are processed by an independent unit and cannot be delayed or interfered with by political or department staff. We simply saw the responses as they were sent out so we could be prepared to answer questions on the material. ATIP responses range from one to 258 pages and all had to be reviewed for potential political issues.
  • 25 – 30 Early Warning Notes (EWNs) per week. EWNs come in from the regional offices. Justice Canada’s 2500 lawyers act on behalf of Canada and its various ministries. The EWNs must be reviewed for potential media and public interest, then assigned to a lead minister. Justice provides lawyers to all the ministries, who are essentially the client, and therefor the proper spokesperson for media inquiries on that issue. Then the appropriate ministry, and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) depending on the level of the issue, must work together to provide a response to potential queries.
  • 100-120 media request emails per week. These ranged from simple clarification or details to questions on policy to requests for interviews. Phone requests were not tallied but in the same range.
  • 30-60 media monitoring emails per week. These include any stories that mentioned the Minister, the department, or any number of prominent issues and active cases. Each must be assessed for follow-up or prep for further queries in Question Period (QP) with the Director of Parliamentary Affairs (the DOPA).
  • The weekly Minister’s binder had to be reviewed. Prepared by the department staff, the weekend binder is composed of briefing notes on all the upcoming meetings and issues, as well as forward looking strategic planning. There were usually four to six thick, three-ring binders of materials.
  • We were also doing proactive communications, getting out some of the positive work the Minister and department were doing. This included overseeing the development of news releases, backgrounders and other media materials for positive initiatives, Grants & Contributions to programs, drafting and editing speeches for the many events the Minister attends, preparing and delivering briefings to Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries on shared files, preparing internal communications from the Minister to the department’s 4000 staff, and planning the launch of major Initiatives like the introduction of the Gender Identity legislation, the Medical Assistance In Dying legislation and the launch of the Marijuana Task Force.
  • And finally, there were the ongoing efforts to coordinate across the sprawling beast that is the federal government, with the Prime Minister’s Office, Privy Council Office and the 30 odd ministries, all of whom should hopefully be singing from the same songbook, if not on exactly the same page.

These activity levels were an average week and do not represent the work volume during weeks when prominent legislation was launched and moving through the house. And these are not unique to Justice: Finance, Department of National Defense, Global Affairs Canada and Health would all see similar volumes.

All of this is not to say that incompetence and corruption do not happen, or that media should not work to hold government accountable—they should. But the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of politicians and government, while good for ad sales today, is having a detrimental effect on the public’s perception of government over the long haul. The truth is we in Canada have a remarkably successful political system that, on the whole, works incredibly hard to govern in the best interests of our amazing country.

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