I've got a bad feeling...

Cassandra was my kind of gal. Unfortunately I can’t find her statue anywhere on Parliament Hill.

In case you attended a progressive, fact-free school, she’s the unfortunate Trojan princess granted the gift of foresight by Apollo but then, when she did not return his love, cursed so that no one would believe her. “There’s something fishy about that wooden horse,” she said, but …

I thought of her after grousing last Friday about a “general breakdown of public institutions” in Canada. Such talk can get you pegged as an alarmist crank. But three days later the Citizen reported that “Retiring baby boomers have sparked an unprecedented churn of workers within the federal government, starting at the top where nearly 60 per cent of executives spend less than a year in their jobs.”

Did somebody say breakdown? The obvious problem here is that policy is being administered, interpreted and in significant measure made by people who haven’t been on the job long enough to master its details, let alone the historical background. But it’s even more alarming that this obviously dysfunctional situation was either tolerated by the senior bureaucratic and political figures whose job it is to ensure that the public service works properly, or else they didn’t know about it.

It’s not clear which. Monday’s Citizen went on: “Such rapid turnover has long been suspected, but the Public Service Commission highlighted the problem in its latest annual report with a study of pay records that showed 40 per cent of Canada’s public servants started and ended the year in different jobs. That jumped to more than 75 per cent for some occupations.” But the paper didn’t say who had long suspected it or how strongly. And I’m not sure which would be worse: people knew but didn’t care, or it came as a complete surprise to half of cabinet, the Opposition and the Privy Council Office. I distinctly recall a big public service revitalization exercise under the Liberals. Did they know it ended this way? Did the Tories? Did senior public servants? Did anybody?

In any event, the people responsible for managing the public service apparently only just now got around to verifying that they are presiding over demoralizing, ill-informed chaos. If that isn’t a general breakdown of public institutions it surely fulfills its key functions. We face a problematic staffing situation no one intended to create, knew had been created or has any idea how to fix. And please do not be cynical. It’s not just the same old government inefficiency. It’s getting worse and it matters. You may think a functioning bureaucracy is exasperating … until you try dealing with a crumbling one.

Speaking of crumbling, a major new study just catalogued the disastrous condition of Canada’s municipal infrastructure. Its author, McGill engineering professor Saeed Mirza, gets an honorary Cassandra award because he’s been warning about this problem for ages. Yet Prime Minister Stephen Harper promptly blew his study off, telling Parliament Tuesday: “Since coming to office, this government has announced record amounts of spending, and record new programs into dealing with infrastructure in Canada. They amount to an additional $33 billion over the next seven years. This covers everything from national down to certain types of municipal and local infrastructure.”

It’s bad enough that our bridges, sewers and roads are disintegrating. But the institutional catastrophe is the contemptuous reception given to warnings. I wish I could assure you the PM was simply wrapping himself in protective partisan rhetorical fog while preparing to move decisively behind the scenes. But I cannot be sure the bureaucrats managing this file have been on the job long enough to master it and communicate their alarm upward, or that cabinet could absorb the message if they were. This purple-turning and finger-jabbing may well be all our politicians have. (British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s pompously clueless response to a recent massive breach of data privacy evokes equally disquieting reflections.)

There is no quick fix here. We have a systemic institutional problem driven by an intellectual one. Our Trojan horse is the idea that politics is about compassion, best measured by how abusively someone denounces the wretches across the aisle, and questions of detail, historical analysis of our institutions, fundamental philosophical questions are fit only for geeks and losers. Let this into your city, I wail, and disaster will ensue.

If MPs had to pass a statue of Cassandra on their way into Parliament every day, they might smile a bit less patronizingly and listen a bit more carefully. I know it sounds hysterical, but I swear someone’s talking inside that pretty wooden horsie.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]