Why the Canadian Government is Stuck in the Mud

In a recent post I pointed out that one of the big questions discussed in the public sector these days is should government be run like a business.  As James Ferabee points out in his article Can Government Services Be Run Like a Business?  There is a whopping difference between the overall mission and mandate of a government service provider and any private business. 

On March 5th, Donald J. Savoie published an op-ed in the Citizen in which he points out that the goal of government in Anglo-American democracies in the past 30 years or so has been to make public administration look like private sector management.

However he points out that not only have private-sector inspired reforms failed, they have made matters worse. Public-sector morale has fallen, policy units are less certain about their role in a post-positivism world and relations between politicians and public servants have deteriorated.

The private sector as I mentioned in my previous post values initiative and enterprise, invests for productive purposes, is thrifty, optimistic, and open to inventiveness.

The public sector, as Savoie points out values obedience and discipline, adheres to tradition, respects hierarchy and is exclusive. Because these differences were ignored by public sector management in the past 30 years, the public service as an institution has been knocked off its moorings. Attempts to make the public sector manage like the private sector have played havoc with two distinct ethical standards and roles both have played with success down through the ages. Public servants have lost their way, uncertain how they should now assess management performance, how they should generate policy advice, how they should work with their political masters, and how and when they should speak truth to political power and to their own institution.

He also points out that our political institutions are less tolerant of administrative miscues than they were 40 years ago.

I have certainly noted in my public sector career which started in the mid-seventies that making a mistake in recent years ends up on the front pages of newspapers, TV political shows and now on social media channels. These changes can be clearly linked to the rise of the new media and gotcha journalism, and along with access to information legislation, has had a profound impact on public-sector management at about the same time politicians decided to look to the private sector for inspiration on how to fix bureaucracy.

As a result centrally-prescribed rules and processes were substantially reduced in a fruitless search for a bottom line in government operations. The verdict according to Savoie … We have witnessed in the last decade, in particular, a tremendous growth in the cost of government operations and falling public service prestige. In brief, public administration can no more be made to look like private sector management than the private sector can be made to look like government.

As one Deputy Minister mentioned to me many years ago, the Auditor General, which is looked as the saviour of the public service, actually does more harm than good.  Although they do catch mistakes etc. the results are new demands and more resources to evaluation units, to risk management efforts, to values and ethics initiatives, to internal audit and to financial management controls and information technology. In many departments there is more effort and resources put towards the watchdogs than the people who are actually running the programs. I spent an inordinate amount of time as a public sector executive responding to these watchdogs and their “make work“ initiatives. There were periods where it was “tools down“ in providing government services so we could satisfy the enormous appetite of the watchdogs who have nothing better to do than impose on front line managers and their staff to do their bidding

Savoie points out that these shops are filled with bureaucrats and hired consultants who “turn cranks attached to nothing,” and churn out reports for senior management and Parliament that are barely read. Savoie argues this oversight bureaucracy has come at the expense of front-line services. The essence of the public service is to provide front-line services to Canadians and somehow the public sector has lost sight of that.

The public service is tasked with managing the paper burden, “feeding the beast“ and managing processes and we can lay much of that at the doorstep of the auditor-general and other parliamentary officers.” No business would survive under such oversight but it would take political courage to tell the auditor-general it was wrong.”

Finally, he says the government should eliminate most, if not all associate positions, which have contributed to the doubling of executive ranks over the years. There are now 20 associate deputy ministers and associate positions have been created for every level of management from assistant deputy minister to director. The consequence, he says, is that they have “thickened” government, muddied accountability and added another layer in the chain of command to “distort information” and make it more difficult for front line managers to get their concerns up the hierarchy. Source

Talk to a public servant in Ottawa today and ask them what is involved in getting anything approved through their departmental hierarchical maze. Also throw in central agencies like Privy Council Office (PCO) and the Prime Minister`s Office (PMO) and it is a wonder anything gets accomplished in government

So what is the solution?

There is a need to give public servants an administrative space that they can occupy relatively free from political and bureaucratic interference, and a sense of ownership, however tenuous, in their work. If this is not possible, then citizens need to accept that their public service will never measure up to expectations. It will remain riddled with inefficiencies and will be far more costly to taxpayers than it need be. If anything, private sector inspired management reform measures have made public servants feel worse about this institution than they need to. It will also become increasingly difficult to attract and retain the best and the brightest to the public service. source

Let me know what you think.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 × 4 =