The world was treated last week to the redemptive sight of an American government employee holding the President of the United States to account. Fiona Hill’s testimony at Donald Trump’s impeachment hearing was brave and necessary, and a welcome reminder of the critical role professional public servants play in a democracy.
Today that role is more important than ever. As feral partisanship devours our politics, and governments – Ottawa included – continue to centralize power at the expense of elected legislatures, the boring, grey men and women of the bureaucracy could wind up saving us all.
Ms. Hill’s testimony was an example of that, and also of the dual role public servants can play when the times call for it.
As Mr. Trump’s chief adviser on Russian and European affairs on the National Security Council, Ms. Hill’s job was to inform the President’s agenda and help co-ordinate its implementation – whether she agreed with it or not.
It’s the same role carried out in Canada by federal and provincial deputy ministers, senior executives and the entire public service.
One minute you’re implementing a major policy – a carbon tax, for instance – and the next you are dismantling it because a new government has different ideas. A public servant might advise for or against the change, but in the end they must quietly carry out the elected government’s agenda in an unbiased fashion.
On occasion, though, a bureaucrat may be forced to abandon grey anonymity for the glare of public disclosure.
Ms. Hill did that. She resigned from the NSC in July, and last week she added to the growing bounty of evidence supporting the allegation that Mr. Trump tried to shake down the newly elected President of Ukraine.
Mr. Trump used unofficial channels to tell Volodymyr Zelensky that the White House would hold back millions in Congressionally approved military aid if he didn’t announce that his government was investigating Mr. Trump’s chief domestic political rival, Democrat Joe Biden, on corruption charges, and also that it was looking into the debunked claim that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Mr. Zelensky was also allegedly informed that securing a meeting with the White House was dependent on his co-operation. Because the story leaked to the press in time, the White House ended up sending the aid without getting Mr. Trump his quid pro quo.
Ms. Hill’s testimony was widely hailed as an example of a public servant standing up for the public interest in the face of wrongdoing. And it indeed fell on the right side of a line that all public servants must walk.
There’s an important difference between the bureaucrat who publicly voices a personal disagreement with a government policy and one who has discovered something illegal or unethical, and blows the whistle.
The former is almost always wrong. Public servants must implement an administration’s policies without bias. They are unelected; they have no democratic authority to try to usurp the wishes of the elected.
In 2015, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won his first election, there was a justified outcry when civil servants in the Global Affairs department inappropriately cheered his victory when he visited their offices. Canadian bureaucrats aren’t prohibited from voting, but they have to maintain the appearance of impartiality in public and can never let personal political beliefs infect their work.
The same goes for deputy ministers – the top civil servant in every ministry. It’s less the case in the U.S. federal government, where cabinet jobs go to appointees whose politics and vision align with those of the president of the day, and where the top officials in most departments are routinely changed on the same grounds.
But even though the systems are different, the principle is universal: Democracy depends on bureaucrats who are professionally neutral and whose overriding allegiance is not to a political party but to the rule of law.
Mr. Trump is a reminder that some politicians would love the convenience of a politicized civil service that puts the leader’s interests before those of the public and turns a blind eye to his or her wrongdoing.
Ms. Hill, in turn, reminds us that, sometimes, the person protecting us against the erosion of democracy is the unelected, professional, ethical bureaucrat.