Donald Savoie is the author of Government: Have Presidents and Prime Ministers Misdiagnosed the Patient?
Trust in the institutions of public governance is in decline throughout the Western world, notwithstanding sharp differences in political-administrative institutions. In countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only about half of citizens report that they trust their national governments.
Canada is no exception. Anyone looking for more evidence that Canadians are losing trust, if not outright interest, in their governments only has to look to voter turnout in the recent Ontario election, in which only 43 per cent of eligible voters participated.
Does it matter? Yes, and one only has to look to history to see why.
It is no coincidence that politically and economically strong countries have strong public institutions. The rule of law, sustained economic development, the ability to pursue the national interest, and the need to deal with society’s wicked problems require these institutions to function well.
When presidents and prime ministers assume office, they inherit the complex machinery of government, which, from many leaders’ perspectives, has become too thick, too obtuse and too expensive. This explains why many heads of state seek to concentrate more power in their own hands and add an ever-increasing number of partisan advisers to their staff. This hardly helps matters. It explains why accountability in government is now like trying to grab smoke. When things go wrong, no one can find the culprit because there are always too many hands in the soup. Faced with a bureaucracy they perceive to be unresponsive, political leaders have increasingly encouraged government officials, both elected and career, to sidestep the behavioural customs, constraints and even formal rules of the country’s public institutions.
Prime ministers in Westminster parliamentary systems are increasingly acting like presidents, but without the checks and balances of a presidential system. U.S. presidents are increasingly acting like prime ministers, without having to attend Question Period in Parliament. Both prime ministers and presidents alike now take the legislative branch of government for granted, accountability be damned.
Presidents and prime ministers are hardly the only ones to blame for the state of our institutions, though. Career officials have had a direct hand in increasing the size of the public service, continually adding management layers to the machinery of government and producing vapid evaluation reports of their programs. In the private sector, you manage to the bottom line: Good managers need to own what they say, own what they do and own their mistakes. In government, you manage to the top line: the prime minister, cabinet and Parliament, in that order. Managers in government continue to turn a blind eye to non-performing public servants, and waves of management reform measures have done little to solve the problem.
We have sent public servants on a fool’s errand in telling them to make management in government look like management in the private sector. It had no chance of working because management roles in the public and private sectors are fundamentally different and because politics permeates all government operations. In brief, public servants have been set up to fail, which has led to bureaucracy bashing. Public servants operate under far more difficult conditions than was the case 40 years ago, but we judge them by the same outdated standards.
Citizens are also not blameless. We have made it extremely difficult for politicians to serve. Political life is now only for the brave. We have gone too far in our suspicion of those who run for office. We have stripped them of their privacy to the point that good and able citizens decide to remain in private life. Gotcha journalism and social media impose a level of public scrutiny on politicians and public servants that we would not tolerate anywhere else. What you did as a 16-year-old stays with you, waiting to be discovered by the war rooms of opposing political parties.
A free-market economy is not possible without democracy, and democracy is not possible without healthy public institutions, including a professional, non-partisan public service. They are the guardians of democracy, and Canadians everywhere need to have a clear-eyed view of how they operate. Standing on the sidelines waiting for someone else to get involved is not the answer. Doing nothing means accepting that Canada will not be able to attract some of its best people to serve in government.
Our public institutions need to rediscover what made them strong in the first place: a willingness to tell policy makers what they should do rather than what they can do, a commitment to serve all Canadians in the same professional manner, and the promotion of a frugal culture in government operations. In order for public institutions to work, Canadians need to be able to look to politics as a noble profession, to see politicians and public servants who give more than they take and are motivated to serve in the public interest.
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