Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

The Sledgehammer School of Management

The other day I picked up a sledgehammer and smashed my television. The wife and kids were somewhat surprised. "Honey," my wife said gently. "Why did you do that?" "Didn't like the picture quality," I replied. "But we've had that TV for years and you never said a word about it before," she said. I shrugged. My wife expressed further disgruntlement. So did the kids. I thought they'd shut up about it but they just kept going on and on. It was annoying. "OK," I said. "I'll fix the situation." So I went to the store. "Fix the situation," I told the clerk. The clerk showed me new TVs. "Do these have better picture quality than the TV I smashed?" I asked. "No," he said. "The TV you smashed is the best TV there is. No other TV is its equal. Would you like to buy a new one?" Wow, I thought. This guy's not very sharp. "I'd look pretty stupid if I bought the same TV I smashed," I said. "I want a different TV. But it should be as good as the one I smashed." The clerk frowned. "But I just told you no other TV is as good as the TV you smashed." "I don't care about your problems, buddy, " I said. "Fix the situation." This is how Prime Minister Stephen Harper governs Canada. One day, he picks up a sledgehammer and smashes the census. Without warning. Without discussion. He just smashes it to bits. Asked why, the government says the census is an unacceptable infringement of civil liberty, which is odd given that neither the minister, Tony Clement, nor the prime minister had ever said a word about it before. Canadians protest. Much to everyone's surprise, the census becomes a major political issue. So now Stephen Harper has told Statistics Canada to fix the situation. Other countries do things different ways, Wayne Smith, StatsCan's newly appointed chief statistician told the Globe and Mail on Saturday. For example, some northern European countries don't have a census. They collect data from national registries. "The government wants to step back and say, OK, let's look at those other models: what is possible in Canada?'" This is funny stuff. If you have a black sense of humour. See, what makes registry-based data collection work is - wait for it - mandatory reporting. And not just the modest level of mandatory reporting required by the census. No, with registry-based data systems, every person is given a government ID number, required by law to register a raft of personal data, and further required to constantly notify the government of any change in address, job, family relations, car ownership, etc. And all this information is linked and centralized. In short, anyone who thinks the mandatory census is unacceptably intrusive should find this positively Communist. But Stephen Harper has to replace the television he smashed with something. And it can't be the TV he smashed, after all. That would make him look stupid. Ladies and gentlemen, it's my job to be blunt. So I'll just say it: Stephen Harper is incompetent. I know that's not his reputation. Lots of people accuse him of being ruthless, or an ideologue, but he's usually credited with being a basically competent manager. He doesn't deserve that credit. His government is badly run and incoherent. Promising fiscal conservatism, Stephen Harper spent money like crazy, expanded the federal government, cut taxes, and turned a surplus into a structural deficit (yes, it's structural, as even the International Monetary Fund agrees). He has no real plan for getting the budget back into balance. Most of Harper's key tax policies were horribly designed (economists opposed cutting the GST and want to see the tax code simplified, not larded up with micro-credits). On climate change, he favours command-and-control regulation, not market-based policy (contrary to most expert opinion). His government doesn't even pretend to have evidence that its mandatory minimum sentences reduce crime (heaps of evidence says they don't). His handling of foreign investment issues has been so arbitrary and political that UBS Investment Research recently warned foreign investors "may begin to perceive Canada as not open for business.'" Harper said setting a deadline to end the mission in Afghanistan would endanger the troops. Then he set a deadline. Then he agreed to a new mission without even consulting the military. Harper recently announced by tweet that his government would overturn a decision by the CRTC. Yes, by tweet. It was in keeping with Harper's closed and secretive operating style, and his contempt for Parliament - the latest demonstration of both tendencies being the government's refusal to tell a parliamentary finance committee how much proposed legislation would cost if implemented. Then there's the cronyism. Most recently, Harper announced the new vice-chairman of the CRTC would be a man whose only qualification seems to be his friendship with Harper's spokesman. Perhaps worst of all, Harper has centralized governance to an extent that even the Soviet Central Committee might think unwise. The predictable result is sclerosis. And government by impulse: When reporters asked the PMO about a pardon received by a notorious sex-offender, the prime minister immediately picked up the phone and ordered the justice minister to change the legislation. No investigation of the facts. No discussion. An executive who managed a two- bit toy factory like this would be out on his ear. To be clear, there's nothing wrong with questioning the census or any other status quo. Indeed, it's always good practice to consider the relative merits of alternatives. But as any reasonably competent manager knows, you do that before, not after, you pick up the sledgehammer and smash stuff.