The old adage that good advice is certain to be ignored is given new meaning in a study that concludes Canada's Defence Department pays almost no attention to what experts and parliamentarians say.

The report, entitled Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, argues that mountains of studies and recommendations from academics and even House of Commons and Senate committees almost never find their way into government policy.

The advice is allowed to collect dust, according to the study being released this week by the defence management institute at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Researchers Douglas Bland and Richard Shimooka paint a picture of combative defence bureaucrats and advisers who pay lip service to suggestions — and then stuff reports into filing cabinets once the media have lost interest.

The study is relevant in light of the recently completed defence review in which former lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie recommended $1 billion in cuts through a radical reorganization of National Defence headquarters.

Documents reviewed

The university study's conclusions are based on a review of thousands of pages of access-to-information documents that suggest senior officials, and even some in uniform, feel obliged to fight criticism of existing government policy.

"In every case under examination, officials provided ministers with the 'truth they wished to hear,"' says an advanced copy of the study obtained by The Canadian Press.

"In the documents examined herein, public servants in DND (and in the senior ranks of the Canadian Forces) obviously chose to facilitate the government's partisan interests rather than challenge their policy choices even in the privacy of the defence minister's office."

Alan Williams, a former assistant deputy minister of defence, says that attitude is one of the reasons Canada is pressing ahead with the F-35 stealth fighter purchase.

In that case, he said, the government and the defence establishment have circled wagons despite plenty of contrary advice and caution from not only outside, but the parliamentary budget officer, who last spring challenged the $16-billion price tag.

A spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay says the department has yet to see the study, but values what it hears from academics.

"What I can tell you is the Department of National Defence has a robust outreach section which engages with numerous academics on issues affecting Canada's security, the defence of North America and Canada's contribution to international missions," communications director Jay Paxton said.

"Further, academics are invited on naval, northern and expeditionary operations to better understand the work of our men and women in uniform, and especially frontline troops."

Official disputes findings

A senior official, speaking on background, took issue with the findings of the study, saying the government did pay heed to the advice it received from Manley commission on the Afghan war. The difference in that case was the blue ribbon panel was assembled specifically to give advice.

The university study also found the pressure to toe the government line sometimes came from the top.

Looking back over a decade of records, the researchers found an instance where a minister who didn't like the contrary advice he received complained directly to the chief of defence staff.

 

'In every case under examination, officials provided ministers with the 'truth they wished to hear.' '— Study

Former Liberal defence minister Art Eggleton, who is now a senator, "chastised Raymond Henault, the CDS, for bringing unwanted views to his attention and demanded the CDS and the offending staff officer apologize for offering to him the truth he did not wish to hear."

The advice most often dismissed out of hand usually comes from House of Commons and Senate committees, both of which often spend months studying issues in detail and hearing from witnesses.

"Are you telling me that all of these senators, members of Parliament, former chiefs of defence staff and seniors, and academic experts didn't get anything right?" one senior official complained to the researchers.

The reflex to ignore Parliament is strong and one of the fundamental reasons that the system is broken, said Williams.

"I think that's one of the most tragic aspects of our system," he said. "These committees are ignored by the department because they're ignored by the minister, because they're ignored by the prime minister."

Unlike the U.S., where committees have real power, both Senate and House of Commons committees in Canada are essentially "make-work projects to keep MPs busy," Williams added.

Nonsense, said the former head of the Senate security and defence committee.

Unsolicited advice

Senator Colin Kenny, a Liberal whose unsolicited advice was a thorn in the side of successive Liberal and Conservative governments, rhymed off several instances where mandarins eventually paid attention to what his committee said.

The problem was it took time and consistent pressure, including regular newspaper op-eds, to drive the point home, he said.

"They don't listen at first, and if you persist long enough and they figure out you're not going to go away, eventually they do listen," Kenny said.

Whether it was dealing with wounded veterans, helicopters or improved surveillance equipment, Kenny insisted, the committee was able to persuade the government to do the right thing.

The report recommended that academics who want to make an impact on the department should make their advice public and hope the resulting media attention will sway some minds.