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What Went Wrong With Our Public Service

03/03/2014 05:15 EST | Updated 05/31/2014 05:59 EDT

The Huffington Post Canada is delighted to once again be partnering with the Writers' Trust of Canada Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. In the weeks leading up to the April 2 announcement of this year's prize winner, we are publishing excerpts from each of the five finalists. The authors have personally chosen the portions they'd like to share, and each excerpt begins with a brief explanation of why that particular passage was chosen.

A note from author Donald Savoie:

I decided to write this book because I became convinced that the public service has lost its way.

The Canadian public service has witnessed three major developments - the first, in its early years, when it was designed to help develop the country's basic public service infrastructure and the second, when it expanded on all cylinders with the arrival of Keynesian economics. We are now living the third and by far the most challenging development. We have tried to make the public sector look like the private sector but failed. We have introduced one major management reform measure after another but none have lived up to even modest expectations. We are seeing a public service collapsing under its own weight, producing performance and evaluation reports feeding accountability and oversight requirements that do not resonate with Canadians or even Parliament.

The public service does not need yet another vision exercise from on high, another management reform package that does not respect its traditions and values. It can however regain credibility by being accountable the old fashioned way and answering simple questions that matter to Canadians. The Canadian government spends about $10 billion a year on consultants. Why? The Canadian public service added about 70,000 positions between 1999 and 2011. Why? In some departments, there are nine management levels between a Director and the Minister. Why? Front line managers have seen their operations reduced substantially in recent years while units in Ottawa have multiplied and grown. Why? Vaguely worded reports designed to deflect criticism and manage the blame game do not measure up.

- Donald J. Savoie

New Public Management, New Public Governance, and recent public sector reforms have created new constituencies. In the process, front-line workers have become no one's constituency. Those who in the past would have spoken on their behalf - the local member of Parliament, the local media, and local community groups - have been shunted aside by more powerful forces. Misguided, costly, and ineffective accountability requirements, the work of agents of Parliament (the blame generators), the rise of permanent campaigns, and the need to control communications have reshaped how Ottawa decides, how it spends, and how it delivers public services. Governments operate in a vastly different world today than even thirty years ago. It is no exaggeration to say that we are witnessing at the same time the politicization of the public service and the bureaucratization of the body politic. Jonathan Rose summed it up when he observed, "You've got bureaucrats who are doing the government's partisan work and also political staffers who are doing bureaucrats' work. So there's this blurring of lines between the two."

Parliament, it seems, has simply given up and turned over its responsibilities to its agents. MPs have been left to pursue what they prefer to pursue - search for scandals, for administrative miscues, for the $10,000 spent on booze at a reception. The government has countered with report after report that serve little purpose other than enabling politicians on the government side and public servants to say to the media, "Look at these reports. You will see that all is fine." Policy making relies less and less on objective advice provided by public servants. It has become a matter of political opinion and has merged with communications.

Public servants have become sympathetic to the plight confronting politicians on the government side. Realizing that what their political bosses value is the ability to defuse politically dangerous issues, they have drawn on their experience to offer political advice. Yet politicians do not view their senior public servants in the same positive light as they did thirty years ago. Paul Tellier, former clerk of the privy council, argued in 2009 that "the trust between Canada's politicians and bureaucrats has never been more strained and steps must be taken to lower the temperature and rebuild frayed relations." Another former senior federal official maintains that "we are living in a time of unprecedented divide between the political and bureaucratic in Ottawa."

Policy units and units charged with responding to new accountability requirements secured the bulk of the new positions established as the prime minister and his courtiers shifted focus away from expenditure cuts to other issues in the years after the 1994-97 program review. The prime minister pursued his priorities - for example, the Millennium Scholarship Fund - and Jocelyne Bourgon, the clerk of the privy council, pursued her own priorities, which were to strengthen Ottawa-based policy, evaluation, and monitoring units. Don Drummond, for example, praised Bourgon for rebuilding the policy units in departments after they had been "weakened" in the 1994-97 program review exercise. The policy units, together with program evaluation and internal audit units, were indeed rebuilt between 2000 and 2010, when a substantial number of new positions were added to them. But this did not prevent Drummond in 2011 from writing about Ottawa's dismal policy capacity.

It bears repeating that while these units were being rebuilt in Ottawa, the regional and local offices delivering front-line services were not rebuilt; in fact, they have been losing staff. Policy, planning, and monitoring units are much more "visible" to the clerk of the privy council than point-of delivery offices are. In the process, the Ottawa system is losing sight of the music teacher types operating on the front lines of public service delivery. Front-line managers and their employees do not figure prominently in the work of central agencies or in the head offices of line departments and agencies, other than as producers of information. To answer Harold Lasswell's question - who gets what, when, how? - Ottawa's bureaucracy has been able to get more than in years past.

Attempts to make public sector management look like that of the private sector have made the Ottawa bureaucracy more expensive. Managers took advantage of their new-found authority to move funds between votes and activities to add to their salary and operations budgets. Consider the following: The core federal public service grew by 34 percent over the past ten years to 282,955 from 211,915 (2001-11). The bulk of the growth was in Ottawa-based units designed to serve the bureaucracy and accountability requirements, to generate policy advice, and to manage communications and media relations. The expansion of the federal government's bureaucracy outpaced population growth over the same decade at a rate of three to one.

Harper's strategic and operations review in the summer of 2011 was set up in part to deal with this growth. It begs the question: Why, with all the ambitious public sector management reforms of the past thirty years, were all these public servants hired in the first place? It will be recalled that the federal government transferred a number of labour-intensive activities to provincial governments and third parties in the 1990s (for example, airports and ports). And this leads to a second question: Why did the Harper government see the need to spend $20 million on outside consultants to assist in identifying spending cuts? And a third: Why were all those new employees hired in policy evaluation and other head office units that are not up to the task? Yet another question: Are we to accept that significant cuts to the government's expenditure budget are possible only when the prime minister and his courtiers take charge and when the cuts are initiated in the immediate aftermath of the government winning a majority mandate? (e.g., the Chrétien-Martin 1994-97 program review and Harper's strategic and operational review 2011-12).

Donald J. Savoie is shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? How Government Decides and Why.The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize winner will be announced at the Politics & the Pen Gala in Ottawa on April 2. www.writerstrust.com

Excerpt from: Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher: How Government Decides and Why, published in Canada by McGill-Queen's University Press. Copyright 2013 by McGill-Queen's University Press. All rights reserved.

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