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Ottawa in Bohemia
By Paul Wilson
Photographs by Tomki Nemec

Edvard Outrata’s career as a StatsCan bureaucrat taught him that politicians were akin to monkeys. Then he returned to his native Prague on a mission to Canadianize the Czech civil service — and unleashed the primate within.

WHEN EDVARD OUTRATA STEPPED OFF a Czech Airlines flight from Montreal at Prague’s Ruzyne Airport one morning in April 1993, he saw a new world in the making. The old airport, once a shabby provincial outpost of the Soviet empire handling a few half-filled flights a day, was now teeming with travellers.While waiting for his luggage, Outrata perused Lidové noviny, a Prague daily once suppressed by the Communists. A prominent front-page item caught his eye: the chief statistician of the Czech Republic had resigned amid allegations of political interference. It was a routine story in the new democracy, but not to Edvard Outrata. He smiled to himself, tucked the paper under his arm and went to collect his bags. He could scarcely believe his luck.

Outrata was 56 and had just taken early retirement after 24 years as a civil servant at Statistics Canada. A systems analyst, he had arrived in Canada from Czechoslovakia in 1968 with his wife, Jana, shortly after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. He’d worked his way up at StatsCan to become director general of informatics — a department with several hundred employees that designs and services the agency’s computer systems. When the Velvet Revolution swept Czechoslovakia’s communist rulers aside in 1989, Outrata, like many of his exiled countrymen, began thinking of ways his Canadian experience could benefit his newly liberated homeland. In recent years he had visited Prague frequently; this time he was returning for good. When he saw that morning headline, he thought, Surely I can lend my country a hand right about now. He had no idea what a mark he would leave upon it, or how it would mark him.

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, the collapse of totalitarianism in Europe produced a euphoric tidal wave of regime change, the biggest in modern history. But the sudden liberation from 40 years of political and economic repression also brought with it the sudden unleashing of every imaginable human vice. As new governments struggled to establish legitimate rule, crime rates soared. Bribery and corruption flourished, and whole economic sectors teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Moreover, ugly manifestations of racism and nationalism appeared and, in places like Yugoslavia, led to open warfare. At times it seemed the only asset these fledgling democracies held was their citizens’ determination to create something that, however flawed, would be better than what they had known.

I first met Edvard Outrata in 1990 at a party in Prague, just one week before the country’s first free elections in four decades. Everyone was drinking and smoking and talking excitedly about how the polls were shaping up. The stakes were high, and people were nervous. In this gathering, Outrata stood out. Dressed more formally than most in a suit and tie, he moved easily from group to group, radiating affability and confidence. He’s of middling height, with white hair, a ruddy complexion, bright eyes and a ready laugh.

He also stood out for the uniqueness of his opinions. Speaking English with a cultivated British accent of uncertain provenance, he held forth about the vital importance of “good government” to the future of the country. I was taken aback. I’d been hearing that phrase all my life — it’s part of the Canadian holy trinity, after all, along with “peace”and “order”— but I had never heard it uttered by a Czech, and I never imagined it would have any cultural resonance here. Outrata told me that Prague was now crawling with carpetbaggers offering the Czechs advice — most of it rather dubious — about how their new democracy ought to run its business and political life. Yet no one ever mentioned the civil service, or understood how bad the current one was, or how important it was to fix it. Then,without a trace of self-importance, he told me he intended to do something about it.

That encounter stayed with me. Back in Toronto a few months later,while I was working on a campaign to raise money to support Lidové noviny (the former dissident newspaper, now struggling to survive in a market environment), I called Outrata in Ottawa and asked if he’d contribute an essay outlining his ideas to a special edition of the paper. He responded immediately with a 10-page, single-spaced manifesto entitled “An Independent Civil Service.” In it, he argued that if democracy was to take root again in Czechoslovakia, the country had to put a professional, independent civil service in place quickly, deliberately and systematically, if possible drawing on the experience of other countries. By that, Outrata meant Canada.

Lidové noviny ran a condensed version of Outrata’s article, and then, for several years, I lost track of him. From time to time, stories about him would filter through the grapevine: his wife had returned to Czechoslovakia to reclaim her family property, and he had gone to join her; she had failed in her bid, but they stayed anyway; he had managed to get a posting in the Czech civil service. Then, when I was in Prague in early 2003, I heard he’d got himself elected to the Czech Senate. Given his passion for administration, this struck me as an odd career move. I decided to find out how he had fared in his scheme to transplant Canada’s public service model to his native land.

IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC, history never really goes away. Whenever there’s a radical change in the system — something that has happened at least five times in the past century — the new reality, instead of sweeping away the old, builds on top of it, leaving many of the older structures and traditions to work their subtle influence on the new. The Czech Senate, first elected in 1996, occupies three meticulously renovated baroque palaces on either side of a narrow street just below the Prague Castle, one of the oldest quarters of the city. The country’s newest democratic institution is housed in the sumptuous Prague residences once belonging to the aristocratic families that ruled Bohemia as a feudal state. The Senate chamber is permanently housed in the former stables of the Wallenstein Palace. And while the furnishings and electronics are state of the art, the seating arrangement is straight out of the days of communism, when the Politburo sat imperiously facing delegates who cowered in their seats like schoolchildren and voted as they were told. In such a place, it is easy to believe that some of the old habits of mind may have survived along with the architecture.

Senator Outrata welcomed me at his offices in the Kolowrat Palace across the street. Though I hadn’t seen him for more than a decade, he was still his ebullient self, his white hair thinner, the laugh lines around his eyes deeper. He introduced me to each member of his staff (a gesture that still hasn’t caught on with many Czech officials), then ushered me through high French doors into a meeting room, where we sat at a small round tea table. While an assistant served us coffee, he told me that during his visits to Prague in the early 1990s, while he was still working at StatsCan, he realized that in matters of governance, things in Prague were getting worse.

Under the Soviet system, Outrata explained, all major political decisions were made in the Politburo and the Secretariat of the Communist party,while the job of what we would understand as the “government” — usually referred to simply as the “cabinet”— was merely to carry out the party’s political directives. This, in effect, turned cabinet ministers into civil servants who were responsible only to the party hierarchy. In a Westminster-style democracy, by contrast, it’s the cabinet that makes the political decisions, and the ministers are responsible, ultimately, to the electorate. In Outrata’s view,what lay at the dark heart of communist rule in Eastern Europe was a simple but diabolical administrative reversal.

“When power was taken away from the Politburo in 1989,” he explained, “the cabinet retained its powers of actually running the civil service, but it added the political powers that are natural for a cabinet in a democratic country.” That meant that ministers still maintained total control of their ministries, including the power to hire and fire personnel, right down to the janitor. Not only did this provide ample opportunity for cronyism and corruption, but with each change of minister — a frequent occurrence — there would be a highly disruptive change of personnel, often setting the ministries’ work back months, if not years. “In fact,”Outrata said with a hearty laugh,“it was even worse than it was under communism.” He paused to see how I would absorb this piece of unconventional wisdom, then explained:“Even in the worst Communist times, the techniques for running the government worked quite well. Surprisingly, there was a clear understanding of the difference between a political and an administrative action. Those who joined the civil service after 1990 completely confused the two things.”

He now spoke with the air of someone reaching back to first principles. “The political professions and the administrative professions require a completely different set of talents. The politician, basically, has to persuade people that what the government is doing is what they want, and to modify what the government is doing at the point when the people are no longer satisfied.”

He paused for a sip of coffee. “That, of course, demands a certain type of person.You go into politics if you’re fascinated by your ability to change people’s minds. Politicians usually can’t sit down and do a proper day’s work. What they do is go around telling everybody how things are going to be, enthusing them in one fashion or another. And you have an enormous amount of testosterone going into your veins. In that, actually, politicians have a lot in common with the primates.”Outrata laughed.

“Now,” he continued, “you need this type of monkey running the place. On the other hand, such people, typically, can’t actually run anything. They need managers. So you have a second type of professional, who doesn’t mind not getting the honours for what he does, publicly. These are people who can effectively do anything,who don’t much care whether they are helping to create a big heavy state or privatizing everything. The political goal of what the professional civil servant is doing is not as relevant as how to do it effectively. These are two completely different talents, different goals. A state works well when both do their best.”

And that, he said, was the crux of what was wrong with the governing structures in the Czech Republic. The primates were trying to run everything.

Matters became even more complicated after January 1, 1993, when Czechoslovakia divided to become the Czech and Slovak republics. The federal ministries had to be dismantled and their assets and employees redistributed to the Czechs and Slovaks. The split took a particularly difficult toll on the statistical offices, prompting the resignation of the Czech chief statistician — and the headline that greeted Outrata at the Prague airport that April. Seven weeks later, as a man with no political baggage, he was appointed chief statistician. And so Edvard Outrata was thrust into the limelight, the head of an important government department in dire need of a major overhaul.

OUTRATA’S LIFE HAS BEEN BLESSED by good timing. His father, also named Edvard, was running Czechoslovakia’s largest arms manufacturer when the country was overrun by the Nazis in 1939. In addition to keeping the company’s liquid assets (along with plans for what later became the Bren gun) out of German hands, he managed to whisk Edvard Jr. — three at the time — and his mother to the safety of the English countryside.

Outrata says he never felt at home anywhere quite as much as he had in England during the war. It was where he learned his basic values. “Even as a child, I subjected my personal needs to what, at any time, I considered a higher goal,” he told me.“I learned to be open and not to cheat, and to trust.”

From the age of six, he attended a Czech boarding school in Shropshire. He hated it, but his parents had told him it was his patriotic duty to go, so he buttoned his lip and kept his discontent to himself. “While I must say everybody did their best to give me a good childhood,” he concluded, “I hated being a child, and desperately tried to exercise my own independence.”

When the war ended in 1945, the family returned to Prague, where his father became a top civil servant in the new postwar Czechoslovak government. For nine-year-old Edvard, the homecoming was a shock. A cult of cheating had become widespread among his Czech peers. “You really lost status if you couldn’t take a tram without paying,” he said, “and if you knew the answer and your friend did not during a test, it was your absolute duty to pass the information on.” Grown-ups muscled their way into queues — something the British never did. “Everyone was ordering me about, while at the same time assuming that I was somehow trying to cheat. It really was hell.”

There was worse to come. Three years later, in 1948, the Communists took power. When the purges began in the early 1950s, his father was arrested, tortured and imprisoned. (He was given an early release for health reasons, and died in 1958, unrepentant.) Edvard, meanwhile, managed to continue his studies, in part, he believes, because of the kindly indulgence of some guiltstricken party functionaries who admitted him to university despite his “bourgeois” background and his father’s fallen status. He graduated from Prague’s University of Economics in 1959 with the equivalent of a master’s degree and eventually found work in one of the most forward-looking institutions to survive the communist takeover, the Research Institute for Mathematical Machines, where the first computer in continental Europe was built. Outrata worked there until the summer of 1968.

That experience served him well when he and Jana, along with thousands of others, landed in Canada following the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. He got his first job in the burgeoning private computer industry. Nine months later, he moved to the Dominion Bureau of Statistics.

According to Donald Savoie, whose most recent book, Breaking the Bargain, looks at the changing face of the Canadian civil service, the year Outrata became a Canadian civil servant — 1969 — was the tail end of a golden age of public administration in this country. It was a time when civil servants, though modestly paid, were motivated by “a profound belief that public service was a civic virtue, a vocation.” Savoie likens their world to a “village,” and while the bureaucracy was “small, male-dominated, elitist and conservative,” he says,“it was effective.”For Outrata, it was “like paradise.”

He could hardly have landed in a better place. According to chief statistician Ivan Fellegi, who has been with the statistical department since the late 1950s, Statistics Canada has always been unique among Canadian federal ministries. Citizens and businesses, which provide private information in censuses and surveys,must have confidence that the data will not fall into the wrong hands. The department’s methods must be public, and if it is to be trusted its figures must be kept free from interference — especially politically sensitive ones such as unemployment or inflation. StatsCan officials are famously prickly with politicians. Fellegi rarely talks to his minister.

One of Outrata’s early tasks was to help develop software that Fellegi described as being “very visionary for that time, designed to provide unlimited capacity for custom-designed, ad hoc retrieving from the census.” From there, Outrata went on to become head of computer operations and systems development, with ultimate responsibility for the security of the databases. “By the time he left in 1993,” Fellegi said, “that branch was, and still is, the lifeblood of this agency.”

Mel Turner, who was named director general of informatics in July 1999, regards Outrata as one of his mentors. “His greatest skill was to work with people,” Turner told me in his corner office (once occupied by Outrata) on the 13th floor of the R.H.Coats building in Ottawa, with a magnificent view of the Gatineau Hills across the Ottawa River. “He was particularly famous for taking people to lunch. Edvard, I think literally every day, would be out at a local restaurant with somebody, and copious volumes of wine were drunk. And I think he had an excellent sense of what was going on, not just in his own department, but across the whole organization.”

Turner pointed out the window at the highrise apartment building a couple of kilometres to the west where the Outratas used to live. “Has anyone told you about the Thursday evenings?” he asked.

On the first Thursday evening of every month, the Outratas held an open house. The crowd was eclectic, with people from government, the arts and beyond. Jana — who worked as a systems analyst for StatsCan — would sometimes serve food from the wild, such as mushrooms she had gathered in the parks of Ottawa. “We always hoped she knew what she was doing,” Turner said. “And they would have jugs and jugs of sangria. For those who didn’t want sangria, Edvard would mix you a martini.”

The Outratas were serious music lovers, and later moved to an apartment in downtown Ottawa so that, among other reasons, they could be within walking distance of the National Arts Centre. But Outrata’s favourite topic was history.“I’m a history buff myself,”Fellegi told me,“but I’m just a nonentity compared to him.” Mel Turner said that Outrata could turn his knowledge, almost by sleight of hand, to practical use. “You might come into his office angry about something that was going on, and by the time you left, you hadn’t talked much about the problem, but you’d have had a whole long discussion about some event in European history that would, in some obscure way, relate to whatever personnel problem you’d come in to discuss. At the end of that, you had a solution.”

IN THE SIX YEARS THAT OUTRATA served as president of the Czech statistical office, his administrative abilities were frequently abetted by his political skills. His office was located in a shabby industrial quarter of Prague, in a nondescript two-storey building of American design erected in 1946. “It was so similar to Statistics Canada’s No. 5 and No. 8 temporary buildings in that I had the laugh of my life when I first went there,” he said. It was here that Outrata undertook the job of turning the Czech statistical office into a model of its kind — over the reticence of his employees and the designs of his political masters.

In addition to creating some badly needed trust among his staff, he also had to establish a clear distinction between unwarranted political interference and legitimate requests. “The government can tell me that the detail of certain figures is not enough,” he said.“What they mustn’t be telling me is that I should delay the publication of a statistic to suit them.”

To deflect such political pressure,Outrata introduced a deceptively simple solution: the calendar. He let it be known, well in advance, the exact date — down to the hour — when certain statistics would be published. Without such a schedule, Outrata says, he would have exposed himself to influence from politicians who might prefer to publish crime statistics, unemployment figures or trade deficit numbers only after their re-election.“With a calendar,” he said,“the politicians have to live with what I’ve done.”

On the surface the calendar was a mere administrative device, but in fact it was a direct challenge to cabinet’s existing powers.Eventually it was put to the test. “They managed to call an election for the day — it was a Friday in June — that we were scheduled to publish the monthly inflation figures. I got one call from a minister who wondered why the hell I was trying to influence the election. I gently reminded him that the calendar had been in his hands since the previous November. He accepted that with no further comment, but had I had no calendar to refer to, I’d have been in trouble.”

By 1996, the Czech Republic was a candidate to join the European Union. This turned out to be a great boon to reformers like Outrata. He used the governance standards set by the EU as both carrot and stick to enforce the notion of a statistical office independent of political pressure. By the late 1990s, Outrata had brought his department up to European standards and had steered the Statistics Act through Parliament.

Though his job was apolitical, Outrata was unable to suppress his love of politics. With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he told me that as head of the statistical office, he attended nearly every meeting of the Czech cabinet. But wasn’t that a violation of the very separation of politics and public administration he was fighting for? It was a practice left over from the communist era, he replied. “I saw immediately that the practice was wrong, but I liked going to those meetings.And nobody was questioning it. So when I pushed through the Statistics Act, I allowed the provision to stay. I knew I was sinning, but it would have taken this big fun from me, and that would have been a pity.” He grinned like a schoolboy who’d got away with a harmless prank.

Outrata’s final act as head of the Czech statistical office was to resign. But to entrench his office’s independence, it had to be at a time of his choosing. When a change of government came, he resisted the inevitable pressure to vacate his post for a patronage appointee. A year later, in the fall of 1999, he voluntarily stepped down, retaining the right to approve, if not directly choose, a successor. The choice was Maria Bohata, a former head of the Czech chapter of Transparency International, the anti-corruption organization that issues report cards on countries around the world. Outrata was delighted, calling her a woman of high probity with a keen understanding of the need for independence in the office. She was also one of the Czech government’s keenest watchdogs: Transparency International had consistently given the Czech Republic some of the poorest marks of any country in Europe.

Outrata now planned — again, naively — to retire. “I was a pensioner,” he said. “I was 64 at the time, and I was going to enjoy it. But…” he paused. “There was still one thing I hadn’t achieved.” That one thing was the adoption of a new civil service act, one that would bring the badly needed reforms to the entire public service, not just one agency. It was the reason Outrata had come home in the first place.

And so, to put his mark on the new civil service act, Edvard Outrata went into politics. In November 2000, he ran for the Senate in a Prague constituency and won. (Senatorial elections are held every two years for a third of the Senate’s 81 seats. The winner holds the seat for six years.) Once elected he managed, despite strong opposition, to enshrine in the new act the concept of a non-political, non-partisan deputy minister as the administrative head of each ministry and department. “Fortunately,” he said, “in Europe all civil services are like in Canada. So it wasn’t hard for me to push it through, but it was my idea and probably they would not have done it otherwise.” In the end the act — all 167 pages of it — was passed in May 2002. Unfortunately, Outrata said, the Czech Parliament then voted to delay its implementation, probably out of fear that the government in power would immediately appoint its own people to key civil service posts and thus lock the positions up for a generation. To this day the act exists on paper, but is not yet in force.

LAST SEPTEMBER, my wife and I called on the Outratas in their Prague apartment. They live on the top floor of a 90-year-old three-storey building that has recently been restored without losing any of its peculiar prewar ambience. It’s within easy walking distance of the Senate and the Rudolfinum, one of Prague’s premier concert halls. Their home is filled with memorabilia, and the walls are resplendent with bright paintings, many of which they bought in Canada.

Outrata welcomed us with a barrage of martinis served in tiny glass teacups, and Jana served us a delicious meal concocted mostly of things she had grown. There was no sangria, but the wine flowed freely. Outrata had just returned from Kazakhstan, where he’d gone to monitor elections as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, another pan-continental entity that has survived the Cold War. “I love to go to these places,” he confessed. “In Belorussia, I actually caught a fraud. I found them out!” He said this with a yelp of such pure delight that I suddenly realized how much Edvard Outrata truly enjoys — not just appreciates, but savours, relishes — all manifestations of human nature, both good and bad, without being unduly depressed or discouraged by civilization’s obvious failures, or his own.

As for the civil service act,“that’s the big disappointment,” he said. He told me there was an upcoming vote to postpone its implementation yet again. “This time I’m going to vote against the postponement, and I’m going to make a fiery speech in the Senate.”

Outrata eventually gave his fiery speech last November 11. The civil service, he told the Senate, is “the part of our transformation process that has not yet been completed, and I see a kind of conspiracy running from one end of the political spectrum to the other not to finish it. Do you politicians really believe that you’re better off if you can manipulate the personnel in your offices? I tell you that you’re far worse off, because you won’t get expert help where you need it; you’ll get help from your buddies who’ve already long ago told you everything they have to say…We are returning to the level we thought we’d escaped in 1989. Do we really intend to remain stuck there?”

Fiery speech or not, the Senate would ultimately vote to postpone the act’s implementation until 2007. Before we left his house that night, I asked him if, after all his efforts, both as a civil servant and as a politician, he felt disheartened.

“At the level of personal satisfaction, I do think I should have done a little better in the case of civil service reform. We’re far behind in the civil service reforms, and it’s dragging the country down. In that sense, it’s been a failure. I contributed what I could, but you can’t go beyond a certain point.” He paused. “But I surely had much better fun than I would have had in Canada. In Canada I would have been, to this day, probably, head of computing in Statistics Canada. I would have stopped two generations of my subordinates from rising in the ranks, and I would have a very quiet life. Here I have had much more fun, and I may have contributed. We’ll see.” And he laughed heartily and poured everyone another drink.



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