1983 GAC Document Still Relevant Today: “The Crisis of Quality” Revisited

1983 GAC Document Still Relevant Today: “The Crisis of Quality” Revisited
“The Crisis of Quality," penned in 1983, is still relevant today to GAC in kick-starting a debate about purpose and mission.

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) is under pressure from a variety of directions and for different reasons: the Prime Minister’s India trip; a lacklustre policy performance under the Trudeau government; indifferent communications with the Canadian public; and, at the top, confusion among ministers as to who is in charge of what. It isn’t the first time that this large and multi-faceted department has faced problems. But they have been exacerbated recently by an internal clash of cultures, serious personnel problems, an undeclared assault on the Foreign Service group, and the seeming absence of accountability at the top of the ministerial and public service food chains. If some of this seems new, it’s worth recalling a similar period in the early 1980s, when reorganization and structural changes took years to digest, largely through an extraordinary effort by senior managers to try to get it right.

The reorganizations of the early 1980s brought the Trader Commissioner Service and trade policy function inside “External Affairs,” along with the Foreign Service group from Immigration Canada. At the time, reorganization was a major government theme, as senior officials in the Privy Council Office embraced what was then claimed to be the cult of modern management. Integrating trade and economic issues into External Affairs made perfect sense. But it also brought changes in management styles, structures, and reporting relationships that proved wrenching and at times counterproductive. Fortunately, External Affairs was spared the worst of the tinkering, which sometimes had comical proportions. In the early 1980s, the government created the Department of Regional Industrial Expansion (DRIE, pronounced “dry”). Within a decade, it was converted into the Ministry of Industry, Science and Technology. So DRIE became MOIST overnight.

Canadians were sometimes told that public-sector innovations followed a private-sector model. Although that point was debatable, a few senior officials in External Affairs believed in testing that proposition by looking at what the private sector was discussing. They found inspiration in a bestseller of the early 1980s by two American business gurus, Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, in their book In Search of Excellence. It probed modern corporate organization to answer a fundamental question: Why did some companies succeed, while others failed? It offered important observations that could be applied to External Affairs, then visibly suffering from problems of disorganization, unclear responsibilities, and conflicting values. It also made suggestions on the fundamental question:  What could be done?

In 1983, Peter Hancock was the head of the department’s Foreign Policy Secretariat (as the Policy Planning Staff was then called). He decided to take the issue on, given the Foreign Policy Secretariat’s broad mandate and powers of initiative. Over the course of several weeks, he discussed issues of management and values with other staff members, as well as key senior members of the department. He then shaped the outlines of a paper entitled “The Crisis of Quality,” invited further input and circulated drafts for comment.

When Hancock finished the “The Crisis of Quality,” he sent the paper to the Deputy Minister and to all members of External’s Executive Committee, with a covering memorandum that described the paper as “both a diagnosis and a constructive prescription” for enhancing the daily work of the department. “You will be attracted by some ideas,” the covering memo suggested, “and repelled by others.”

“The Crisis of Quality” was not well received. In certain quarters, it was considered a damning, critical, and even impertinent attack on the senior management of the department. The observation (in the covering memo) that successful top managers of major corporations are known “for walking the plant floors” was taken as a criticism of the lofty and essentially closed nature of the department’s top public service management. Its emphasis on “people” was considered a refutation of the official departmental line that re-organization was essentially about getting the boxes and budgets right. The judgment that “this Department suffers from a preoccupation with organizational matrix rather than purpose and quality” was particularly resented by some members of senior management who had different views on corporate cultures and whether a corporate culture mattered at all.

“The Crisis of Quality” was initially distributed to only thirteen of External’s most senior officers. But it was also bootlegged widely around the entire Pearson Building. It found a receptive audience among officials exasperated after a couple of long years of seemingly pointless adjustments in personnel and budgets that had produced little for the public service except additional paperwork at greater cost. The paper offered a way to return to a clear departmental mission and mandate, by emphasizing people and quality, two commodities that were not part of the department’s newly adopted management lexicon.

The covering memorandum recommended that the paper be discussed at a meeting of the department’s Executive Committee. But that was not the way forward as senior management saw it. Despite Hancock’s advocacy and some support by a few senior officials, the paper was never discussed. Instead, it was apparently taken from departmental records and archives, retrieved from addressees to whom it had been sent, and all copies destroyed. It was never drafted, and never existed. It simply disappeared.

“The Crisis of Quality,” however, is still relevant today. It’s relevant to GAC in kick-starting a debate about purpose and mission. It’s also relevant for those trying to re-build professional capacity and move the department beyond an obsession with process and procedures that has supplanted the logical and simple pursuit of clear objectives. It’s a long document, even by the standards of 1983. The argument is clear. And if it addresses the issues of 2018 as clearly as it confronted those of 35 years ago, words of appreciation can be directed to its author, Peter Hancock, for pushing this issue as far as he could and saving the document for future use.

Click here for “Crisis of Quality.”

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