02/07/2013 05:48 EST | Updated 04/09/2013 05:12 EDT

The High Price of Muzzling CIDA Staffers

A real commitment to aid effectiveness would mean empowering CIDA staff to do the jobs they have been hired to do: provide unbiased information from which development programs and policies can be crafted. In the spirit of public service, proper decisions need to be constructed through discussion.


The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)'s newly written code of ethics appears to further an already troubling trend of centralization, micromanagement, and self-censorship within the agency. Judging by reporting from the Ottawa Citizen, the new rules spell out a "duty of loyalty" that requires CIDA workers to refrain from public criticism of the government. While such requirements are normal in the public service, these particular ones don't come with provisions that are typically put in place to help ensure that the loyalty is balanced with the freedom to question authority and report malpractice.

The diminishment of freedom of professional expression seems to be an ongoing worry at CIDA. Similar issues were raised to Minister of International Cooperation Julian Fantino at a CIDA town hall meeting a few months ago. CIDA employees voiced displeasure about political micromanagement inside the organization, saying that the centralization of control is a problem and that "very narrow access to the Minister's office... has met with some tendencies of self-censorship." The town hall also revealed that ministerial control has progressively crept to envelop decisions that had once been made in-field, on the front lines of where aid is implemented. Operating orders now increasingly come from the Minister's office, which exerts more direct -- often politically motivated -- control. The net effect is a systemic disempowering of CIDA staff, and less effective decision-making and implementation of Canadian aid. By de facto muffling its public servants, the agency is forsaking the exchange of opinions necessary to successfully guide organizational operations, especially when those operations involve finding solutions to the complex problems associated with global poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, underinvestment, etc.

Disempowerment also affects morale, eventually leading to the attrition of valuable human resources. Administrative bottlenecks at the Minister's office -- where approval is inevitably sought -- also create inefficiencies, further exacerbating a bad situation and exasperating civil servants. As a former CIDA employee, I can say that the situation was already bad some four years ago. Evan at that point, employees complained of unclear mandates, politicization of portfolios, and a lack of latitude to do their jobs effectively. These problems were part of the reason I left the agency, and the main reason I would not consider going back.

Rhetorically, at least, the Minister is understanding of the issues raised, stating that he takes the "responsibility [for CIDA's operations] very seriously." But time will tell just how serious he is. Having just lost $319.2 million in the government's deficit-reduction exercise, CIDA is in a precarious position. And there is considerable evidence to suggest that the management strategies and tactics CIDA is pursuing are further undermining the agency's mandate, perhaps much more seriously than finances-foregone ever could.

For compelling evidence on what not to do, Minister Fantino should look no further than the bumbled war in Iraq. In his book Adapt, international bestselling author Tim Hadford demonstrates the weakness of top-down bureaucracy in complex environments, by outlining Donald Rumsfeld's hubristic, and ultimately obstinate, presumption that the Iraq war could be dictated and won from an office in the Pentagon. The parallels with CIDA are striking; in that case, as well, officers in the field who voiced concerns were either removed or quieted.

For big organizations, such as the U.S. military and CIDA, front-line knowledge and dissent are invaluable. In Iraq the voices of reason eventually won out. Among them was that of General David Petreus, who took over the mission and is widely credited with saving it from the disastrous end to which it was headed. General Petraeus' "surge" substantially stabilized Iraq by embracing dissenting opinion, permitting tactical experimentation, observing what worked, and scaling it up into a counter-insurgency strategy. The rationale is simple: more ideas, equal more intellectual competition, creating an environment where the best argument wins.

Strategies like these are actually necessary to safeguard decision-makers against the potential biases of decision-making. Groupthink -- one such bias -- occurs within a group of people, when the desire for conformity results in suboptimal conclusions. Group members attempt to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or contingencies, and by insulating themselves from external influences. Similarly, confirmation bias is the tendency to favour information that supports preconceived beliefs or hypotheses. In both cases, judgments are made while avoiding controversial perspectives and alternative solutions, leading to a loss of oraganizational learning, creativity, innovation, independent thinking, and decisional rigour.

At the same time as CIDA is promoting education and learning abroad, it is also it increasingly taking steps to stifle internal organizational learning. The significance of this goes beyond mere rhetorical or symbolic hypocrisy. The Minister is demanding more effective aid from countries such as Haiti, and yet CIDA is actively suppressing the type of organizational environment that promotes solid aid policies and programs. The net result is that aid effectiveness is undermined, not by overseas governments, but by our own. A real commitment to aid effectiveness would mean empowering CIDA staff to do the jobs that they have been hired to do: provide professional and unbiased information from which development programs and policies can be crafted.

Indeed, while the focus of this article is CIDA, the moral of the story is transferable to government in general. Obsessive control of messaging has been a preferred strategy of the Conservative government -- from restricting the availability of climate scientists for interviews to limiting media access to politicians. But it is time to move beyond mere talking points and partisan rhetoric, and get serious about governing. More than that, it is time to understand that the exchange of opinions provides a net public benefit. In the spirit of public service, proper decisions need to be actively constructed through transparent and participatory discussion, not via unilateral decree. And as problems become more complex, constructive decision-making necessitates the incorporation of dissenting views.

At CIDA, it is important to give our civil servants the opportunity to challenge preconceived ideas and strategies, and to give them the ability and confidence to remain independent, and to resist conformity. This is a responsibility owed to Canada's partners in the Global South and to Canadian tax payers, both of whom expect the highest possible return from Canadian aid. Maybe more importantly, to do so acknowledges the necessary contribution of dissent to democratic debate. Underlying the specific issues being debated is a more general debate about the type of society we wish to live in as Canadians. That it should be a society that is inclusive of a wealth of opinions -- even if they are at times ones we disagree with -- is perhaps the one topic that should not be up for debate. This, after all, is the foundational principle of governance that we purport to export to other countries through CIDA's very own projects.

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