Walkerton – a lesson for all (Editorial)

Stan and Frank Koebel, former manager and foreman of Walkerton’s water utility, will be remembered in Canadian history as a pair of incompetent liars whose actions contributed significantly to the seven deaths and 2,300 E-coli cases in their small Ontario community in May of 2000.

But the report on Walkerton’s tainted-water tragedy, delivered by Justice Dennis O’Connor last month following a lengthy inquiry, also lays responsibility for the E-coli outbreak at the door of Ontario Premier Mike Harris and his government. It paints the picture of a cabinet doggedly pursuing its ideological beliefs — and this is where it turns into a tale of poorly executed change management and a leadership style uninterested in dissenting opinions. Rigid ideology applied to any organization, be it public or private sector, is a recipe for disaster.

Change management is a skill that requires thoughtful planning. The manner in which HR professionals and senior management teams execute change can make or break mergers, downsizings and re-engineering initiatives. The message from Walkerton is that speed, quite literally, kills.

Patience is a difficult virtue, particularly for leaders with the power and authority to implement change. Once a course has been decided on, it is a natural desire to see a successful outcome as soon as possible. But true leadership requires politicians and executives alike to temper their propensity for swift and decisive action with the realities of the day.

In Ontario, budget cutting was based upon an ideology that less government (less staff, fewer regulations) is essential for economic prosperity. The faster the Harris government cut red tape, slashed ministries and privatized functions, the better. In the case of the environment ministry, one-third of staff were let go and water-testing services privatized. That the private labs meant to safeguard Ontario’s drinking water were not given appropriate regulatory requirements — such as passing on failed water sample tests to the government — should be no surprise under Harris’ priority on swift change. O’Connor did not specifically question the decision to privatize labs, rather the haste and manner in which it was done. A thoughtful approach to change management was not in the cards.

Harris has given an apology (of sorts) to the people of Walkerton. “I’m truly sorry for the pain and suffering,” he said, adding, “I, as head of government, and the cabinet, made no reductions in expenditures that we believed would affect the health and safety of any citizen of Ontario.”

It’s not surprising Harris’ cabinet did not believe their actions would affect public health — they had little interest in environmental issues to begin with. And anyone who tried to question the government’s actions and voice concern about the environment’s link to health wasn’t likely to be spending much time in the premier’s confidence. Richard Schabas, Ontario’s former chief medical officer of health, told the Walkerton inquiry that in May 1997 he was sent by the health minister to participate in a cabinet committee meeting examining the reduction of the province’s role in public health. Schabas went prepared to voice his concerns, but was asked to leave the meeting by a Harris aide who said the premier did not want him there.

Schabas went on to portray the premier as a man who had his mind made up about where to cut costs and was not willing to listen to advice. And therein lies the problem with ideology. While a government or corporate leader requires a set of guiding principles, these should not preclude the creation of an environment where dissenting opinion is welcome. A leader blinded by the infallibility of his ideology risks being blindsided by the unexpected.

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