Tuesday 16 March 2010

Candian Economics 2

Eric in the immediately prior post linked to a couple of items from Canada. In this post, I'll comment on the one about the public service.

I worked for Health Canada in the middle of the Chrétien regime, so I don't know what the attitudes of economists would be to the conservative government today. At that time, however, we used to joke that the civil service in Canada was the administrative wing of the Liberal party. And yes, the reaction to all of us who came to Ottawa from other parts of Canada was utter disgust and amazement at what we found on the inside.

Where the observations of the Canadian insider that Eric quotes differ from what I experienced in the mid 90s, is in the comment on the small amount of work done by non-economists. In my epxerience, most public servants were highly dedicated people who thought their job was really important and worked very long hours. But that was the problem: not how easy the life was for public servants, but how little useful contribution to the country all those taxpayer funded hours made.

A former student of mine who worked for the Department of Trade and Industry in the U.K. used to say that he aspired to zero productivity, which would make him the DTI"s most productive employee. Similarly, in Canada, I wish public servants had spent more time in cafés rather than working long hours.

The comments from the Canadian public servant on the nature of the economists' work their do ring true. In no particular order, my biggest irritations were as follows:

1. The preferred medium for written analysis was a "deck". This is a set of powerpoint slides, printed out not to accompany an oral powerpoint presentation, but as the final written documentation to be sent to the senior officials.
2. For written analysis that acutally contained paragraphs (i.e. not a deck), the main organising framework for analysis was a stapler (i.e. get a whole bunch of uncoordinated work from different groups, bang it together and call it a coherent analysis).
3. Programme assessment meant cherry picking a few postive annecdotes that showed the government in a good light.

I have no idea if things are better in New Zealalnd. I think they are, but it is certainly nice to be back in academia and not having to have the reasons for high taxes rubbed in my nose every day.

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