Wacky games used as morale boosters in Privy Council
Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves from the cabin of an engine at Electro-Motive Diesel in London, Ont. on Wednesday, March 19, 2008. (Frank Gunn / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
OTTAWA - Several hundred of the prime minister's staff donned full combat gear, pretended to visit an Afghan village, and sucked on name tags using straws in a zany day of games meant to build morale.
The so-called Amazing PCO Race, referring to the Privy Council Office, included other challenges only a bureaucrat could relish: balancing a fake budget, spotting errors in bogus briefing notes, and assembling a jigsaw puzzle of cabinet ministers' faces.
Almost 370 public servants in 40 teams collected points for each successful task, with the winners promised a pizza lunch with Wayne Wouters, clerk of the Privy Council.
The "good natured rabble-rousing" took place last Sept. 15, in a radical departure from the usual town hall, held annually to keep bureaucrats pumped about their jobs at the Privy Council Office, the central organ of government and Stephen Harper's own department. More than 1,000 people work in the various sections of the PCO.
Among the madcap challenges, conducted in three government office buildings in downtown Ottawa:
-- Afghanistan Village, Trivia and Puzzle Challenge, in which a member of each team had to put on personal protective equipment and dash through a circuit.
-- Build Your Own Budget, in which participants created a do-it-yourself federal budget "by selecting unpriced items subject to budget constraint."
-- Gearing Up for Combat, where participants were assigned to dress a member of their team in either full Canadian Forces Arctic gear or combat gear. "Points will be based on speed and proper order of wearing the kit."
-- A spy challenge, in which "team members will employ a piece of high-tech equipment used by security and intelligence agencies to complete a highly secretive challenge." The event involved a series of combination locks.
Wacky challenges also included moving apples by fork into a bucket of water, and sucking up name tags using a straw and depositing them on another table. The morning event ended with light refreshments for all.
Documents detailing the funfest were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
The festivities contrast with Harper's image as a stiff, controlling prime minister and stern taskmaster to the public service. Participation in all the events was voluntary.
One of the amazing race teams was made up of senior executives, who soon set a bad example for their employees, the released material indicates.
"We regret to inform that the Executive Team was disqualified for falsifying their score card at one of the challenges," says one report.
Town Halls for staff at the Privy Council Office were inaugurated by the newly elected Tory government in 2006, and have risen in cost from $19,000 in the first year to $42,000 for one held at the posh Westin Hotel on Sept. 13, 2010.
Spokesman Raymond Rivet says the Amazing PCO Race cost just $2,000, and was partly designed to hold down expenses.
The objective for the 2011 "amazing race," based loosely on the popular TV series, was to "foster esprit de corps, participation and interaction among groups," say the released documents.
Rivet says the Afghan Village event "was designed to help staff understand the day-to-day work of Canadian Forces members and civilians deployed in Afghanistan."
And the challenge requiring a team member to dress in combat gear "was to tangibly demonstrate to other PCO staff members aspects of the operating environments that Canadian Forces members operate in and demonstrate military clothing and equipment," Rivet said in an email.
One event, called the "Need for Speed Playbook Challenge," required staff to figure out how to use RIM's new Playbook device, which is not in general use at the Privy Council Office. The challenge was intended "to expose employees to new communications technologies."