Mr. Alcock & His Twin

For techno-enthusiasts, the appointment of Reg Alcock as President of the Treasury Board must have come as good news. After all, here was a Harvard-educated bright light of Parliament and a principal architect of the Crossing Boundaries initiative, a national project that set out to chart a new course for Canada’s democratic governance in a new, more informational and online era.

Alas, along comes his twin – the other Mr. Alcock, a traditionalist, heading up a Treasury Board keen on reasserting strict control over a public service seemingly out of control. This other Mr. Alcock begins his tenure with a hiring freeze and a pledge to not only halt spending, but also considerably beef up the Board’s capacity to review programs and re-allocate spending where appropriate. In the aftermath of the sponsorship scandal, empowerment is out – containment is in.

Thankfully, Reg Alcock (the original) would fight back with reformist tendencies. The scope of private-public partnerships is to be widened and vigorously pursued, he would claim, and the public service must be allowed to manage, once the proper tools and systems are in place. As for the sponsorship scandal, well, the Auditor General’s heart is in the right place, but she just might have been a bit over-zealous…

What are we to make of these oscillating tendencies of one of the federal Government’s most important ministers? Clearly, one interpretation is by and large reactionary, as Alcock and the rest of Paul Martin’s government struggle with the fallout of the sponsorship scandal that the Prime Minister himself underscored as endemic of a governance breakdown in need of rectification.

Indeed, the Prime Minister has shown remarkably little faith in his public service. Upon taking office, Martin spoke of “giving clear direction to the bureaucracy” in order to plot his own priorities – and his own path to re-election. Re-allocation of spending dollars would feature prominently in the budget, music to the ears of financial guardians at Treasury Board who have had quite enough of departmental freedom and so-called modern comptrollership (an oxymoron if there ever was one, some would claim).

And what of online government and e-democracy? In the past, at least the president of the Treasury Board could have clung to a certain status as minister responsible for Government OnLine (GOL). Now, however, much of the GOL apparatus is headed elsewhere.

Such moves are consistent with a government intent on reining in spending, reducing waste and reasserting control. Treasury Board, in this scenario, emerges from its impossibly contradictory role of chief guardian and innovation advocate, adopting the former as its mission. For its president, authority and discipline – in order to align the machinery for the only person more senior than him

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