Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Newfoundland Government–Headed For the Garbage Can

There is a garbage culture out there, where we pour garbage on people. Then the pollsters run around and take a poll and say, do you smell anything? - Bob Woodward

I have been inundated with emails, comments (only a few have been approved yet), threats and just about everything else as a result of my blog post The Power of the Four-Poster Interview, where I describe allegations of inappropriate behavior on the part of Newfoundland and Labrador Government Minister Joan Shea and some questionable public service appointments that may have been influenced by her.

As Premier Dunderdale’s Government continues to slide into oblivion in the polls, I’ve got some bad news for people who assume that a new government will automatically be better.

Here’s why.

The diagram below demonstrates a very simplified view of an organizational theory known as organized anarchy – a view of how bureaucracies (including governments) tend to operate.


Organized anarchy is also known as garbage can theory.

Here’s how it works, expressed in an extremely simplified form and expanding on John Kingdon’s original “three streams” theory.

In making decisions, large bureaucracies often rely on five key elements:

  • A random collection of problems, some new but many old and still unresolved
  • A random collection of pre-canned or partially completed solutions, including policy, legislation, responses to external events, etc.
  • Feelings looking for opportunities in which they might be aired or leveraged
  • A random collection of participants at different times that may include voters, politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, other governments, corporations and anyone else with an interest in the affairs of the government.
  • Random windows of opportunity when it would be useful to produce an action such as pass legislation, promote policy, react to external events, announce partnerships, etc.

While people believe that politicians are actually taking prioritized, meaningful, wilful action in response to pressing issues, they are in fact submitting themselves to the Russian Roulette process of garbage can theory.

What comes out of the garbage can in terms of results is largely dependent on what is in the garbage can at the moment.

In essence you have a collection of pre-canned solutions looking for problems, problems looking for solutions, people looking to be busy with something and feelings looking for causes  …. with the notion that any given moment in time might prove to be a good time to bring all these elements together (as long as they are in the garbage can at that moment) to produce something of value.

Now in truth, there are ways to influence the results of the garbage can process, where people with specific skills can guide the result somewhat coherently but there is never a guarantee of total control or perfect predictability of the outcome.

But as I look at the leaders in place right now within the Government, I am not sure that any of those present within the elected ranks have the skills to actually be that guiding influence.  Bullies, people not familiar with the process, people who rely on luck and (with apologies in advance)  people who are not that bright cannot be considered candidates for success in this arena.

And you know what they say about “garbage in, garbage out”.

Which leads me to a second problem that the Government has … or maybe it’s a problem that the electorate has.

Politicians can only be successful when they keep two masters happy at the same time, the voter and the bureaucrat, as illustrated below.


The bureaucrat needs the politician to be the buffer between the bureaucrats, with their long-term strategic and tactical intentions for the government remaining mostly unknown to the voter (and therefore not be interfered with by the voter) and the voters themselves with their expectations of the government.

The voter, meanwhile, needs the politician to deliver everything they demand as promised and as soon as possible.

When a politician behaves, he or she is rewarded with the support of the voter at the ballot box and the support of the bureaucrat with information, guidance and the data necessary for the politician to do their job.

When they don’t behave, not delivering what each of the two coalitions (voter-politician, politician-bureaucrat) requires, then the voters and bureaucrats remove their respective support and the politician’s career flatlines.

With voter and bureaucrat needs and intentions often being polar opposites, the politician is left with the near-impossible job of pleasing both masters.  Such a task is akin to balancing a bowling ball on the top of a broomstick - their efforts look very impressive early on but eventually the bowling ball falls, injuring or killing the person who was attempting the impossible balancing act.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, it appears that the politicians in power are rapidly losing control of both coalitions and with that comes inevitable doom for the current government unless the politician, as the link between the two coalitions shown above, can restore confidence with both masters.

The darker truth

The difficulty here is that unless voters and bureaucrats collaborate directly, it doesn’t really matter what government is in power.  Such a coalition is not possible, since what the bureaucrats work on is too complex for voters to understand (and they don’t want voters to interference with their plans) and what the voters want may or may not be in alignment with what the bureaucrats see as the long-term needs of the province.

And so it is difficult to see the win for the voters in the current government or in any subsequent one.

If what matters in any measurable way depends on a conversation between the voter and bureaucrat that will never be allowed to happen (or which is just not feasible) , can it be posited that the comedy and tragedy that is public politics in Newfoundland and Labrador is in fact just theater?

Who knows?

Meanwhile, the Government will continue to play Russian Roulette with the people and with their own political future.

Sadly, when one plays Russian Roulette, one can’t be assured that the hammer will always fall on an empty cylinder.

The real tragedy is ….

When the gun goes off, who is the victim, the Government officials who move on to other plum appointments or the people who are left behind to sort out the mess and wonder what happens next?

In service and servanthood,



  1. As always, well written Harry.

    No doubt the interactions between the many facets of any democratic government are complex and driven by motivations to fulfill promises and meet expectations between voters, politicians and bureaucrats. These interactions depict a schemata created and maintained by human nature at its worst and maybe at times, at its best. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations feeding this representation of government might include: narcissism, greed, arrogance and feelings of self-importance; only sometimes dotted with features of intellect, responsibility, interest in others, desire to improve and solve problems, and perhaps a pinch of honesty and caring. You get my meaning.

    Despite the challenge for politicians to balance expectations, we should as voters and the people who pay MHA salaries and pensions, expect that they are working for us. We expect that our X’s make a difference. So we do expect change; if not change, then a promise that they will do right. Believing that change and responsible decision-making are beyond the reach of our politicians because they might be pulled in two directions…well that just leads to discouragement and then complacency. Is this where we are in NL? Why would I vote? Why bother to exert a voice when things go awry in government, such as when Joan Shea secures political appointments for her boyfriend Terry Styles? Or when she manipulates student grants to accommodate Styles’ out-of-province nephew and her own daughter? Or when she blatantly violates her own Code of Ethics?

    I guess I am mucking around in the garbage can and perhaps my voice will make no huge difference in the scheme of things. Perhaps I will be voicing similar issues and concerns should another party find power. Nevertheless, I will continue to demand more of our politicians in terms of commitment, conduct and character than I have been unfortunate to have witnessed of late.

    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for the good men to do nothing."
    - Edmund Burke

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    I am very intrigued and grateful for your reply.

    I would like to know who shares such deep analysis - please drop me an email in confidence.

    Create a great day.


  3. I read a Twitter by someone wanting your opinion on our present political situation. It brought me here today.

    Which piece of literature made me think more: You're analogy of our government heading toward the garbage can, or the comment written after it? Both are accurate, equally compelling.

    The truth: I really don't feel we are in a democracy anymore. The bureaucrat is as corrupt as the politician representing the people. It's impossible for the politician to control the bureaucrat if they are already out of control from within. They, too, are playing Russian Roulette with the people they look over.

    A father retires from the head of the International Labourers' Union and his son takes over the position with nobody else running. Nobody really cares, for they know it is irrelevant if they 'did' try. They answer the union's phone 'if' and 'when' they care to. There aren't even benefits like a decent site whereby the member can 'really' try to gain/get ahead within this province (their site is actually an American one).

    I try not to be pessimistic, but I fear that such corruption exists too strongly now. The honest person who is trying to truly 'earn' a living will never 'really' get ahead unless they conform to it all!

  4. Hello!

    I've been looking for a diagram to use for my students in an intro to policy class. May I use your image in my lecture slides?


    1. Thanks for the kind comment. I am always honored when people ask if they can use my blog pics for teaching purposes. Providing the picture is not used in a for-profit manner and full credit is cited (my name and either this blogpost or my website -, please feel free to use this picture!

      Take care and create a great day!