Why does the press always confuse malfeasance with incompetence?

Posted on October 13, 2010

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There are many reasons why I love talking with my friends from the world of traditional media who call me on occasion to provide feedback regarding the ongoing machinations associated with public sector procurement policy and practice within the Canadian Government (GoC).

To start, they are invariably well informed, eager to dig up the facts and relentless in their pursuit of a story.  About the only criticism I would have is their persistent belief that malfeasance versus incompetence is at the heart of the trail of failed initiatives that mar the highway of past GoC purchasing programs.

Just today I received a call from my favorite CBC Radio on-air personality Julie Ireton who is pursuing a story regarding the collaborative exchange of personnel between the private and public sectors, and the possibility that said exchanges create a ripe environment for unwarranted influence in terms of the awarding of what are usually large contracts.

In particular, she had indicated that she had talked with the former Executive Director, Chief Information Officer, Treasury Board of Canada, Secretariat Bob Mornan a day earlier, and without disclosing any specific details made reference to my July 26th, 2010 piece (Procurement ombudsman says Federal buying policy unwittingly helping to create monopolies) to determine if I held the belief that Mornan used his position to unduly influence GoC decision-making.

It is true that I had referred to Mornan as being part of a tightly knit group of ex-IBMer’s which included the likes of Ken Cochrane and Dan Belanger.  It is also true that I expressed the opinion that this “oligarchical fraternity” intentionally surrounded themselves with sycophants or alternatively politically adept, practically neutered players such as Jamie Pitfield in an effort to garner support for poorly devised initiatives.  However, my inclination was (and still is) based on the belief that their actions were more the result of incompetence rather than being part of a self-serving nefarious plan.  In essence they reminded me more of the Keystone Cops than the well-oiled crime machine of a Don Corleone.

The Government of Canada's ex-IBMers Club

Along this line of thinking, I have on more than one occasion expressed the opinion that true transparency in government procurement is based on the acknowledgment that people deal with whom they know, like and trust – which becomes even more critical as the stakes increase.  The fact that Mornan was part of a well established network of former IBMers charged with overseeing a high profile initiative is therefore not the problem.  After all, I may not care who is behind the counter at my corner store when I go to buy a carton of milk, but I am sure going to make certain that I deal with someone I trust if I am going to buy a house, so surrounding yourself with individuls with whom you are most familiar is a logical move.

Unfortunately, those who made the decision to bring Mornan, Cochrane et al into the government camp obviously made a huge mistake, just as they did with selecting David Marshall to head up the Way Forward initiative.  In Marshall’s case, and according to insiders, he fumbled the proverbial ball during his leadership tenure at the CIBC prior to joining the government.  File this one under the what were they thinking category.

This being said with 85% of all eProcurement initiatives failing to achieve the expected results globally, one could easily point the abuse of power finger in the direction of almost any government.  Therefore, it would make far more sense to conclude that these failures are not part of a massive conspiracy, but instead are a reflection of the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) generation’s ultimate inability to navigate the complex and at times convoluted waters of the public sector procurement world.

In short, it isn’t a crime to be incompetent, it’s just frustrating.  Thankfully, the next generation is coming up to the plate, and I have a feeling that they will fair much better than their predecessors.

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