Lost on the mountain top

This was my opening monologue guest-hosting The Arena on Jan. 18: So what’s your opinion of the new head of Canada’s Communications Security Establishment? (a) who’s that? (b) what’s that? (c) I hope he’s good at his job or (d) all of the above. I’m pretty much a (d) man but with an emphasis on “I hope he’s good at his job” for two reasons.

First, in a world dependent on high-tech communications for everything from banking to warfare it really matters that the agency in charge of protecting that stuff (which is the answer to “(b) what’s that?”) do a good job. Second, I’m very worried about the way we choose senior public servants.

I know bureaucracy is a boring topic and it’s more interesting to worry about celebrity divorces or Tim Tebow getting “Bradied” in the NFL playoffs. But the fact is that our lives are dominated by government and government is dominated by bureaucrats who now increasingly write the rules, implement them and act as judge in their own case if you fight back.

In short, when they mess up you pay so you can’t afford to ignore them. This particular appointment even made the newspapers because the CSE spies on foreigners by listening in on their electronic chatter and tries to keep them from doing it to us, and in its spare time help out law enforcement and security agencies. And now we have a spy scandal to remind us that this stuff matters.

Of course Canada continues to have a high-quality public service by world standards and I’m not suggesting they pick names out of a hat or choose their cronies. Quite the reverse: We seem to pick top bureaucrats according to the highest standards of contemporary management theory. But that’s the problem.

What happened in this case (yes, I’ve been hitting the government press releases again) is the Associate Deputy Minister of Infrastructure got put in charge of the CSE. So here’s the question: What does an Infrastructure guy know about signals intelligence?

I mean, you might get lucky and it’s his hobby. Or you might not and he knows as much about it as I do. (Or less: I have, as a hobby, read Simon Singh’s The Code Book, R.V. Jones’s Most Secret War: British Scientific Intelligence 1939-1945, Anthony Brown’s Bodyguard of Lies and Jack Nissen and A.W. Cockerill’s Winning the Radar War.)

After all, the government probably didn’t pick him for his subject matter expertise. I say that not because I’m jaded, although I may be, but because I get these “PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER ANNOUNCES CHANGES IN THE SENIOR RANKS OF THE PUBLIC SERVICE” press releases fairly regularly and they frequently show senior public servants moving between essentially unrelated departments (like the July 2010 shuffle of the DM of Environment to HRSD, a guy from Industry to Environment and so on).

It reflects the modern technocratic dogma is that “management” is a skill separate from the grubby details of what’s being managed. (If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be such things as MBA programs.) This dogma, derived from the Enlightenment idea that mathematics is the language in which truth is written, dates back at least to the 19th century, when Walter Bagehot said because “at the summit all mountains are very much the same” ministers should be chosen for political and administrative skill rather than expertise in any given department. Hence, for instance, John Baird is suddenly foreign minister, having excelled at Transport, Environment and Treasury Board at least in the political sense.

Unfortunately as soon as I read Bagehot’s claim I was reminded of a warning line from an outdoor survival manual (unless I am much mistaken, the classic Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills) to the effect that mountains are always topologically more complex than they seem from a distance. So even though basic mountain climbing skills work on pretty much all mountains, no experienced climber would dream of setting foot on one before making a detailed study of its peculiarities while hikers and other amateurs should never go up them at all. Likewise, departments are complex and so are the substantive policies, like defence or infrastructure, they deal with. Indeed, people who actually take security seriously were long bothered by the fact that at one point Canada had had 22 ministers of defence in less than 30 years.

One might be partly reassured by the thought that ministers don’t really run departments anyway. They are so big and complicated that things like the federal budget or infrastructure have such intricate momentum that the minister’s job is to smile and bob and make it look as though whatever happened was (a) good (b) intentional (c) his or her doing. But if senior bureaucrats are also not really running their departments, only “managing” whatever is generic like compensation and disability plans, who’s minding the store?

In short, the science of management has reduced us to hoping the people in charge of government know how to do their jobs… without giving us any reason to believe they even know what they are.

UncategorizedJohn Robson