Pluralistic: Canada's privatised shadow civil service (31 Jan 2023)

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The legislative chamber of Canada's House of Commons; behind the speaker's chair, the back wall has been replaced by an enormous $100 bill. The portrait on the $100 bill has been replaced with an unflattering, braying picture of Justin Trudeau. The Bank of Canada legend across the top of the note has been replaced by the McKinsey and Company wordmark.

Canada's privatised shadow civil service (permalink)

PJ O'Rourke once quipped that "The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it." But conservative parties have unlikely allies in the project to discredit public service: neoliberal "centrist" parties, like Canada's Liberal Party.

The Liberals have become embroiled in a series of scandals over the explosion of lucrative, secretive private contracts awarded to high-flying consultancy firms who charge hundreds of times more than public sector employees to do laughably bad work.

Front and centre in the scandal, is, of course, McKinsey, consligieri to opioid barons, murdering Saudi princes, and other unsavoury types. McKinsey was brought in to "consult" on strategy for the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), a Crown corporation that gives loans to Canadian businesses.

While there, McKinsey performed as per usual, veering from the farcical to the grotesquely wasteful. Most visible was the decision to spend $320,000 on a livecast fireside chat between BDC president Isabelle Hudon and a former Muchmusic VJ that was transmitted to all BDC employees, which featured Hudon and the host discussing a shopping trip they'd taken together in Paris.

Meanwhile, BDC has been hemorrhaging top people, which leaving the organisation with many holes in its leadership – the kind of thing that would pose an impediment to its lofty goals of substantially increasing the support it gives to businesses run by women, First Nations people and people of colour.

Hudon – a Trudeau appointee – vowed to "start from scratch" when she took over the organisation, but then went ahead and did what her predecessors had done: hired outside consultants who billed outrageous sums to repurpose anodyne slide-decks full of useless, generic advice, or unrealistic advice that no one could turn into actual policy. They also sucked up BDC employees' time with endless interviews.

The BDC has (reluctantly) disclosed $4.9m in contracts to McKinsey. The CBC also learned that Hudon parachuted several cronies from her previous job at Sun Life into top roles in the organisation, and that BDC had reneged on promised promotions for many long-term staffers. Hudon also repeatedly flew a chauffeur across the country from Montreal to BC to drive her around.

In Quebec, premier François Legault hired an army of McKinsey consultants at $35,000 per day to advise him on covid strategy, for a total bill of $8.6m. McKinsey's contract with the province stipulated that they wouldn't have to disclose their other clients, even in the event that they had conflicts of interest:

The contract was kept secret, as was the long-running, $38m contract between McKinsey and the Hydro Quebec power authority:

Most of the bad press McKinsey gets revolves around the evil advice it gives – like when it advised opioid companies to pay cash bonuses to pharma distributors for every death-by-overdose in their territory (no, I'm not making this up):

But these rare moments of competence should be understood in the broader context in which McKinsey isn't evil, they are merely utterly, totally fucking useless. The 2022 French Senate report on McKinsey really digs into this:

They find that a quarter of the work McKinsey turned in was "unacceptable or barely acceptable in quality." This is in line with the overall tenor of work performed by consultants. For example, when it came to giant Capgemini, the French Senate found that the work it provided was "of near-zero added value, indeed sometimes counterproductive."

And yet, despite the expense and "near-zero added value," hiring outside consultants is a reflex for neoliberal centrist leaders. Trudeau has presided over a massive expansion of the Canadian government's reliance on outside consultants:

After campaigning on a promise to reduce outside consultancy, the Trudeau administration increased consultant spending by 40%, to $11.8 billion. This shadow civil service is not just more expensive and less competent that the real civil service – it is also far more opaque, able to fend off open records requests with vague gestures towards "trade secrecy."

Since 2015, McKinsey has raked in $116.8m in federal contracts, even as the civil service has been starved of pay. Meanwhile, federal departments insist that they need to "protect Canada's economic interests" by not disclosing outside contracts, and list their total spend at $0.00.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada estimates that between 2011-21, the Canadian government squandered $18b on outside IT contracting that could have been performed by public servants. In 2022, the Government of Canada spent $2.3b on outsource IT contracts, while the wage bill for its own IT staff came in at $1.85b.

It's not like these outside IT contractors are good at their jobs, either. The most notorious example is the ArriveCAN covid-tracking app for travellers, the contract for which was awarded to GCstrategies, a two-person shop in Ottawa, who promptly turned around and outsourced it to KPMG and other contractors, whom they billed to the government at $1,000-1,500/day, raking off 15-30% in commissions.

For months, the origins of the ArriveCAN app were a mystery, with the government insisting that the details of the contractors involved were "confidential." But ArriveCAN was such a steaming pile of shit, and so many travellers (a population more likely to be well-off and politically connected than the median Canadian) had to deal with it, that eventually the truth came out.

The ArriveCAN scandal is ongoing – just last year, it cost the Canadian public $54m:

Trudeau's Liberals didn't invent outsourcing high-stakes IT projects to incompetent grifters. Under Conservative PM Stephen Harper, Canada paid IBM to build Phoenix, an utterly defective payroll system for federal employees that stole millions from civil servants, bringing government to a virtual standstill. Thus far, the Government of Canada – which paid IBM $309m to develop Phoenix, as a "cost savings measure" – has paid $506m in damages to make good on Phoenix's errors:

The Liberals didn't invent Phoenix – but they did deploy it, after campaigning on the wastefulness and incompetence of the Tories' outsourcing bonanza. And after Phoenix crashed and burned, the Liberals increased outsourcing spending.

All of this is well-crystallized in last week's Canadaland discussion between Jesse Brown and Nora Loreto:

And on his Substack, Paul Wells proposes that the Senate – a largely ornamental institution in Canadian politics – is the unlikely check of last resort on the Liberals' fetish for outsourcing:

There are former deputy ministers at the federal and provincial levels, secretaries to cabinet, a former Clerk of the Privy Council, a former chief of staff to a prime minister. A lot of them can remember the days when big decisions weren’t farmed out to firms that make their founders rich and are spared the rigours of accountability for their counsel. Surely some of them would like to shine a light?

(Image: Sam, Presidencia de la RepĂşblica Mexicana, CC BY 2.0, modified)

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Colophon (permalink)

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