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Yukonomist: The importance of independence

What do bureaucratic org charts have to do with fighting the pandemic?

What do bureaucratic org charts have to do with fighting the pandemic?

Quite a bit, it turns out.

Michael Lewis, acclaimed author of Moneyball and The Big Short, has a new book called The Premonition. In it, he compares the effectiveness of the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (known as the CDC) in the 1970s and during the current pandemic. Back in the day, the head of the CDC was a top scientist whom it was very difficult for the president to fire. Today, the head of the CDC is a presidential appointee.

Lewis puts it this way: “To fire a competent civil servant is a pain in the ass. To fire a competent presidential appointee is as easy as tweeting.”

The result, suggests Lewis, is strong pressure to behave like a pleaser or yes-person to the White House. What you really need is someone who is, in effect, willing to pull the fire alarm in the very early stages of an outbreak when everyone else in the system is busy enjoying a booming economy or planning their re-election campaign.

This isn’t just a public health issue. The same problem pops up across government.

Especially in the Yukon, where the territorial government is so centralized and so dominant. You get to a very high percentage of the adult population here if you add up how many people depend directly on territorial departments for their job, or their spouse’s job, or for grants, business contracts or important permits. Rocking the boat can have personal consequences.

The most recent example is the incident at Hidden Valley school reported in last week’s Yukon News where “parents were never informed that an educational assistant had been convicted of sexually abusing a student.” The News spoke to parents who felt betrayed by the education system when they found out a year later in media reports.

The parents and students involved are essentially powerless to do anything except complain to the media. How many of them can afford a drawn-out lawsuit against government lawyers? Yukon school councils have minimal powers. Their MLA is either a member of the government that made the decision or a powerless opposition politician.

Enter the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate, an arms-length official who is—importantly—not in the usual territorial government chain of command. She announced an independent review of what happened at Hidden Valley, which sparked a reaction from the Department of Education. The minister of that department wrote that the government was “not in support” of the review going forward.

I don’t know the details of what happened at Hidden Valley—indeed, the problem is that it is shrouded in secrecy—but it’s good news that the Advocate has announced she disagrees with the Department of Education and plans to run the review anyway.

This is important. We are now much more likely to get to the bottom of what really happened, and learn what should be done differently when such situations arise in the future.

Kudos to the Advocate for standing up. This took moral courage. She won’t be very popular at the Main Administration Building.

This kind of thing happens relatively rarely in the world of Yukon government. Most departments do not have an equivalent of the Yukon Youth and Child Advocate. Our Legislature is dominated by the government of the day and I have never heard anyone remark that the Legislature is effective at holding specific departments to account. Even the departmental budget reviews can pass quickly compared to the amount of money at stake as the end of a legislative session approaches. Unlike Alaska, we don’t have legislative committees with the time and resources to dig deep.

We do have a few examples, however. The federal Auditor General’s office produces detailed reviews of territorial departments and has the authority to demand inside data. However, it visits most departments rarely. We have the Yukon Information and Privacy Commissioner, who has some power but is often in the Yukon News battling one stonewalling department or another over citizen Access to Information Requests.

The Yukon Ombudsman was in the news last December after filing a petition with the Yukon Supreme Court to force the Department of Health and Social Services to provide information on a case involving a child at risk of violence.

The Francophone School Board is independent and well-budgeted, unlike school councils at other schools, and has sued the Yukon government repeatedly.

The Utilities Board is also independent and is empowered to make real decisions. If the government wants to get involved in its decision making, it needs to issue a formal public letter.

YESAB is an arms-length body whose independence is protected by its position between three levels of government and the Umbrella Final Agreement.

However, if you look at other jurisdictions you can find many more examples. Alaska has school boards with more real power. Unlike the federal government, we don’t have a legislative budget officer to provide an independent view on government financial projections. Ditto for our climate change emissions forecasts. As mentioned in a past column, the premier plans to do his own internal review of the effectiveness of the Yukon’s pandemic response rather than an independent review like in Ontario after the SARS outbreak. The list goes on.

Of course, it’s not enough just to say that some position is arms-length and independent. The official needs to have real statutory authority and enough resources to do the job properly. Most importantly, however, territorial ministers and deputy ministers need to acknowledge that such independent voices are important to the long-run effectiveness and credibility of government. The Department of Education should cooperate with the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate rather than try to block her review at Hidden Valley.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.