You’re fired

I’ve been in Munich trying to save the world, but the most interesting thing I read during the breaks was this article in Le Monde: a group profile of a half-dozen senior public servants who were fired by Nicolas Sarkozy at intervals, over the last year and a half, after some incident, crisis or mishap. One police chief didn’t provide enough police protection for the Corsican villa of a friend of Sarkozy’s; there was a sit-in there, and the guy was fired. A hospital director was fired after a schizophrenic patient escaped and committed a murder. And so on. All of them learned by communiqué that the price of being prominent near the scene of political trouble was their jobs.

So now, 21 months after Sarkozy took office, there’s a half-dozen of these cases, or probably more, but Le Monde interviews the six. “These stories of ‘responsable but not guilty,’ I’m not that kind of guy,” Sarkozy is quoted as saying about this management style. And it could hardly be a more striking kind of take-charge thing to do: The Elysée Palace reports that the President of the Republic takes this incident with the utmost gravity, and therefore Prefect So-and-So has been relieved of his functions by presidential decree. Nobody’s going to be against that kind of move while the cars are still burning or the parents are still in shock.

But is it outrageous to say this can be a horribly costly way of managing your public service?

Two consequences are likely. Well, one’s automatic: the person who loses his job takes three decades of experience with him. So you’d best be really sure the mistake was worth that loss of human capital. The second consequence is nearly as sure: survivors circle the wagons and start managing defensively. The article gives three examples. When François Fillon made an announcement in Lyon recently, the police chief sent battalions of cops to cover both the Prime Minister and his own butt. Another guy forbade the industry minister from visiting a factory — and ideally, you’d like your industry minister to see the odd factory or two — because he “couldn’t guarantee” the boss’s security. And the police chief in Strasbourg has been lobbying for a reassignment ahead of the NATO summit there in early April — because he would rather not be around so Sarko can fire him if some protesters light a bonfire.

Multiply that kind of defensiveness by tens of thousands of decisions a day and there is only one word for the sclerosis that becomes inevitable: France. But surely I’m not arguing that heads should remain unrolling? Surely I’m not arguing for job protection for the person in charge when something awful happens? Actually, in many cases, I am.

I don’t want to dump too much on my adoptive and temporary home, but the baroque complexity of any interaction with the state while I was in France was a wonderment. Sarkozy has done very little, quite the contrary, to simplify life there or to make the state more efficient. (Other countries have; check out the Belgian government’s fascinating Kafka Project for one example.) I can’t help wondering whether governance in France might genuinely improve if, after each of these half-dozen crises, Sarko hadn’t called the relevant functionary into his office, yelled at him, and given him six weeks to come back with a plan for ensuring nothing like this ever happened again.

That will sound naive or worse, I’m sure, to many readers. Protecting incompetence at the top! We knew you were in the tank all along, Wells. Oh well. My model for a “learn-from-experience” model as opposed to a “blame-and-punish” model, incidentally, comes from the airline industry, where bad system design can often result in hundreds of deaths: this isn’t the best explanation of the flight safety philosophy, but it’s the best I can find on short notice tonight. The basic idea is that errors leading to accidents (or even errors logged by observers on flight decks during routine flights) are rigorously logged and analyzed but not punished. Nut graf: “Under the reverse, a punishment based culture, pilots keep potentially useful information to themselves, so that nothing can be learned about training or about [the] ‘error-producing environment.'”

I’d kind of like to de-partisanize a discussion about all of this in the Canadian context, although I doubt I’ll have much luck with that. I can think of examples where both major national parties went straight to blame-and-punish when the media spotlight was on, and of course we can all think of any number of cases where the first question a reporter asked was, “So is anybody gonna lose their job over this?” But I’ll mention one case where I think a head of government got it roughly right: when Jean Chrétien kept Jane Stewart as Human Resources minister to clean up an accountability mess she had inherited. Stewart’s performance was not flawless, but the systems in place there today are far better than they would be if she had been canned for the sin of revealing a problem and replaced with the next terrified grunt in line.

I also think a blame-and-punish attitude was at work during the Coalition madness. After several years of “aren’t you gonna fire somebody?”, the opposition parties thought the country would be with them when they decided to oust Stephen Harper after that ridiculous fall economic update. But it’s pretty clear that, to the extent a diffuse and factious public opinion had any centre of gravity at all, it was closer to, “Hey, Harper! Stop being ridiculous. Govern better.” In France, meanwhile, Sarkozy will one day ask for a mandate to fix problems that have persisted during his first five years on the job. Voters will notice he never gave anybody else that chance, and take it into account when they consider his request.

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