Friday, July 14, 2006

Ottawa trip for every new government hire goofy

VICTORIA - There is something quite wildly mad about the federal government.
The Vancouver Sun has reported that everybody hired by the federal government is now to be flown to Ottawa for an orientation session. If you’re filling in as a filing clerk during a maternity leave or hired to clean a federal building in Prince Rupert, you have to jet down to Ottawa for two days to learn. . . well, that’s not entirely clear.
Mostly, I defend people who work for government against often unfair critics. They work as hard as their counterparts in the private sector. (You can make your own judgment about how hard that typically is). Job security and benefits may be a bit better, but they’re not overpaid and their workplaces increasingly look like those of their corporate cousins, for better or worse.
But the federal government, it’s from some other planet.
The new federal program is called Orientation to the Public Service. Everybody hired for more than six months - as a prison guard, or fisheries inspector or receptionist - has to go to Ottawa for two days of meetings and receptions. They’re supposed to get an understanding of how government works. They get a visit to Parliament, some classes in how the public sector works and a reception “with invited guests such as MPs, senators, senior government officials, and other public servants from across the country." Then back on the plane home.
The program in Ottawa costs $750 per new employee, picked up by Treasury Board. But individual ministries or agencies have to pay the travel costs for their new hires. So, a portion of the budget for policing or delivering aboriginal services will now be spent on travel for any new employees.
It’s crazy. So obviously crazy you wonder how the Liberals approved the program and why the Conservatives decided to commit about $10 million to it this year.
It’s good to have an orientation for new employees, something that reviews how they fit into the organization, pitches its values and goals and makes people feel like they matter. Most organizations do a poor job of it. I was impressed years ago by a speech from a Disney World executive who said everybody hired - from gardeners to vice-presidents - went through a one-week course on customer service and what the Florida theme park was trying to do.
But I’ve worked for companies with headquarters in the U.S., England and Canadian cities. None of them thought they needed to fly every new hire back to the head office for orientation. A few individuals taking on new responsibilities, sure. But not a trip for the sake of the ritual.
Apparently part of the justification for all this is the sponsorship scandal. The notion is that the orientation offers new recruits a grounding “in the values, ethics and accountabilities of the public service."
What a minute. No one from Vancouver, or Kelowna, was involved in the sponsorship scandal - just politically connected types in Ottawa. They should be flying out here to learn from the people doing the work on the ground.
It’s a puzzling - and probably wrong - assumption that the government is hiring people so short on judgment that they need to fly off to Ottawa to learn about ethics by schmoozing with MPs.
And what exactly does this program say about local managers? Are they really incapable of helping new hires understand their roles and the purposes and values of the organization?
What’s most telling about this is that the new Conservative government approved continuing the program. Stephen Harper’s team had only been in government a few months. They should have been full of righteous indignation at Ottawa and its ways.
But the orientation program was only a few million, the civil service brass liked it and so the program lived on. Another new batch of MPs co-opted before they’ve even figured out the fastest route back to their offices.
Footnote: The Conservatives attempted to shift the blame on to the Martin government. “We’ve inherited a lot of programs like this that were decisions made by the Liberals that we’re only finding out about,” said MP Jason Kenney. Except that the Conservative cabinet approved spending for the program in the new governments’ first budget this year.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Coroner's child death report short on useful recommendations

VICTORIA - It took the Coroners Service three years to complete its first annual review of child deaths.
That in itself indicates serious problems. The report, which offers only obvious and general recommendations, confirms how wrong things have gone.
The Coroners Service was supposed to take the lead in learning from child deaths after the Liberals eliminated the Children's Commission. Nothing would be lost, Premier Gordon Campbell promised.
The coroner took over child death reviews in 2003. You might have expected a report in 2004, or maybe the next year. After all, they're important in helping save lives.
But only now has the first annual report appeared. It offers seven recommendations, all glaringly obvious and all lacking useful detail. Kids should use car seats, or least be buckled in; they should learn to swim; guns should be kept locked up; and there should be meetings to talk about child suicide and the high death rate of aboriginal children. (The report did have one concrete recommendation, calling on health authorities to do more to teach parents about safe sleeping practices for infants.)
Here's the report on car seats: “It’s recommended that children should always be placed in an approved car seat and/or restrained with a seatbelt when travelling in a motor vehicle.”
The issue is serious. Car crashes were the leading cause of deaths in the cases reviewed, claiming 89 lives. In 37 per cent of the cases the children weren't restrained in any way.
Yet the recommendation contributes little toward reducing deaths. Why weren't the children wearing seatbelts? Were there any regional variations in seatbelt use, or groups doing much better than others? Is B.C.'s rate worse than other jurisdictions that we could learn from?
Liberal MLA Iain Black has proposed a law to ensure that children up to eight ride in an approved car seat or booster seat. That could have been an issue for the child death review unit - is there evidence to show such a law would work? None of those questions were even raised.
The report also found - once again - that aboriginal children and youths are at much greater risk of death. The Coroners Service came up with no conclusions about why and offered no specific recommendations. It called on First Nations, government, parents, educators and communities to "forge new relationships" to deal with the problem.
That's fine. But surely there are things that should be done now to keep First Nations' kids safer.
The Coroners Service says those kinds of recommendations aren't its job. That's up to the new Representative for Child and Youth, says chief coroner Terry Smith.
But the Coroners' Service we site says its job includes making specific recommendations on systemic issues
And the representative's office that Smith says is supposed to be doing the work doesn't exist yet. It wasn't even conceived until Ted Hughes' report earlier this year on the major problems with child death reviews. The Coroners Service can't have been working for three years hoping that some agency would emerge to take the lead.
The report's weaknesses show how critical it is that the new Representative for Children and Youth get the mandate and budget to do the critical work needed. (Work has barely begun on setting the office up. There's no budget; the MLAs' committee that's to hire a representative has only met once.)
The Coroners Service report establishes that the representative will have to play a large role in reviewing child fatalities with the aim of preventing similar deaths.
That's only one part of the job, but an important one, as Gordon Campbell acknowledged in opposition. "When any child dies in this province, that should be referred to an independent review board, with people with the expertise, knowledge and understanding to get to the bottom of every single death, so that we can do everything in our power to prevent such deaths from taking place."
Footnote: Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley has been granted another extension on her report into why Jamie Charlie was left in the home where his little sister Sherry was beaten to death. The report was originally due March 31. Now Morley is aiming for Sept. 29. "Unexpected issues around receiving documents as well as the higher than expected number of witnesses that were critical to the thoroughness and fairness of the process, have resulted in my request for the extension," Morley said in a statement. She also wants to leave time for people named in the report to respond.