To Rule Them All

Have Presidents and Prime Ministers Misdiagnosed the Patient?
Donald Savoie
McGill-Queen’s University Press
302 pages

The Government of Canada did not feel the need to create a Department of External Affairs – an office of diplomacy and foreign relations – until 1909. The country had existed for 42 years without one. The newly created department was entirely housed above a barber shop in downtown Ottawa. Five years later the world would descend into the horror of the First World War.

Tell me that’s not the premise of a hit CBC series with a Netflix tie-in. 

Alas, this historical tidbit is the first and only charming fact about the Government of Canada in an entire book woven from the facts. Every other fact piles up as evidence of government bloat, inefficiency, lack of accountability, too much accountability, the wrong sort of accountability, the inability to get anything right. 

Donald Savoie is Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton. Drawing on a lifetime of study, one of the country’s most respected scholars argues with conviction and exasperation that “government” doesn’t work anymore, and things are getting worse. He’s not alone. The guy on the barstool next to you will probably tell you the same thing.

What does Savoie mean by government, and what does he argue has gone wrong?

By government, he means the partisans in power and the civil servants who work for them, until the next crew of partisans takes power. Government is the unsatisfactory union of politics and bureaucracy working, ostensibly together, in the service of the public. Even under the best of circumstances, government is continually pestered in trying to carry out its work by other actors, including the parliamentary opposition, the media, a disapproving public and (in the phrase of Michael Moran) “the culture of instantaneous abuse in social media,” as well as what Harold Macmillan so memorably characterized as “events, dear boy, events.”

The focus of Savoie’s study, however, is not the external factors that frustrate the will of political leadership but the system in which the players are all enmeshed. Savoie sets out to detail how government pesters itself; how it is the instrument of its own frustration. And not just government in Canada, but elsewhere. In addition to the Canadian federal government, the book examines national government in the U.S., Britain and France, and finds the same thing in each instance. 

Crucially, over the past 40 years in all four countries more and more authority has accrued to the office of the leader – the Prime Minister or President – at the expense of the legislature (as long ago as the Blair government in the UK, a Downing Street adviser admitted that “there is complete contempt for Parliament” in the Prime Minister’s office, “and that attitude permeates the entire government”) and even at the expense of Cabinet, that inner circle of politicians responsible for the various ministries of the civil service. When once the Prime Minister was both advised by Cabinet and required its support, it has devolved from a decision-making body to, in the words of a senior minister in the Chrétien government, “a focus group for the Prime Minister.”

Meanwhile, the civil service has lost the confidence of its political overseers, who more and more see the bureaucratic apparatus, not as the vehicle by which government policies are implemented, but as a sluggish, inefficient impediment. Within the civil service, the role of central agencies such as the Privy Council Office and Treasury Board expands, along with their authority over the line ministries that actually deliver programs to citizens. The central agencies do not deliver services themselves, but they police resource allocation to departments and they are answerable to the Prime Minister, not to cabinet ministers, with the result that senior officials in the central agencies become supplicant to the courtiers in the Prime Minister’s Office. 

At the same time, government in all four countries has seen explosive growth in a class of partisan advisers, who are neither public servants nor elected officials, and whose loyalty is to expediency, first and last. They are there to politicize a bureaucracy that was designed to be apolitical. 

All this has come about in order to make government more responsive to the will of the supreme leader. In the process, Savoie argues, it has made nobodies of MPs and flunkies of cabinet ministers, which only exacerbates public disenchantment with democracy. What is the point of the vote if all it amounts to is an endorsement of nobodies and flunkies? Nor has it made government any more efficient. Perversely, it has only made the system more cumbersome, worsening morale in the public service and adding layer upon layer of managerial oversight.

To be sure, there is nothing new about complaining about bureaucracy. By the 1850s, the British civil service was so well established, and so nettlesome, that it was the subject of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report, a sweeping critical assessment jointly produced by a politician (Northcote, who would go on to become Chancellor of the Exchequer) and a bureaucrat (Trevelyan, then Permanent Secretary at the Treasury). The report found that positions in the civil service were much sought after because they offered a secure and comfortable salary, but the ranks of the service were filled with dullards and martinets. The few bright sparks who found their way into government positions in the hope of contributing to the public good were soon ground into soul-destroying compliance. This could be rectified, the report recommended, by recruiting on the basis of merit, promoting on the basis of competence, and distinguishing between the jobs that were about efficiently applying existing procedures (program delivery) and those that were about dreaming up new procedures to tackle new problems (policy).

For all the differences between government in Canada, the US, the UK and France, what Northcote and Trevelyan argued for in a professionalized public service became the broad ideal for which all strived. And for all its imperfections, Savoie argues, there was a time when the machinery of government delivered. In particular, there was a golden age of government, when it bent its powers to the war effort during the Second World War, and then afterward, when it aided in post-war prosperity and implemented the social welfare measures that are today so taken for granted. During this period, some of the best and the brightest were drawn to careers in government and the civil service was held in general esteem.

According to Savoie, things started to go awry in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher distrusted the civil service precisely because it was politically agnostic. What she wanted were not simply bureaucrats who would carry out her instructions but underlings who shared her messianic zeal – not functionaries but adherents. Nor, to Thatcher’s distaste, was the civil service driven by the type of striving self-interest she so admired in the free market. So began the attempts to reform the civil service in the image of the private sector. These have gone by different names in different jurisdictions, but from New Public Management to “deliverology” they have all, Savoie reports sadly, been crashing failures.

With great bureaucracy comes great responsibility, but there is simply no way to hold bureaucracy responsible in the manner of the private sector, because the goal of government is not profit but an ineffable aspiration: the public good. All the attempts to impose a private sector ethos on the civil service – the performance assessments and quantitative outcome metrics – have meant additional strata of meddlesome oversight that have cost money and made things even less efficient. There are people who are ultimately held accountable for the actions of government, but they are called politicians. We vote them out.

And so, Savoie concludes, we have engineered for ourselves an increasingly autocratic political leadership atop a demoralized, needlessly costly, hideously inefficient public service. Apart from the ability to vote the politicians out, it sounds like the Soviet Union. Things have gotten so bad that Savoie has recently argued that nothing less than a royal commission – a modern-day Northcote-Trevelyan Report – will be required to remedy matters.

Far be it from me to dispute his diagnosis – I am sure his analysis of relations between the political class and the civil service is correct – but he may be too unforgiving of the actual performance of government, at least in Canada. Surely one measure of government is how well it administers the clerical stuff. How difficult is it to get a driver’s licence or change your licence plates? To renew your health card? Are old age pension cheques and child benefits reliably delivered? How easy, safe and secure is it to vote? On that score, governments in Canada at all levels are reassuringly dependable.

And yes, the federal bureaucracy managed to thoroughly botch its own payroll system, but the same civil service also swung into action to distribute aid and support through multiple channels at the onset of the pandemic. Say what you will about CERB, whether it was too much or too little, there is no question of the speed and efficiency with which it was rolled out. And yes, there were political casualties in the race to limit the damage of the pandemic – notably the WE Foundation – but these may have been as much the fault of the political class as the bureaucracy.

So, how alarmed should we be at the state of our government apparatus? True, encounters with government workers can be infuriating, but most often they are not, just as encounters at airline check-in desks can be infuriating, but most often they’re not. 

How good is government? Probably about as good as the airlines. They are both hugely elaborate undertakings that accomplish astonishing feats of organization on a daily basis that most of us barely think about.

  • The Hill Times, December 19, 2022