Sunday, March 30, 2014

Forms: a Canadian fetish

With some 3.6 million "civil servants" on the Canadian employment rolls,  approximately 1 in 4 adult workers "working for the government" in some capacity, there can be little doubt that flowing from such a cadre of workers comes a cataract of cover-your-ass forms that are quickly strangling everything from health care to education to public safety to garbage collection, and social policy.
I recently heard a story from one of those 3.6 million that went something like this:
I was attempting to complete arrangements for a procedure that required several offices sign-off in order to be scheduled. When I forwarded the required information to one department, I received an e-mail informing me that I had not submitted the "orange form" that was absolutely required in order for the procedure to be entered in that department's scheduling program on their computer. Since I had never even heard of the "orange form" I began to investigate its purpose and source, so that I might comply with this specific requirement. When I finally discovered where I might acquire such a form, I was told, by one of that department's workers, 'We have a form but it is not orange, but here it is nevertheless!' So upon retrieving the form (merely an ordinary white bond paper form) I proceeded to enter the requisite details onto the form by hand, (since I did not wish to elevate its importance by scanning it and entering the information digitally) and marched it over to the department that had originally demanded it. "There is your precious 'orange form'," I coldly told the recipient. "Now can the procedure be scheduled for Tuesday, as required?
Once, while working in the U.S. I learned of a program initiated by the regional office to support outlying divisions through a support program geared to growth production. As one who considered it an integral part of my job description to generate growth in the division for which I was responsible, I approached the head-office 'head' of development, thinking and believing that, having initiated such a program, and expecting there to be several applicants for the assigned sum of program cash, that "head" would have had his office staff prepare an application form, in order to enumerate the details of both the current status of each applicant and the projected growth that the program was targeted to achieve. In that way, applicants could and would be evaluated, and awards of the support program could and would be allocated proportional to their need and prospects for achievement. I was first greeted with the comment, "Oh yeah, you're from Canada, I forgot, so I had better draw up a form for you!" When I completed the relatively simply form and submitted it for review, I waited what I thought was a reasonable time for a response and then called the 'head' of development, asking what was going on with the program, and whether or not he had reviewed our application. "I lost your form when we moved offices," he replied, as if to confirm his initial negative response to my original request for a form. I never heard of the program, nor of its specific application to any of the struggling regional divisions, nor, of course, to any of the successes which might have authenticated its original purpose. The program was nothing but hot air from a newly appointed 'head of development' (friend of the CEO) that allegedly provided a newsletter headline to indicate his own grasp of the need for such a program, without any intention of walking the talk.
The sheer scope and magnitude of the "form fetish" (many would call it a national addiction) in the Canadian bureaucratic culture, has to have some value in requiring those responsible for policy design and those responsible for implementation to be able to point to some "value" for their pay cheques at the end of the government's fiscal year. (And, of course, this statement applies to the national government in Ottawa as well as to the various provincial governments.) Some method of monitoring the impact of all of those juicy and chic lunches for all of those middle and high-ranking public servants and the conversations that take place in all of those swanky restaurants, all of them on the public tab, has to be found and sustained, so that those in power, the elected masters, can and will demonstrate their effectiveness when it comes time for a cabinet shuffle, or more importantly, when the election rolls around and the campaign needs talking points to demonstrate value and the virtue of re-election of incumbents.
However, that process turns upside down the way government is supposed to work. It is primarily to serve the needs of the public, not to serve the needs of those elected to carry out public policy. And the forms, (so irritating in their very existence and so complicating in their interruption and often obstruction of the kind of process that would be greased far more effectively and efficiently by the establishment of trust among and between professional colleagues,) exist, and grow in number and in significance as the process has shifted to serve the power needs of those holding the levers of authority (and presumably responsibility) in demonstrating their value to either supervisors or voters.
We have become a country of forms designed to be filled by those who report to the people designing the forms, who in turn, can demonstrate to their superiors just how effective they are in carrying out the directives of those supervisors. In other words, 'covering-your-ass' (CYA) has become more important than the generation of policies and procedures that would and could bring more attentiveness of the spending of public money on the legitimate needs of the public. And we all wonder just how much pressure from the weight of this blizzard of both hard copy and digital "forms" the economy, not to mention the hierarchical systems which have come to require these forms, can bear. We are a nation with a considerable natural resource base of forests, streams, lakes rivers and even access to oceans. Paper production has been one of the staples of our manufacturing capacity, forests being so readily and easily and cheaply available. However, just as Canada consumes more water per capita than any other country on the planet (once again given our abundant supply, historically) we also are far more dependent on "forms" from paper from trees than any other country on the planet.
And, addiction to forms effectively strangles our collective thought process, as well as our management effectiveness, including our capacity and willingness to discuss face to face with all levels of the organization chart, approaches to achieve the goals of the organization. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address took a mere three minutes to articulate, after years of reflection, war and the  loss of life. Yet, its effect was monumental for many reasons, one of those being its crystal-clear simplicity.
People who do what they say they are going to do as demonstrated in their footprints, hardly need those forms to justify their pay nor their value to the organization. People who prevaricate, who pontificate, who preen their political feathers in the service of their career advancement will consistently require those forms. And the more we inculcate the need for forms the more we will continue to develop in our new hires, and in our developing student population, a capacity to cover your ass, and not to initiate new ideas, propose new ways of doing business, and new benchmarks by which to judge the success of the enterprise, regardless of the arena of practice.
Forms depend on obsequiousness (false servility to power) and both depend on the neurosis of our leaders. And a country whose bureaucracy is infected with an epidemic of fawning, and a hierarchy of neurotics is a country unworthy of participating with integrity and authenticity on the world stage.
And if our institutions perpetuate this march of the forms, and this genuflecting of the peons, and this neurosis of the leaders as if they were normal and our only option, then where will our break-through ingenuities come from? Certainly not from our education systems.
Someone once said, "When you scratch an American, you find a salesman underneath; when you scratch a Canadian, you find a civil servant underneath!" ...(and probably suffocating under a blanket of unread forms!)

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