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SAVOIE: In trying to adapt, public service blurs some lines

['Donald J. Savoie is seen in an undated handout photo. An eminent Canadian political scholar says a Donald Trump presidency could prompt a flow of American political refugees akin to what happened during the Vietnam war.']
Donald J. Savoie. File

Michael Wernick’s resignation as clerk of the Privy Council earlier this week speaks to the challenge confronting senior public servants. Those who accused Wernick of being politically partisan missed the point entirely. Wernick is no more a Liberal partisan than he was a Conservative partisan when he was first appointed deputy minister by a Conservative prime minister.

Bureaucracy-bashing, which began in earnest in Anglo-American democracies in the 1980s, has had a negative and lasting impact on the public service. Senior public servants today stand accused of many, often contradictory, things. Too many bought into the view that senior public servants were running the government and that their deference to politicians was pure pretence. Recall that mirror committees of deputy ministers, designed to sharpen the policy process, were abolished because it was felt that they were taking power away from ministers. Yet public servants were accused of being lethargic and uncreative.

The days of anonymous public servants invisible to Parliament, the media and Canadians are no more. Today, 24/7 cable news, social media and attack dogs happily bring both political and administrative missteps to life, which makes many public servants risk-averse. Senior public servants have become public figures, with their anonymity stripped bare by access to information legislation and new media.

Bureaucracy-bashing, which began in earnest in Anglo-American democracies in the 1980s, has had a negative and lasting impact on the public service.

Senior public servants, at the same time, have tried to answer the call to be more politically sensitive, not wanting to be left behind in shaping policy. They no longer enjoy a near-monopoly on the policy advisory function. They have to compete with political advisers, think-tanks, well-resourced associations and lobbyists. These groups are always at the ready to challenge the advice of senior public servants. Lobbyists are here to promote the interests of their clients and are paid to sell truth, or the truth as their customers see it. There are even lobbyists promoting the interests of the tobacco industry.

Senior public servants have demonstrated that they can be responsive to political will, and like their private sector counterparts, they can be entrepreneurial and able to push to aside obstacles in getting things done for politicians who hold power, starting with the prime minister. They launched various reform exercises, such as PS 2000, and added a new title to the job of the clerk of the Privy Council. The clerk is now also known as deputy minister to the prime minister, in addition to head of the public service and secretary to the cabinet.

In their eagerness to demonstrate that they can be politically responsive, senior public servants may well have blurred the line between appropriate and inappropriate responsiveness. They have become agents of the prime minister or of the government in their day-to-day relations with ministers, in their appearances before parliamentary committees and in their dealings with the media.

Sir Thomas More had this advice for Thomas Cromwell, chief adviser of Henry VIII: “Tell the King what he ought to do, but never what he is able to do.” The advice has stood the test of time. Senior career officials have a duty to advise the prime minister and ministers on what they ought to do. They should leave the responsibility for providing advice on what they are able to do to the growing number of political advisers in the Prime Minister’s Office and ministerial offices. This is a political decision better left to politicians and their partisan advisers.

Michael Wernick has every reason to worry about people “losing faith in the institutions in this country.” Parliamentarians themselves are pointing to weaknesses in their institutions. One former senior cabinet minister told me that “Cabinet has been turned into a focus group for the prime minister.” Forty years of bureaucracy-bashing has taken a toll on the public service, and some public servants have sought to deal with it by demonstrating that they can be entrepreneurial and politically sensitive to the government of the day.

It only takes a moment’s reflection to see that Canada’s future needs healthy institutions. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the public service to a well-functioning representative democracy. Canadians, their politicians and public servants need to debate measures to strengthen the public service with a sense of urgency. I hope that all political parties will address the issue in their campaign platforms and that senior public servants will deal with issues plaguing their institution, including dealing with non-performers. We will all pay a heavy price if we continue to lose faith in our institutions.

Donald J. Savoie is Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at l’Université de Moncton.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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