I can’t force anyone to do an on-camera interview, but I do have very high expectations from top level bureaucrats regarding accountability for the decisions they make. Especially when those decisions affect the lives of vulnerable children who cannot defend themselves. When someone disagrees with a top-level bureaucrat, bureaucrats prefer to offload accountability onto the courts where a judge decides if a bureaucrat was negligent, ignorant, malicious, or whatever. If the bureaucrat loses, the government pays – that would be you and me with our tax dollars.
The government likes the courts. They can expense the legal costs, and by the time the courts actually make a decision, the politician is long gone. It’s no surprise that governments prefer to draw the decision out and appeal it as long as they could. If possible, they’ll stretch the time-frame across several elections until the accountability factor is so completely lost that the Minister/Premier who was in charge has long since retired (from all the boards they sat on after they left public office) and is now raising sheep or llamas on a hobby farm. Meanwhile, the executive decision maker, who works in the bureaucracy and made these (questionable) choices in the first place, still has their job.
What is a public servant’s favourite line if you disagree with their decision? “Sue us.” They know, you know, and I know that suing is expensive. You have to be rich to sue, or you’re pretty much screwed. Often times the stakes are high, the person can’t sue, and the loss is staggering.
At year end 2009-2010, the Ontario government had 90 ongoing law suits in excess of $50 Million each. Fifty-nine of these were “not determined”, meaning that it could go either way. That’s $3 Billion that we, as a public, are on the hook for because high-level bureaucrats and elected politicians make sloppy decisions and then push accountability into the courts. (This doesn’t include legal costs – paying expensive lawyers with public money – the financial and emotional costs to the individual(s) affected, and so on.) If and when the government loses (and it loses a lot) another ninety $50 Million+ law suits will replenish the courts.
To put this in perspective, $3 Billion can buy a lot of groceries, eliminate daycare subsidy wait lists, increase teachers’ salaries, improve the quality of nursing homes, add hospital beds, hire more nurses and other health care workers, provide therapy for children and adults with disabilities, and pay a whole lot of gas and hydro bills that have crippled Ontario families. $3 Billion can go a long way in reducing poverty and increasing the quality of life for every single person. It’s not how much money the government spends, but how it spends it. Wasting it on poor decision making skills and a complete lack of accountability at the top, is a tragedy no one can afford to pay. But we do.
To better understand why an abuse of power may have occurred by a public agency, I approach the decision makers – the public servants – whose leadership decisions may have contributed to (or prevented) the abuse that the subject experienced.
These decision makers are not anonymous. They are real, live, individuals, and they wield whatever power the law has given them to make decisions for the area they manage.
“The bureaucracy” is not anonymous. It is not some ambiguous gray cloud that hovers over the public. The bureaucracy is comprised of intelligent, educated and caring individuals employed by rank. The bureaucracy is not unlike any other pyramid structure that exists in business, with a CEO at the helm. There is always a source. Somebody – a person – has made a decision that affects lives. Whether that decision was passive (they did nothing when they were obliged to do something), or they were actively involved, their leadership decisions set a precedent to their staff, which in turn affects how laws under their jurisdiction are implemented, translated and enforced.
At the head of every public agency is an Executive Director. In business, this position translates to CEO (in some cases, they’re even referred to as CEO in the legislation). When questionable decisions arise (such as acting contrary to law or interpreting the law in a way that is grossly unfair to the individual affected), these CEOs may have political motivations for their decisions (the Minister could fire them or not renew their term, or they want something from the Minister like debt forgiveness so they could afford a pay increase the following year). Or, they may have other reasons, which could range anywhere from good intent or being bullied themselves, to being utterly incompetent and acting for personal profit (profit could mean anything that is self-motivated – from money to future career goals). In any case, there could be any number of reasons why an executive makes the decisions they do.
To give the public a balanced perspective of a situation, and to understand what they can do to make their own lives and the lives of others better, I feel it is imperative to approach these decision makers through on-camera interviews as a means to connect (or converse) with the public they serve. Since there is no precedent or requirement for accountability, I can only hope that integrity and honesty will motivate these individuals to discuss key areas of public concern, which stem from the agency they manage. Especially when these concerns involve damaged and broken lives. I can only hope.
When a public is skeptical about the inner workings of an agency, it is important for them to hear and understand what these Executive Directors feel is their mandate, and how they translate the guidelines prescribed to them by law. It is through these conversations that the public can better understand and appreciate how their society works, what they can do to improve it, and what more or less they can do to empower decision makers working in the publics’ best interest.
Each of the three targeted executives spoke with me candidly on the phone. Two agreed to schedule on-camera interviews. Both requested I forward the questions ahead of the interview.
The intent of these interviews was not an “exposé”. Thus, I felt it was only fair to send these questions ahead – questions that were compiled from interviews with witnesses and experts – essentially, questions from the public. Sending questions ahead would give the executives time to consider a diligent and thoughtful response. It is at this juncture, immediately after I forwarded the questions, when they both bailed.
The third executive suggested having a meeting that wouldn’t be recorded “in any way” (including an audio only feed). As a high level executive whose decisions affect the public at large, her subversive approach was very disconcerting and lacked transparency. I was not interested.
Besides interviewing the Ministers, who may soon lose their jobs in the October 2011 election (and who wouldn’t grant me interviews, anyway) asking them to answer questions about their job, while they’re on their way out, would have been an exercise in futility. (The best time to ask a politician questions about their job is before they’re elected and comfortably seated for the next 4 years). Conversely, the Executive Director stands a much better chance of staying employed before, during and after an election, if they say nothing, keep their head down, and hide behind anonymity.
Note to the agency that calls themselves “half-public” on its website.
There’s no such thing as a half-public agency. Did someone make that up because they only wanted the agency to be half-accountable? If there’s a law that mandates the agency you govern to exist, your agency is an “all public” agency. This agency also reports to the Minister, who’s accountable to the public. Further, the public founded this agency with tax dollars and then legislated into law how it would generate cash for its continued existence – not to mention the $3.1 Million dollars the public gave this agency to establish it, and then expensed these millions (all of it) as bad debt…