Skip to content

GNWT should take more risks

Come on GNWT public servants and ministers, it’s time to take some risks and deliver services the best way you can
Roy Erasmus

Apparently Premier R.J. Simpson wants the GNWT and its staff to take more risks instead of “minimizing the risk to the government.” Yes! Hurrah! Right on! Woohoo!

Simpson was asked in the media what he meant when he said that the GNWT has to “be flexible, have the courage and compassion to embrace risk.”

The premier replied, “I want to empower again the public servants – and the ministers, as well – to put forward policies and to deliver services in a way that does not put at the top of the concerns the risk to the Government of the Northwest Territories.” 

The premier is absolutely right. Too many of our government employees think their first priority is to protect the government and second to provide services. 

Don’t think so? I’ll give you a good example. When I became assistant deputy minister of education, culture and employment (ECE), I soon confirmed that lack of housing for teachers was a huge part of the problem with employing and retaining teachers in the communities.

So, we did an assessment of the problem. Each community reported to us if they had a housing problem for teachers and how many units they needed. That was the easy part.

Next, we approached the NWT Housing Corporation, which is now called Housing NWT, to see if they could build the housing for the teachers. The president, Jeff Anderson, said something like “Sure we can build them. We can bring in the supplies this summer and build all of the teachers’ units to be ready for when school starts the year after.” 

The director leading this did a happy dance.  And, I said “Hallelujah! This means units will be ready in September of the following year and school boards can advertise that they have housing for teachers.” 

But the departments got wind of what we were planning and said we need to form a committee to make sure this is done properly. A committee was formed with representatives from different departments. 

Soon the director who had done a happy dance was almost in tears. “They’re finding all kinds of reasons why we can’t build the units,” she said.

We can’t do that because…

One guy said we can’t do that because community people will complain and another one said local teachers will want housing too. Someone else said other government staff will want new units too.  And one said teachers renting older units will want new housing as well. 

Someone said the NWT Housing Corporation’s mandate is to build houses for people, not for teachers. Then he smugly added that building housing for teachers will get housing authorities mad because it will mean not building some units when we promised.  There were many other reasons I can’t remember.

Finally, the committee agreed ECE and the Housing Corp could not build housing units to attract teachers to the NWT, because it would just make too many people angry at the GNWT. Eschia, take it easy eh.

So what was the solution? They agreed that the housing corp. could make loans available to community people who want to build housing and rent it to teachers. Nice and safe. Nobody gets mad at us and it gives community entrepreneurs an opportunity to make money.

And did that solve the problem for housing for teachers? Well 16 years later, community people are telling me that many teachers still don’t have proper housing! Not cool.

And let me tell you, that is not an isolated incident. This type of thing happens all the time. Every department has people who have good ideas to solve problems. But then they have to consult with other departments and what comes out is sometimes far from what was envisioned or, like the housing for teachers, it doesn’t even happen.

The GNWT has created a monster that stifles the creativity of well-meaning people who want to do good things for Northerners. When you start working for the GNWT, you don’t know about the monster, but soon in meetings where things are discussed you hear, “That’s a great idea, but we can’t do that because Joe Blow will be mad.” The next guy agrees and says, “Yeah and don’t forget about this.” 

It’s almost like a contest to see who can come up with the most reasons why they can’t do things.  And if you don’t watch out, you can get caught up in it too without realizing it. I know I did. At last, a family member said, “It seems that every time we want to do something you come up with reasons why not to do it.” Whoa! Wake-up call.

When I was an MLA, John Todd was a minister and he used to say if you have a good idea, just do it before the staff finds out about it because they will find reasons not to do it. 

And I believe that’s what the premier is talking about when he says, “If we want to deliver a service, the goal should be to deliver the service the best way we can, not to minimize the risk to the government.”

So come on GNWT public servants and Ministers, it’s time to take some risks and deliver services the best way you can.