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Donald Savoie

Donald Savoie


A change in government alone won’t fix the malaise Add to ...

Donald Savoie is the author of What Is Government Good At? A Canadian Answer.

One can appreciate the euphoria being felt by public servants in Ottawa with the change of government. The perception, if not the reality, among them is that the previous government never understood, let alone appreciated their contribution.

However, public servants should recognize – as I suspect many do – that the malaise confronting their institution runs deep. It is not too much of an exaggeration to write that the public service has been in the process of decomposing for some time. Survey after survey of federal public servants going back to the 1980s has consistently revealed a widespread and deepening morale problem.

The malaise needs to be addressed to ensure quality public service – and if we want the public service to become a destination of choice for young people wanting to make a difference. They now enter a world where the best are underpaid and the worst overpaid, where rules and regulations are multiplying, where non-performers are left to linger, where too many management layers are suffocating change, where departments are increasingly being saddled with confusing mandates, and where distrust of government is pushing many to look to the courts for solutions.

Where we go from here raises fundamental questions on how best to organize the centre of government, departments and agencies, how they should be funded and what new levels of management autonomy should be prescribed. Public-service reforms since the 1980s have borrowed a page from George Orwell’s doublespeak. All reform initiatives started with the goal of empowering managers and modernizing management practices, but ended doing the opposite.

Today, management in government remains thick, tangled and dated. I suspect that many government managers go to work every day saying, “O, Lord, deliver us from further vision exercises and lead us not into new approaches unless there is a willingness to address fundamental questions.”

What has actually changed in government since the early 1980s? Governing from the centre is now firmly entrenched, new oversight bodies have been created and existing ones expanded, accountability requirements have been strengthened but only on paper, distrust of government bureaucrats is more widespread than ever, access to information, the 24-hour news cycle and social media continue to have a profound impact on the work of government officials and nothing belongs to a government department any more as all public-policy issues now require the attention of a growing number of departments and agencies.

And yet, other than adding more people to the centre of government, and to oversight bodies that have, in turn, forced line departments to respond by adding staff to deal with their demands, the machinery of government looks very much like it did in 1980.

A change in government in itself will not address the malaise confronting the public service. It can, however, open a window to answering fundamental questions about organizing government.

If nothing belongs to a single department any more, should we still rely on traditional line departments to come up with policy proposals and deliver public services? Should government have self-governing delivery arms tied to policy centres led by ministers? If government departments and agencies cannot retain revenues or their budget, how can we expect them to remain frugal? How can we streamline accountability requirements? How can we isolate, at least some government operations, so that missteps become lessons learned for managers rather than “gotcha” fodder for the blame game? How can we improve relations between ministers and the public service, government and Parliament?

Dealing with fundamental questions will force senior government officials to go beyond giving the appearance of change while standing still. The question needs the attention of at least some senior ministers and some senior public servants operating away from the demands of the day. Past reform attempts have sadly ignored Parliament, which may offer some explanations for their failure.

Why not structure a House of Commons committee and ask that it pursue these questions?

Public servants should be encouraging this debate. They should, however, shy away from partisanship, even the appearance of partisanship. The one thing that gives the public service strength, credibility and standing with Canadians and, yes, with politicians, is its non-partisan status and the ability to serve all politicians without fear or favour.

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