What Were WE Thinking?

2 minute read

The Prime Minister has already given us the right answer on the WE debacle: he ought to have recused.

At least, that looks like the right answer. As other commentators have noted, we don’t really know precisely, or even roughly, how this decision was made.

For any who’ve been incommunicado on, say, a cruise ship over the past two weeks, we refer to the government’s decision to have WE Charity run a $900 million program designed to pay young people to volunteer (sic). It did so without a transparent process, and the Prime Minister seems at a minimum to have “participated in the discussions” leading to that decision, notwithstanding the fact that he (and his wife, and his mother, and his brother) have longstanding links with that organization. In the case of his mother and brother, these links included speaking fees totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars, albeit possibly from (or intended to be from) WE Charity’s corporate sibling, ME To WE (sic again). An added dimension was that the Minister of Finance also had family links to WE.

We (the IOG) have no capacity to assess the qualifications of WE (the charity) for the job, or whether it was necessary to outsource the work in the first place. The issue, as so often in the public sector, is not the merits of the decision but the integrity of the process.

We do know, however, that the Prime Minister, like all ministers of the Crown and myriad senior officials, is subject to the Conflict of Interest Act (COIA). Among many other provisions, the COIA prohibits public office holders from making decisions (or influencing the decisions of others) where there is “an opportunity to further his or her private interests or those of his or her relatives or friends or to improperly further another person’s private interests”. Well, ahem…

Again, we don’t know the particulars of this decision. It may well be that WE was the best organization for the job. WE has claimed that public servants have “openly” stated that they recommended WE on the merits. If so, that would be odd, because public servants aren’t supposed to disclose their advice to ministers. It would suggest that there was at least some sort of assessment process; but public service advice does not override recusal requirements.

Conflict of interest rules work best within a culture of ethical awareness, combined with robust practices to remind people, including very senior people, to be vigilant about their obligations This would include other decision makers in the government not being influenced by knowledge of their leader’s preferences, no mean consideration. In any case, the Prime Minister has done a mea culpa, so perhaps we can hope for such vigilance next time.

About the author

Karl Salgo

Karl Salgo

Executive Director - Public Governance

As Executive Director of Public Governance, Karl provides advisory services to multiple levels of government (provincial, federal and international) on all aspects of public sector governance, including institutional capacity, the center of government, organizational design and effectiveness, accountability, oversight, and risk management. He also plays a lead role in the IOG's research initiatives, including the work of the Public Governance Exchange, a syndicated, multi-jurisdictional forum for developing and exchanging ideas on public sector governance. Additionally, Karl provides educational services to public servants and appointees on a broad range of subjects, ranging from policy development and MC preparation to political savvy and the operations of government, to the responsibilities of directors in a wide range of public institutions.

A career public servant, Karl has degrees in political science, history and law from the University of Toronto and in public administration from the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. He worked for many years in the federal Department of Finance, in areas as diverse as tax policy, communications and financial markets. In the latter capacity, Karl helped to establish the governance framework for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and later served as Chief of Capital Markets Policy.

From 2004 to 2012, Karl worked in the Privy Council Office’s Machinery of Government Secretariat, where he provided advice to the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister on the organization and structure of the Government of Canada – the Cabinet, portfolios, and the creation, winding-up and governance of individual organizations.

As Director of Strategic Policy from 2007 to 2012, Karl was the secretariat’s lead authority on Crown corporation governance, the conventions of the Westminster system, and the conduct standards applicable to ministers and other senior public office holders. Karl was the author/editor of numerous PCO publications, including Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State and Guidance for Deputy Ministers. Actively involved in realizing the myriad governance and accountability changes that flowed from the Federal Accountability Act, Karl played a lead role in the design and implementation of the accounting officer mechanism of deputy minister accountability.

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