UPFRONT

HOPE FOR TAXPAYERS

Reg Alcock is leading a revolution to transform how Ottawa delivers services

Mary Janigan November 1 2004
UPFRONT

HOPE FOR TAXPAYERS

Reg Alcock is leading a revolution to transform how Ottawa delivers services

Mary Janigan November 1 2004

HOPE FOR TAXPAYERS

Reg Alcock is leading a revolution to transform how Ottawa delivers services

UPFRONT

Mary Janigan

ON THE ISSUES

IT WAS THE SIGHT of himself, cocky and brusque, on television in the summer that jolted Reg Alcock into seeing how his sullen civil servants viewed him. On paper, he was the perfect Treasury Board president: a Harvard master’s graduate in public administration; veteran of the government operations committee; avid and engaging policy wonk who knows how systems work. But, closeted with his bureaucrats, his gung-ho, sorely needed push to modernize government was evoking only fear and resentment. “I am not gratuitously friendly,” he says with a rueful laugh. “I made mistakes in the early days. And I have got things to learn, too.”

That admission, that behind-the-scenes campaign to change himself, provides a rare reason for taxpayer optimism. Because if Alcock can muster support for his ambitious agenda, departments will expand how they share that jealously hoarded official commodity: information. So that overused word “efficiency” could actually prevail in government-wide information systems. Tiny Aboriginal bands, for one, would not be churning out dozens of annual reports for funding agencies. Alcock’s own request to know how many cars Ottawa owns would not be met with blank official stares.

His initial efforts to pool data were thwarted, and some deputy ministers begged the PM to change their spending overseer after the last election. But the 56-year-old Alcock has Paul Martin’s support. (According to the burly Winnipeg MP,

“He has been rock solidly there.”) And Alcock is doing what must be done. “If you change the way infor-

a

‘A lot of my colleagues/ says the new Alcock, ‘think I am kind of goofy because I am deeply interested in public management’

mation is held in the public sector, you produce threats within the organization that are much greater than I thought,” he says. “Fear of change is based on the unknown. So my job is to engage—and talk, talk, talk.”

The new Alcock officially debuts with the tabling of three reports over the next two months: proposals to bring modern governance to murky Crown corporations, to deter all bureaucratic mismanagement and to revise the early 19th-century doctrine of ministerial responsibility while ensuring someone is responsible. But that’s only the start: Alcock wants more research resources so MPs can make sense of spending plans— and catch boondoggles before they happen. But slogging through these estimates is tough. “A lot of my colleagues think I am kind of goofy because I am deeply interested in public management,” he says.

There are huge problems ahead. Saddled with a minority government, the Martin PMO has unsettled bureaucrats with its sheer disorganization and indecisive signals. Both sides are suspicious and almost paranoid. Then there is the apparent contradiction: how do we speed up the implementation of programs without sloppy spending? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we find the planned $12 billion in spending cuts over the next five years—which is bound to be a brutal exercise—and still fine-tune how government systems work?

Alcock’s answer: tug everyone into the process of solving the problem. If officials are confident that MPs really understand a program, they won’t need to micromanage. Close advisers raise another possibility: if deputy ministers balk at change, they should be replaced by outsiders with private sector expertise. So there are dramas ahead. But if taxpayers are lucky, the Martin government’s finest deed may be to fix itself. CTl

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com