The Politics of Public Management: The HRDC Audit of Grants and Contributions

J.D. McNiven (R.A. Jodrey Professor of Commerce and Professor of Public Administration, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada)

International Journal of Public Sector Management

ISSN: 0951-3558

Article publication date: 1 May 2005



McNiven, J.D. (2005), "The Politics of Public Management: The HRDC Audit of Grants and Contributions", International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 18 No. 3, pp. 293-294.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The HRDC audit scandal of 2000 was the political centerpiece leading up to the Canadian federal election that year. In the end, because of a fractured opposition, it had no perceptible effect on the results, but it did leave some collateral damage. One aspect of that was the bureaucratic career of David Good. Another victim was the nascent implementation of the Canadian version of new public management (NPM).

Good's book, The Politics of Public Management, consists of an unwritten volume and a written one. Throughout the written volume are found obviously painful hints of recollections by a narrator who was there during the crisis, as well as a Postscript consisting of a hypothetical interview with/by Good about what he would have done differently had he only known then what he knows now. Good wrote the book while acting as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Victoria a couple of years after the crisis/scandal.

In any case, the subject here has to be the written volume. Good tries to rise out of his personal pain and look at the scandal in a more academic fashion, marrying a case study to a variety of conceptual frameworks. This makes for an interesting marriage of the empirical and the theoretical.

The scandal itself is fairly straightforward. In a continuing (to 2004) context of political/administrative scandals in Canada, Human Resources Development Canada released the results of an internal “audit” of its vast array of programs, projects and contracts in early 2000. The report showed that many of the projects sampled did not have file information that was required by the department. In spite of the department's intent to show that it was correcting these files, this “audit” was played up by the media as exposing a “billion‐dollar boondoggle” and convulsed the federal political system for most of the year. Good would have us infer that the problem was not what the media and opposition said it was, but, given both a string of prior and subsequent scandalous political revelations, maybe it was what it was.

What makes Good's book interesting and useful is his method of looking at the scandal through a number of theoretical perspectives: institutional; historical; media; crisis management; social policy development; administrative theory (NPM); and the dynamics of reform and reaction. Each perspective gets its chapter and some are better than others. He is especially interesting in the areas of crisis management and the chilling effect that the scandal had on the further implementation of NPM in the Canadian bureaucracy. His personal pain came out most strongly in the chapter on the media, while the chapter on social policy development strikes me as a bit naïve.

It is not surprising that the subjects of Good's best chapters are those he most takes himself to task over in the Postscript. He clearly knows now what he did not then. The internal auditors did a review of the completeness of the files on a sample of the 60‐odd thousand projects, looking for contracts, applications and the like. They did not look at outputs, or results, but only at the proper accounting for inputs, this after the department had begun a well‐publicized effort to implement results‐based management. Big surprise – the job may have been done, but the paperwork suffered. This NPM exercise fell short when measured by the old input standards and in the subsequent media uproar, results‐based management was largely abandoned. Good seems to blame himself for this, since the internal audit function was part of his domain, and the reader is left wondering why the internal auditors were not reoriented toward this new way of doing things. One is also left wondering why the department would choose to have a press conference to release the “audit” in a slow news period that was only some months before an election. Unfortunately, the chill produced by this crisis killed a lot of creative projects.

Good's chapter on crisis management resurrects some useful ideas developed for the Canadian bureaucracy by one of its officials, Peter Meyboom, years ago. Using a 2 × 2 diagram relating different levels of organizational confidence and control over a situation, Meyboom shows how to track the progress of a crisis. Good applies this method to the HRDC scandal. The chapter is a welcome addition to the literature on this subject, which has taken on a greater importance since 9/11. In the past year, the Canadian government has given more attention to crisis and disaster management, but there is still considerable work to be done in terms of planning and training.

Public administration programs generally try hard to marry empirical reality to theoretical concepts. Good makes a valuable contribution to the literature that helps this process along. It is a readable, interesting and comprehensible account even to those who are unfamiliar with the Canadian federation. Though I have never met the author, a basic honesty shines through the book.

Related articles