Monday, December 21, 2009

Today's Hill Times: Management of Errors

Management of errors

Why do governments engage in secrecy and cover-ups rather than admit errors and accept responsibility for them?

The Hill Times
December 21, 2009

To err is human. To admit errors is rare. However, it seems impossible for a Prime Minister or a Cabinet minister to admit an error and accept responsibility.


From a moderately serious error in the context of war in Afghanistan in 2006, to the stonewalling of a public inquiry in 2009, to the public excoriation of the messenger who had repeatedly warned of the problem( in Nov. 2009) to a massive effort to cover-up what happened to the continued denial of now publicly-documented facts, the Harper government continues to dig a bigger hole for itself in a collapsing sandpit of public opinion.

Why has it done this? Is it due to the particular personality of the PM? Is it because the government believed that its cover-up would continue to work—as it had for some time? In this, as with many similar errors by the PM and/or his ministers, the idea of promptly admitting the error, launching corrective action, and accepting responsibility/apologizing for the error is simply not done. Yet, many would agree with columnist Susan Riley (Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 11, 2009) that a prompt apology and explanation by the Minister of Defence, Peter MacKay, when diplomat Richard Colvin's testimony became public, would have diffused the threat to the government.

The purpose of this piece is to try to explain why it seems nearly impossible for the government of the day to admit errors promptly and to accept responsibility for them. My tentative explanation is conducted under four headings:

(i) Ego, power, and desire to "save face";

(ii) The capacity of governments to create an alternative reality;

(iii) The design of the Westminster model; and

(iv) Public scrutiny: opposition parties, access to information legislation, and the news media. In summary terms, the context within which the PM and ministers function is one that is strongly biased in favour of their never admitting errors.

(As this column was being put to bed, I found two instances where Prime Minister Harper issued an apology. Both involved the errors of others. See CBC News, Sept. 9, 2008 regarding the pooping puffin ads; and The Globe and Mail, July 10, 2009 regarding his apology to Michael Ignatieff based on erroneous information from an aide.)

Ego, Power, and Saving Face

It appears the most politicians have large egos. Those who become a PM or a minister have even larger egos, and in high office such egos are unlikely to be curbed. The inability to admit error is apparently part of having a very large ego. In their high office, ministers gain access to many tools that can be employed to avoid admitting errors. Hence, we see cover-ups, the disappearance of records, senior personnel saying they never got the warning memos, the dutiful corroboration by underlings, and so on.

Power corrupts.

Otherwise reasonable men and women who become Cabinet ministers, or achieve the ultimate goal of becoming PM, soon come to believe they are infallible—despite the torrent of criticism they receive in the news media and from the opposition parties. They have armies of public servants to do their bidding and oceans of taxpayers' money to effect their will and safeguard their egos. Officials who speak truth to power are often ignored, and marginalized.

In rare cases, the admission of errors (and the publicity accorded to cover-ups which may have preceded them) may lead to the loss of office for a minister—but only in the rarest of cases for a government. For almost all politicians, loss of office is a traumatic event. The incentives to avoid that fate are simply enormous. The extensive efforts often employed to avoid admitting error (no matter how evident to objective observers) must be understood in this context (see Stanbury, The Hill Times, Nov. 30, 2009).

The tendency to deny, defend and cover-up errors seems to be very strong in all societies. The "loss of face" usually involves the puncturing of a person's public façade. The pain is two-fold: being seen as making an error, and the fact that public knowledge of the error strips away at least part of the façade of competency.

The reasons for saving face are various: to preserve reputation (and with it status); to protect one's career; to avoid embarrassment (and this may involve no more than an act of hypocrisy—very common in politics); to protect another person we hold dear; to avoid being held accountable; to avoid having to do a mea culpa; and to satisfy institutional demands (discussed below).

"Loss of face" follows from the widespread perception that an error has occurred—even if the person deemed culpable always denies he has erred. Thus if the error is not made public, or if a serious error can be reduced to a trifle, "face" can be "saved." However, the "cover-up" of an error can itself result in more serious errors. Watergate is the classic example.

The greatest potential "loss of face" is created when a person cultivates an image of infallibility and/or righteousness on matters of public honesty. (Recall the Tories' claims prior to the 2006 election that new transparency and accountability rules would make the scandals under the Liberals impossible.) Then an error may well be seen as catastrophic, even if it has modest adverse consequences by objective standards. The stage is set for massive efforts to protect the false front when organizational resources can be deployed to do so.

Capacity to 'Create Reality'

In politics, reality is what people believe it to be. Their perceptions depend heavily on what they get from the news media, and—increasingly from the new media related to the Net. The Harper Government has harnessed and expanded the massive communications machinery of government departments, and has coordinated it with the well-funded communications operations of the Conservative Party, to create a huge propaganda machine. The taxpayer-financed communications efforts now include a unit producing photos and video clips for distribution to the news media. (The PMO has just increased its funding by $1.7-million to provide for 6.5 new positions.)

This machine is run in a famously disciplined fashion (see Stanbury, The Hill Times, Nov. 23, 2009). Its purpose is to try to get voters to perceive the government's actions the way the PM wants them to do so—to "create the reality" most beneficial to his party.

The combination of tight message control, efforts to bypass the major news outlets to reach voters—the base in particular), aggressive secrecy, extensive polling, and the use of cover-ups are all about creating the PM's version of reality. They are also the means for never having to admit error, and accept responsibility. The doctrine of infallibility has found a home in Ottawa.

Westminster Model

Canada's version of the Westminster model of government creates incentives to save face and to avoid the admission of error. First, it focuses a huge amount of power in the hands of the Prime Minister, so when he fouls up it threatens the whole government. Saving his face is Job 1 for the entire federal government.

Second, the model makes almost every bill in Parliament a matter of confidence—hence to continue in office the government of the day, must overtly reject changes put forward by opposition members that would correct errors. During a minority government, the problem is exacerbated because an opposition party may put forward a non-confidence motion with a real chance of defeating the government (as Stephen Harper did successfully in 2004). However, there is the opportunity for opposition parties to negotiate changes as their price for supporting the government.

Third, the Westminster model is based on the doctrine of individual and collective responsibility. That means the "screw-ups" in the bowels of the system for which it is hard to identify individual culpable are, nevertheless, laid at the feet of the minister. If she did not know, she should have. The minister had all to tools to ensure that qualified people were in the jobs, and to monitor their performance. The minister is responsible at all times for the performance of the department, and so is to be held accountable. The reality is, however, that very few ministers are held accountable for errors committed in their department—aside from the flak from newspapers and opposition MPs. Such flak can inflict some scars, of course. But it is not accountability as implied by the theory of the Westminster model.

Fourth, the Westminster model forces all ministers to defend even the most egregious errors of colleagues (short of what appear to be crimes) in the name of Cabinet solidarity. The alternative is resignation—a non-option in practice. Only the Prime Minister can sack a minister. But this is rare even for quite large errors. Instead the offending minister may be given another Cabinet post in the next "shuffle."

Fifth, the Westminster model makes one of the key roles of the public service providing assistance for the defence of a minister's errors. This may include those based on defective advice which the officials gave to the minister.

Sixth, the Westminster model creates a "culture of secrecy" which makes the detection of errors by "outsiders" far more difficult. Even many "insiders" can't get the necessary information to expose errors (see Stanbury, The Hill Times, June 15, 2009).

Public Scrutiny: Opposition Parties, ATI Act, News Media

The federal government is subject to far more public scrutiny than are most businesses and other organizations in the private sector. The government side faces one or more opposition parties devoted to finding errors, pointing fingers, and publicizing them as loudly as possible. The Official Opposition is funded by taxpayers and, it's institutional role includes supplanting the government. More generally, the basic intent of democratic governments is to hold elected representatives accountable to electors.

A considerable part of the government's business is conducted in public, most notably in Parliament. The daily Question Period holds the prospect of quickly challenging the PM and ministers with alleged errors. However, as a means of holding the government to account, it is severely limited (see Stanbury, The Hill Times, Feb. 2, 2009).

No modern democratic government is without a freedom of information act which provides a legal means to try to pry a great deal of information out of government—much of which the current office holders do not want revealed. At the same time, it is clear that all federal governments make a major effort to undermine the Access to Information Act. Delay, and redaction are the tools of choice.

Much more of the resources of the omnipresent news media are devoted to politics and government than to covering the private sector, including the nefarious activities in it. Politicians justifiably fear "gotcha journalism." Some journalists go so far as to assume the role of the "unofficial opposition." But one-shot blows from the news media seldom have much impact. Only well-documented criticism for a sustained period is likely to move a government. The Harper government has treated the major news outlets with thinly-veiled contempt since taking office. As noted above, it has been engaged in a vast effort to "create reality" by means of a taxpayer-funded propaganda machine. So far, it has been quite successful. The acid test will be the next election.


For a variety of reasons, Prime Minister Harper and his ministers have been acting on the principle that being in power means never having to admit error and accept responsibility. It does mean, however, much effort and many taxpayer dollars to defend the indefensible.

W.T. Stanbury is professor emeritus, University of British Columbia.


Dr Mike said...

The sad thing is that even tho we know what the problem is , the concentration of power in the mainly unelected PMO , very little is being done to stop it.

It takes a finely tuned machine or a big bunch of guns to centralize power to this extent & lucky for us the machine is finely tuned.

Still the problem exists & democracy is in the crapper.

At this point returning the power bits back into the hands of the people is only a pipe dream.

Let`s face it , most Canadians don`t even realize what has happened & this is just the way the PMO likes it.

They throw us just enough crumbs to keep us fat.

They throw us just enough info to keep us happily uninformed.

I honestly believe that finding a handful of politicians to make a change is going to be one tough puppy to come up with esp if we are digging in the present crop.

Maybe we need a "new" crop & even that can be a scary thought.

Look what we got last time we searched for "new" , we got Harper & the boys.

Dr Mike Popovich

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