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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Donald Savoie

Who has the power? Add to ...

The Speaker's recent decision on access to documents on Afghan detainees sought to rebalance somewhat the relationship between Parliament and the government. Anything short of that decision would have sent a sombre message to MPs: Only Question Period now matters and, as for the rest, your institution is slowly being turned into a relic of what parliamentary democracy once looked like.

Parliament is not the only institution in a state of disrepair. The cabinet has been turned into a focus group, and government departments that once held prestige and standing, such as Foreign Affairs, are today no different from any other government department. All are dominated by the prime minister and his courtiers, and all must look outside their organizations for direction in a world where policy issues no longer respect organizations' boundaries. One can hardly look to political parties to locate power. They have been turned into little more than election-day organizations and, because they stand for nothing more than what the leaders stand for, they are no longer able to attract members as they once did.

As the old saying goes, power abhors a vacuum. Anyone looking to locate where power now resides must look to personalism rather than to institutions and organizations. When it comes to political and even economic power, what we now have is more of a movable feast linked to individuals rather than to institutions, organizations and processes. When things truly matter to those with political and economic power, they will push aside whatever is in the way to get the job done.

Canada's central bank may well have violated its own act to put in place measures to deal with the 2008 financial crisis. Paul Volcker, former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, said the Fed's decision to come to the rescue of Bear Stearns went to "the very edge of Fed's lawful and implied power." Institutions and even statutes are no match for the "What matters is what works" mantra in today's fast-paced world. Institutions and organizations can no longer cope, so those with the power to do so will simply cast them aside.

If you think that this is a public-sector-only phenomenon, think again. The misuse of assets, highly publicized fraud cases, conflicts of interest and spectacular failures have led to an overhaul of corporate governance. Here, too, organizations have been made too cumbersome to cope.

The theory is that we have overloaded public and private organizations with so many accountability processes and transparency requirements that we have rendered them largely ineffective. Government agencies, it seems, are no longer able to drive change, to implement a stimulus package or to help define the government's policy on Afghanistan. Leaders know this better than anyone else and it explains why they now regularly turn to a policy czar, a champion, a high-profile consultant or academic or a think tank to plow through and get things done. Simply put, we have made institutions and organizations too thick, too complicated and too slow to cope with what the global economy and modern means of communications throw at them.

In the private sector, business leaders, including Jack Welch, Bill Gates and Richard Branson, embody personally the success of their firms and not the other way around. The perception, at least, is that they had the necessary powerful personalities to drive success through many obstacles. Henry Mintzberg went to the heart of the matter recently when he observed that firms are no longer being managed, they are being "led, heroically, no doubt."

The Bernie Madoff scandal on Wall Street speaks to our time. Mr. Madoff's reputation was such that individuals and foundations lined up to see if he would agree to invest their money. His strong personal reputation gave him the ability to pick and choose who was worthy of his knowledge and his ability to generate above-average returns. The lucky ones got in, or so they thought. The Madoff name became synonymous with solid investments and few, it seems, ever bothered to carry out due diligence. The Madoff name apparently was all that was needed, and if Mr. Madoff had your money, you could count on his personal reputation to generate a healthy return on your investment.

However, important institutions and organizations have come off their moorings. In the past, they properly housed power and influence, but they provided access for all to see how decisions were made. Personalism does not. It also raises issues of legitimate-versus-illegitimate power and puts still more opportunities in the reach of those who have power.

Donald J. Savoie holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton and is the author of Power: Where Is It?

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