There are questions to ask about government contracting

3 min read

There are very real questions to be asked about the amount of money the federal government has been spending on the advice of private-sector consultants like McKinsey. But it’s not clear that any federal party is actually interested in asking them.

So far, everyone seems far more interested in whether the prime minister and the former managing partner of McKinsey, Dominic Barton, can be described as “friends.” The answer to that question, despite claims to the contrary, seems to be “no.”

Spurred on by a series of stories that showed the value of the contracts awarded to the global firm has increased substantially in recent years, the House of Commons standing committee on government operations has launched a study aimed at “federal government consulting contracts awarded to McKinsey & Company.”

On Monday, as its second witness, the committee called on Amanda Clarke, an associate professor at Carleton University’s school of public policy and administration.

It made perfect sense for the committee to call on Clarke. She has studied the issue of government contracting extensively — and she had some smart and interesting things to say on Monday.

“This issue of spending a lot of money on management consultants and seeing a lot of core public service work done by management consultants is not an accident,” she said.

It is the “inevitable dynamic,” she said, of a public service that has suffered from “a lack of investment in talent and recruitment and reforming HR practices to make it easier to bring people in,” coupled with “unhelpful oversight and reporting burdens” that follow from “a kind of error-free ‘gotcha’ mentality and a lot of scrutiny.”

“The demands for error-free government make it very difficult to be creative and innovative in the public service.”

There is a tremendous amount to chew on in that statement — about how government actually works, how we have come to view government and how both journalists and partisans frame the work of government. And there are parts of Clarke’s answer that challenge both the Liberals (who have had more than seven years now to improve the public service) and the Conservatives (who eliminated thousands of positions in the public service while they were in power from 2006 to 2015).

A committee of curious and interested MPs could spend months unraveling the structural and cultural forces that have shaped the modern federal government and work out sensible proposals for change. And maybe someday, some group of MPs will get around to doing that.

But for now, this study is mostly about whether there is some kind of scandal here.

The friendship that doesn’t seem to exist

The Conservatives have claimed that McKinsey’s consultants constitute “Liberal insiders” — it’s not yet clear that’s the case, or that any kind of inappropriate political influence actually occurred. The Conservatives also have fastened on to the idea that Barton is a “friend” of Justin Trudeau.

In the House of Commons, Conservative MPs have variously described Barton as “a good friend,” “a personal friend” and “a very close personal friend” of the prime minister.

“Who’s actually running the show in Canada? Trudeau is the puppet and his Liberal pal Dominic Barton is busy pulling the strings,” Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie tweeted on Monday.

When Barton appeared before the committee on Wednesday, the quality of his relationship with Trudeau was the first item of the agenda. It appears they’re not friends. Questioned by Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, Barton stated that he and Trudeau have never exchanged Christmas cards, never had dinner together. Barton said he does not have the prime minister’s personal phone number.

Barton chaired the Advisory Council on Economic Growth that was struck by then-finance minister Bill Morneau in 2016 and he was appointed Canada’s ambassador to China in 2019. Nearly all of Barton’s interactions with Trudeau apparently have been tied to those two appointments. And Barton reminded the committee that Stephen Harper him to the federal government’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service in 2013.

Barton told the committee he wasn’t involved in signing contracts with the federal government when he was managing partner of McKinsey. He left the firm in 2019, when he was named