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Donald Savoie: Why Canada’s public service is declining and why it matters

An employee make his way to work at Statistics Canada in Ottawa on July 21, 2010.


Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher is Donald Savoie's 44th book and like his previous tomes, he wrote it long-hand – all 254 pages.

"Never made the transition … I'm an antique," he said with a laugh. "Part of the thinking process is with my pen."

As well as holding the pen, the 65-year-old academic, author and commentator holds the Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the Universite de Moncton. He is one of the country's foremost experts on the public service.

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His latest book is an academic piece (the bibliography is nearly 100 pages long), investigating what he sees as the demise of the federal public service in Canada – and why it matters. He believes the public service has lost its way, and offers ideas as to how it can be fixed.

Already, the book is a must-read for Stephen Harper's cabinet – Employment Minister Jason Kenney bought 20 copies of the book and gave them to his cabinet colleagues.

Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher is one of five books nominated this year for the $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, which will be awarded April 2. The Globe and Mail will feature interviews with each nominated author during the week of March 17. Read an interview with Graeme Smith on Canada's unfinished work in Afghanistan.

The Globe and Mail: Explain the title.

Donald Savoie: [Nova Scotia NDP Premier Darrell] Dexter had called me to help him with the transition and to chair his economic policy committee. I didn't know Dexter from a hole in the ground and I certainly don't have ties to the NDP.

Dexter is an avid golfer. [Mr. Savoie arranged with his friend, multi-millionaire blueberry and cable television businessman John Bragg, for the premier to play the Fox Harb'r Golf Resort in Nova Scotia.] It was a beautiful day in August. Bragg's house is on the 12th tee. Let's go have lunch. Bragg said 'look, Premier, I have got a question for you. I grew up in these parts and some 50 or 60 years ago we had a music teacher and she was very good. She taught me to appreciate. Next door to our school we had a barber. The barber had two small offices that he rented to the government for $50 a month. In those two offices there were two bureaucrats. They looked after all the trees, the moose, deer and rivers of Cumberland County. Today we can't afford a music teacher, but we have a building with 150 bureaucrats looking after the same number of trees, moose, deer and rivers of Cumberland County – can you explain to me how that happened?'

The Premier didn't get into it and I can't say I blame him. I thought after, what a good question. It's a question a lot of Canadians are asking. I decided to go about and answer that question. It became the symbol for what happened to front-line services because front-line services have lost a great deal over the last 30 years or so. Thirty years ago, 27 per cent of the federal public service was in the National Capital Region. And today, it's 43 per cent. You can see there has been massive shift away from front-line services.

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What happened?

It was wrong to think that we could make the public sector look like the private sector. Well, frankly, it started with Margaret Thatcher. She arrived in 1980 and she said, 'I don't want bureaucrats to tell me what I ought to do to do in terms of policy. We won a majority mandate so we will define policy. What I want the bureaucracy to be good at is to be good managers.' Mandarins are not known to be good managers. So when Thatcher arrived and said, 'I want you to become better managers,' she drew a blank. They didn't have any ideas about management. So, she said, 'Right, I am going to go to the private sector.' So, she got a lot of private sector advisors in as did Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney. We didn't realize that the private sector plays by its own rules and businesses are good at what they do but they don't have to deal with 12 officers of Parliament, they don't have to deal with the [media]. The private sector remedy did not work. It demoralized the public sector.

Why should we care?

Show me a weak country and I will show you a country with a weak public service. Every country needs a referee and the referee has to be the public service. No country can operate without a referee. You take the public service out of Canadian society and you will have chaos. We all need to recognize the public service is going through an extremely difficult period. There are three fundamental phases to the public service. The first one was when they put the infrastructure in place in the early days, canals, roads, railways. The second was post-world-war Keynesian economics – the government decided it could do everything in every sector. It grew by leaps and bounds, young university graduates flocked to it. It was the happy phase. We are now into the third phase, saying 'oh, we overshot.' We got government into things that government ought not to have been into. So how do we fix things?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More


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