"The chain of accountability, from voters to MP, from MP to prime minister and cabinet ministers, from ministers to the heads of government departments and agencies, and from senior civil servants to front-line managers to their employees, has broken down, University of Moncton professor and Order of Canada officer Donald Savoie wrote in his Saturday Globe essay The broken chain of answerability
"No officer or officers of Parliament can repair it. They have neither the mandate nor the legitimacy to play more than a supporting role.
"The relationship among Parliament, the prime minister, ministers and public servants is in need of repair, and we are ill served by pretending that all is well.
"We should no longer tolerate court government, by which a political leader with the help of a handful of courtiers shapes and reshapes instruments of power at will. Those with the power to introduce change for the better are reluctant to do so because they enjoy being able to wield tremendous power.
"We need to define, preferably in law, the role of the prime minister, cabinet and the public service and give public servants an administrative space of their own to manage government operations, while recognizing that the prime minister and ministers must always have the authority to override public servants in all matters not covered by statutes."
What do you think? Have things broken down, or can conventional thinking repair things? What else do you think has gone wrong in Canadian government? (Keep your lists short!)
We are pleased that Dr. Savoie was online earlier today to answer those questions.
Your questions and Dr. Savoie's answers appear at the bottom of this page.
Dr. Savoie holds a Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton. His research achievements are prodigious and his influence on Canadian public policy, Canadian public administration and Canadian society has been evident for years.
Dr. Savoie has won numerous prizes and awards, including: the Trudeau Fellowships Prize (2004), elected president of the Canadian Association of Political Science (1998), made an Officer of the Order of Canada (1993), and elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1992). He was also awarded the Mosher prize by the Public Administration Review (US) for the best article (co-author) in public administration (1994). He has been awarded honorary doctorates by the Université Sainte-Anne (1993), Mount Allison (1997), the University of New Brunswick (2002), Dalhousie University (2003), and St. Francis Xavier University (2005). He was also awarded a Doctor of Letters from Oxford University (2000).
Dr. Savoie's best-known books include Federal-Provincial Collaboration; Breaking the Bargain: Public Servants, Ministers, and Parliament; Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics; and Thatcher, Reagan, Mulroney: In Search of a New Bureaucracy, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. His articles have appeared in all the significant journals in political science, public policy and public administration.
Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.
Jim Sheppard, Executive Editor, globeandmail.com: Welcome, Dr. Savoie, and thanks for joining us today to take questions about your essay in Saturday's Globe and Mail. We've got a lot of questions, so let's go straight to them.
Vivaldo Latoche, Ottawa: Dr. Savoie, you have stated very clearly that our political system is broken. My view is that when a political system like ours is broken, it is time for change.
But our political leaders will not change anything because if they do, then "power" will slip away from their hands. Will they be interested in doing it? Of course not.
So what is needed here? Do you think that what we need is a "new Constitution?" A constitution where the rules of the political game are clearly defined? And those political actors who do not abide by them are punished?
Dr. Donald Savoie: Thank you for your question, Vivaldo.
You are quite right that those with power or those operating at the centre of government see no reason for change. They spend a great deal of time managing real or potential political crises generated by ministers and government departments.
After sitting in the Prime Minister's Office for only a few months, you start to believe that you have the best vantage point to survey political developments and manage political crises. Managing ministers and departments takes time, energy and effort. It is much more efficient to bring key decisions to the centre and to manage political crises from the centre. It is both less time-consuming and less risky.
You will remember that Prime Minister Harper and his courtiers decided to recognize that the "Québécois form a nation within a united Canada." Cabinet was left outside the loop and so was the minister responsible for intergovernmental affairs -- although Harper is hardly the only prime minister in the past 40 years to strike a major decision without consulting Cabinet.
The call for change will have to come from elsewhere. Political parties, the media, Canadians, MPs and "outsiders" will have to play a lead role.
To be sure, change will not come easy. Much like tigers do not easily part with their stripes, those with access to the key levers of power will not wish to let go what they have.
The status quo, however, is no longer sustainable. Canadians are not joining political parties, voter turnout is down and public service morale has plummeted in recent years.
John Major, who sat in the Prime Minister's chair in the U.K., wrote that "we have scarcely noticed that the timbers which support parliamentary government are cracking and diseased, and are in danger of collapse. The erosion is evident from the top down."
It is the responsibility of Canadians to get involved through political parties or other means to ensure that our parliamentary system operates in a democratic fashion.
Geoff Ondercin-Bourne, Hamilton, Ont.: I agree that we need to change the way we do politics in Canada.
I would start with the connection between voters and the government through our electoral system. Changing the way we vote to some form of proportional system would not solve all our problems. But I think it is an important element of any revitalized political regime.
Dr. Savoie, what value would you place on electoral reform?
Second, with respect to the other changes that you refer to in your article, who should be responsible for deciding on what needs to be done?
Specifically, what role should the public play in determining the future of their political system? I think people are tired of politics being something that is done "to" them instead of "by" them.
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, Geoff.
Electoral reform has been on the political policy agenda but it does not seem to have had much traction. Efforts to introduce proportional representation have not fared well in several provinces.
You also asked: What role should the public play in determining the future of their political system?
I am firmly of the view that Canadians should play a key role in, as you put it, "determining the future of their political system." In short, the system belongs to Canadians and to no one else.
The next question is how? Canadians should become increasingly vocal in the media, in organized groups and in political parties. Sadly, political parties have become little more than election-day organizations. They need to play a more substantial role in shaping public policies and reforming our political institutions.
It is ultimately in the interest of our political parties (leaving aside the Bloc Québécois) to ensure that any national political-administrative institutions meet the expectations of Canadians and are able to hold policy- and decision-makers accountable.
It seems to me that political parties have a responsibility to engage their members in a meaningful debate about the future of our institutions, including answering if, why and how they ought to be reformed.
David Griffith: What many seem to forget here is that maybe, just maybe, it is the administrative arm of government (bureaucracy) that has gotten out of hand, and the current government is finally calling them on it.
High-level bureaucrats wield incredible power and oftentimes dig in their heels and actually work against the will of their elected masters. The government is their boss -- like it or not. Any bureaucrat who fancies himself or herself as some kind of "opposition" should rightfully be given walking papers.
This is a democracy and -- whether they like it or not -- bureaucrats are there to administer the policies defined by their bosses. The elected ones!
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, David.
You are quite right in writing that when it comes to public servants or the bureaucracy, the "government is their boss."
I would add, however, "on policy." When it comes to financial and administrative matters, the government is not always "the boss." There are statutes, notably the Financial Administration Act and the Public Service Employment Act that delegate power directly to public servants.
The central issue is who should be accountable. In my view, the prime minister and ministers ought to be accountable on policy and public servants on management.
The current system tends to muddy the waters. It seems that everyone in government is now responsible but no one is to blame when things go wrong.
We have, in recent years, witnessed a greater tendency to pass the buck from ministers to public servants. The sponsorship scandal under Chrétien and the taser incidents under Harper are just two examples.
I believe the time has come to clarify the role of the prime minister, Cabinet, Cabinet ministers and public servants in the interest of promoting greater accountability.
Albin Forone, Toronto: I'm generally very respectful and appreciative of the professional civil service, and reject the extremes of both right and left that attack it saying "everything is political" and asserting dominance of the majority.
On the other hand, we have seen some inherently political and therefore questionable interventions by entrenched bureaucrats, most visibly by the RCMP (leading to high-level public exposure and replacement), but even by the much esteemed Auditor General.
We're also, sooner or later, going to test in an election whether the current government's peculiar approach to issue and policy "management" is publicly acceptable.
So, agreeing that you are raising real and serious potential issues, are you ahead of the game as to whether the Canadian political system can correct itself without making big systemic or procedural changes?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, Albin.
You are correct in suggesting that we have seen "inherently political and therefore questionable interventions" by public servants. You point to the RCMP and the Auditor General (although she is an officer of Parliament and thus operates under different rules than public servants). You could have added Gen. Rick Hillier who, at times, played a highly political role.
You then suggest that we will be able to assess the government's approach to accountability in the next general election. In my view, accountability has to be a continuing process and it cannot be simply turned on at election time and then put away for four years. If nothing else, to do so would overload the agenda during a general election campaign.
I believe that we need to clarify the role and responsibilities of both institutions and individuals in order to strengthen accountability requirements. The more we clarify roles and responsibilities, preferably in law, the easier it will be to secure answers and to hold individuals to account.
Mark Dip, Ottawa: Dr. Savoie, one problem that government bureaucrats seem to share with politicians is the inability to work together, which seems to exacerbate issues (which should be of common concern) rather than solve them.
For instance, DFAIT's ability to fulfil its mandate to safeguard Canadian interests (and Canadians) overseas is in a downward spiral because it is haemorrhaging its best and brightest people. This was the focus of a OAG report last year.
Many of these employees have been leaving due to the way DFAIT and other government entities mistreat government spouses while overseas (i.e., spouses must pay full Canadian taxes while living in an insanely high cost-of-living foreign country, but don't get the EI or CPP they paid for; no efforts are made to enable meaningful spousal employment overseas, causing financial strife for the couple -- the decades-old list goes on).
However, DFAIT seems to have become such a pariah with the domestic public service that Treasury Board won't fund spousal assistance programs, and CRA and HRSDC won't give the time of day toward making their taxation and social benefits programs fairer toward Canadians who serve their country overseas.
Issues concerning the Foreign Service also seem to be beyond the intellect of many overworked politicians, who are seldom around long enough to ensure solutions get implemented anyway.
In fact, hard-fought resolutions can get cancelled on a convenient whim (or a writ) when it's "Bash DFAIT Day" in Parliament as a result of the latest overseas screw-up or profligate boondoggle by their executive.
And so it continues full circle. Is there a solution that will be implemented fast enough to prevent more personal losses for these government families, or do you recommend that our diplomats get out while they can?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, Mark.
I do not know enough about the working conditions at DFAIT to comment on the issue. I do, however, agree with you that bureaucrat-bashing has been on the increase in Anglo-American democracies in recent years.
There are a variety of reasons for this.
Because a policy can no longer be the exclusive preserve of a single department or agency, the policy process has become more cumbersome and bureaucratic.
Because of access-to-information laws, public servants have to be extremely careful in shaping their recommendations for fear of being brought into a political debate.
Because transparency requirements are now widespread in government, the cast of government operations has been on the increase of late.
The result of the above is that both the policy and decision-making process are now much slower and less responsive to the immediate political needs of ministers.
People everywhere, even on the government side, are now pointing the finger at bureaucrats for the current state of affairs.
Public servants, meanwhile, are not in a position to defend themselves or to explain why government today is more bureaucratic. They have to look to the government of the day to come to their defence.
This has not always been the case. Indeed, some ministers have begun to shoot on their own troops in their effort to duck political responsibility.
The above, in turn, explains why I argue in my book that we need to define a role for the public service and to give the institution a personality distinct from the government of the day when it comes to management or administrative matters.
Robert Billyard, Mission, B.C.: I believe this court style of government goes back at least to the time of Pierre Trudeau who concentrated power in the PMO. Successive governments have certainly followed suit and the present federal government is no exception.
On the other hand, it seems that we, the general public, have lost our will to hold politicians accountable, so the problem is really twofold.
Do you agree? If so, how do we reinvigorate our commitment to something resembling a real democracy?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, Robert.
Court government does indeed go back to the Trudeau years (the late 1960s) in Canada and the Callaghan years in the U.K. (the late 1970s). In addition, successive prime ministers in both Canada and the U.K. have, if anything, strengthened the centre of government.
Whether we lost our "will" to hold politicians accountable is less clear. Perhaps the problem is that we have lost the ability to hold politicians to account.
Parliament hardly spends time looking at departmental spending estimates -- the key to holding government to account. It is now all about scoring points in Question Period, the 10-second clip on the evening news or the headline the next day in The Globe and Mail.
The focus of our efforts, in my view, ought to be on Parliament and MPs. They hold the key to greater accountability.
If Parliament is no longer willing or able to play the lead role on this front, then we are in great difficulty. How to bring Parliament to play a greater, more substantive, role in holding the government to account is the $1-billion question.
For my part, I believe that we need to look to political parties to clarify the role of the prime minister, Cabinet, ministers and public servants as the way ahead.
Kat Wilson: The federal government has, for the past decade, been engaged in a two-fold exercise that is filled with irony:
(1) The centralization of power and decision-making in Ottawa, effectively robbing regions of the ability to make independent decisions and adapt quickly to changing environments. If the business of government proceeds like sludge, it's because the Conservatives have increased the amount of red tape inside the public service.
(2) Contracting services and programs to the private sector without proper evaluation or consideration of consequences. In many instances, contracting out results in less efficiency, does not save a dime, and/or costs more.
Private contractors have the same -- and sometimes greater -- expenses than government. Some of the contractors are of dubious quality and effectiveness and yet continue to receive funding year after year under multi-year contracts. It's extremely difficult to shut down private contractors even when they are no longer relevant or effective.
Time and again, I've witnessed irrelevant or incompetent contractors receive funding. Why? because they have a powerful lobby and meaningful audits are not conducted.
Field-level public servants have no say in how contracts are monitored. From my point of view, I see less accountability, not more.
In the "old days," when services were delivered in-house, government could adapt relatively quickly to environmental change. There was also a greater level of trust in the abilities of public servants at the field level. People were hired for their expertise, not hired to fit generic job profiles.
Public servants at the field level no longer have a voice. If they see something that is inefficient, no longer relevant, or bordering on incompetence, they are often pressured to keep funding it anyway. They are not allowed to advise or instruct contractors. Public servants whose duties are contracted out are now employed as contract monitors.
Where is the saving?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your questions, Kat. You have several questions and observations.
The shift to public-private partnerships, contracting out and make-or-buy policies in the U.K. have been in fashion for the past 25 years or so. There are some advantages but also, as you point out, some drawbacks.
Given that governments were going down unchartered territory, they could not have foreseen how accountability would work under these new arrangements. Governments have been trying this and that with varying degrees of success.
It seems that regional officials, as you point out, have to deal with far more red tape, transparency and reporting requirements than in years past.
Eric James, Victoria, B.C.: As a political science major who is hoping to focus on the Canadian public service, I found your essay very insightful.
However, I am curious as to how you propose to change the current crisis within the Canadian government.
How can we expect our MPs to be both reformers within the system and at the same time become major players within their own parties? If an MP were to stand up in Parliament and voice his or her own concern over the issues you raised and the multitude which you did not mention, there is no question that no one would notice but the party officials within the leader's court who would engineer their demise.
Is this all part of a larger problem of not only appointing more and more "independent" public officials and officers of Parliament but of the whole electoral and parliamentary system in modern Canada?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, Eric.
I want to encourage you in your study program to focus on the Canadian public service. It is an important national institution and I am delighted to read that young Canadians have an interest in its future.
To be sure, it will require an act of courage on the part of an MP to stand up in the Commons and tell Parliament to heal itself. It will be easier, however, if the MP sits on the opposition benches.
In addition, the rank-and-file members of all political parties should get involved in the debate. They have less to lose and it is one way for them to play a more meaningful role than being foot soldiers on election day.
J.D. Watson: Hello Dr. Savoie, thank you for taking my question.
When Canada's "new government" promised transparency and accountability, Canadians -- including the opposition -- backed off and watched.
Two years later, we have policy changes that are far-reaching and beyond any platform presented during the election campaign: income trusts, the Canadian Wheat Board, Elections Canada, and extending the Afghanistan mission to name a few.
Add to this the actions of senior ministers -- like Flaherty at Ontario's throat, an invisible Bernier at Foreign Affairs, and Kenney attacking Gen. Dallaire in public.
Is this minority government chipping away at our parliamentary democracy inch by inch, without any regard for its well-being?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, Mr. Watson.
What the Conservative party said while in opposition about accountability is somewhat different from what is put forward in its accountability bill. It substantially watered down, for example, its position on the accounting officer concept.
That said, the Accountability Act does, on paper at least, strengthen accountability in government and the Harper government went further than previous governments. Time will tell to what extent things have actually changed and if they have for the better.
As for the invisible (or the all too visible for some) Bernier, no accountability legislation could possible deal with the words and actions of all Cabinet ministers.
H. Osborne, United Kingdom: Thank you for highlighting the significant, and worsening, problems we are facing. The long-term consequences of our weakening governance are so important, yet too often ignored. The destruction of a policy-making process is particularly worrying.
"Canada's new government" was elected on an accountability agenda and yet the focus for the same was very narrow -- and hasn't really addressed at all the oversight role of Parliament and MPs. In this context, the increased poor behaviour and partisanship in the House is not helpful.
One of the new improvements being introduced this year, and into this difficult context, is the new "accounting officer" role for Deputy Ministers. Will this help force parliamentary committees to work more seriously? Provide more "deniability" and "buck-passing" for ministers? A bit of both? How do you see this playing out in this first, critical year?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your questions, Mr. Osborne. I am delighted to hear from the U.K.
My book is comparative Canada-the U.K. and I spent a considerable amount of time in the U.K. looking at developments there. The increased poor behavior and partisanship in the House is worse here (we have a minority government) than in the U.K.
Time will tell if the accounting officer concept has much of an impact in Canada. As you well know, the concept has been an important one in the U.K. system for about 120 years and it has worked rather well. We are very much in the early stages here.
It seems that the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament has one view about how the concept should be implemented and the government has another.
If the accounting officer concept is properly implemented, then it should attenuate somewhat the tendency to pass the buck on management issues.
Rudy H., Winnipeg: Is the problem the concentration of power at the top? And when did this start?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, Rudy. Concentrating power at the top is an important part of the problem. It started under Trudeau (Cabinet government existed under Pearson) and the tendency to concentrate power at the top has continued to this day under various prime ministers.
Nigel Martin: The habit of the government of the day inserting party members into the federal bureaucracy -- often at very senior levels -- has become endemic over recent years.
So, in some ways, it is not surprising that a new government distrusts the objectivity or loyalty of the civil service.
Can this practice be stopped and the undisputed non-partisan nature of the civil service restored?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, Nigel.
The Canadian public service is less partisan than is generally believed. New governments often believe that the bureaucracy has its own agenda but after a few months they recognize that it is less partisan than they had assumed.
Institutions as large as the Canadian public service will have a policy agenda. We would be disappointed if it did not have any agenda to make Canada a better place to live.
What is required is for politicians to shape, direct or redirect the agenda and give the country and the public service a sense of purpose and direction.
Ministerial officers are of course highly partisan. They have also grown in numbers in recent years. I should point out, however, that it is no longer possible for political staffers to slip into the public service without competition as was the case in years past.
R. Carriere, Maritimes: Good day, Dr. Savoie.
While it is difficult to argue with your assessments, perhaps the cynic in me comes through because I see the solutions to be idealistic in nature.
You mention the "control lobby" and its influence, which is noteworthy, yet in this two-party (for all intents and purposes) parliamentary system, I do not see any change in the foreseeable future as they hand power back and forth.
That said, and with an incredible void in the centre of the political spectrum, perhaps an alternative is an independent (and wealthy) new centrist party with no debt to the "control lobby" -- or would that in itself cause even greater problems?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, Mr. Carriere. Do I take it that "Maritimes" means that you are a Maritimer? If so, greetings to a fellow Maritimer.
I can well appreciate why you might be a bit cynical. What we have seen over the past 40 years is a greater concentration of power at the top, not less.
For a variety of reasons (some legitimate), there is every reason for Canadian prime ministers and their courtiers to govern from the centre.
I am not at all convinced, however, that what we need is yet another centrist party. What we need rather is for existing political parties to give voice to their rank-and-file members and to launch a proper debate on the health of our democratic institutions.
Phil King, Ottawa: Hello, Dr. Savoie. As a federal public servant, I have long held the view that Cabinet should not be in the position to cherry-pick or bury recommendations aligning solely with their ideology.
I believe that to get full use of the civil service, it should be a resource to all members of Parliament duly elected by the Canadian people. In this way, perhaps, our Parliament could begin debating the actual merit of policy and program options rather than merely jostling for the daily sound bite while hiding from Canadians what has been produced for their benefit.
What's your take on this?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, Phil.
Let me begin by saying that, contrary to popular belief, it is not easy being a public servant today.
I agree with you that public servants should tell the prime minister, Cabinet and ministers what they should hear, not just what they want to hear.
I have some serious problems in turning over the public service to Parliament and saying: "OK, now you drive."
The role of Parliament is to hold government to account and not to govern. Imagine, for a moment, public servants trying to get a sense of direction from over 300 MPs representing various political parties, including one that is dedicated to taking Quebec out of Canada.
E.S. Morse: Dr. Savoie, do you see a current tendency for the political system to de-legitimize itself through the promulgation of more and more complex layers of regulation that effectively replace convention?
It seems to me that the starting point for all discussion is to assume corruption or malfeasance, and as Jeff Simpson once aptly put it re Gomery, that leads to more and more "perverse" regulation.
The fact that a political party has now taken the very dangerous step of attacking the legitimacy of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada seems to me to highlight the problem.
In a nutshell; as I see it, if everything is illegal then we are all criminals.
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for your question, Mr. Morse.
The short answer to your question is yes, indeed. That is the message that I tried to communicate in my Globe and Mail article.
Democracy and accountability require far more than the work of officers of Parliament and adding more centrally prescribed rules on government departments and agencies.
It requires Parliament and MPs to look beyond scoring partisan political points (albeit some of this will invariably be with us because of the nature of partisan politics) and take seriously its responsibility to hold the government departments and agencies to account and provide "the" national political forum where the important issues of the day are debated.
It is the one institution to link all Canadians and, as a result, it needs to ensure its continued relevance to all of us.
Jim Sheppard: Thanks very much, Dr. Savoie, for joining us today. I'm sure our readers appreciate your insight and analysis. Any last thoughts?
Dr. Savoie: Thank you for the opportunity to participate, Jim.
I only wish that MPs would take the time to look at the quality of the questions that were asked and the insights that have been presented to see that Canadians have a deep interest in the health of their national political and administrative institutions.
There is a market out there - for a thoughtful debate about making Parliament more relevant to Canadians.
My deepest wish is that the health of our political institutions will make it on the hit parade of politics and the media. This exercise gives me hope.
Jim Sheppard, Executive Editor, globeandmail.com: To our readers: Thanks to all of you who submitted questions today. It says a lot about Globe readers and their interest in the way our system of government operates that we were inundated with so many questions. Dr. Savoie graciously spent far more than the alloted hour answering your questions and still we could not get to all of those submitted.