Monday, August 6, 2007

Kryptonite - Only in Canada you say?

Back in April, on what must have been a slow news day, there were reports out of the UK that a team of scientists had discovered a rock that was composed of the exact same minerals that the Superman movies attributed to Kryptonite. Holy Batman! Or whatever. Kryptonite, the real thing, right here on earth and discovered by the Natural History Museum in London, England.

Well, not quite. Now it turns out that the rock in question did originate with the Natural History Museum, but it was a Canadian team of scientists, working in our very own National Research Council labs, who discovered the formulation in fact matched the fictional Kryptonite of Superman fame. Anxious to make the announcement, the NRC was then held up by the Privy Council Office who, in its inimitable bumbling bureaucratic way, prevented the NRC from making the announcement because they weren’t given the requisite five days needed for approval. That’s right, they needed five days to review and approve something as trivial as this. It’s a good thing it wasn’t important. Imagine if the PCO was in existence on November 11, 1918 – we’d still be wondering if the war was over.

If it weren’t so sad it would be funny.

It’s way too easy – a cop-out really – to chalk this sort of thing up to incompetence or stupidity, but it’s deeper than that. It’s what happens when you encourage a bureaucracy to follow process and written guidelines rather than common sense and intuition. No one at PCO is incapable of reading a half-page press release and giving it a quick thumbs up (I assume), but the rules say five days so for four days, 23 hours and 50 minutes it sits in someone’s in-basket waiting for the clock to tick over.

I know, I know, our civil service is the envy of the world – professional, competent, effective. But that’s compared to other countries’ civil services! Instead, compare the day to day functioning of any level of government – municipal, provincial, federal, or even your condo board – to any successful business and the problems become very obvious very quickly. Bottom line, in many (most?) departments there is no incentive to succeed, let alone excel. No matter what you do, especially if it involves dealing with the (gasp!) public, there are rules that tell you how to do it, when to do it, who needs to be informed (or as they say, kept in the loop), how not to do it, etc. ad nauseum.

How mind numbing. Just like Superman under the influence of Kryptonite.

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