Public Service ‘turned on its head’By Jessica Bruno*
Canada’s federal publicservice has been “transformed by stealth” over the past 30 years to make it more like the private sector, but these reforms have increased the overhead cost of government, decreased the number of front-line workers and have turned the traditional role of public servants advising governments on policy “on its head,” says Donald Savoie, a former mandarin and a leading expert on public administration and governance, in his upcoming book, Whatever Happened to The Music Teacher? How Government Decides and Why.
Professor Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in public Administration and Governance at Université de Moncton, and author of more than 40 books on politics and public administration, said evidence-based policy making today is not valued as it once was, and “policy-making has become a matter of Google searches, focus groups, and public opinion searches, where a well-connected lobbyist can provide any answers politicians wish to hear”.
He said it’s time for Canadians and politicians to have a frank discussion about what they want from the civil service and answer fundamental questions on the role of the public service.
“We haven’t seen a revolution, we haven’t seen the public service go off a cliff, but over the past 30 years or so, it has changed by stealth,” said Professor Savoie.
His latest book, Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? How Government Decides and Why will be out in March.
Professor Savoie said his latest book issues “a cry of passion” for Canadians to understand and care more deeply about their public and political institutions.
“I think the time has come to ask and answer fundamental questions on the role of the public service on the policy advisory front, and on the service to Canadians front,” he said.
Over the past 30 years, the prevailing management tactic in the federal civil service has been to move away from the traditional role of providing advice on policy, and to try and make it look more like the private sector, something Professor Savoie said is “misguided”.
“No matter how hard you try, and no matter how many times you try it, you can never make government look like the private sector.
“They are basically, fundamentally, different in both important and unimportant ways,” he said.
The difference boils down to the fact that in the private sector, there is a bottom line - either a company is successful and turns a profit, or it does not, said Professor Savoie.
The same can’t be said for the public sector, but that hasn’t stopped the growth of oversight or the reporting mechanisms attempting to extract the same kind of accountability, he said.
The attempts have resulted in a public service that is less dynamic, more risk-averse, and more mired in bureaucracy than before - exactly the opposite of what those hoping to import private-sector ideals into government were hoping to achieve, said Professor Savoie.
It’s also created a burgeoning body of overseers and departmental reports that has taken away from the public sector’s service delivery role.
The title of Professor Savoie’s latest book comes from a conversation he had with a prominent businessman and Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter.
The businessman recounted that when he grew up in Cumberland County, NS, the school he went to had a music teacher, and in town there was a small Department of Natural Resources office with two public servants in it.
Now, the department is housed in two buildings and has a staff of 150, while the local school can’t afford a music teacher.
In his book, Professor Savoie addresses the paradox of disappearing front-line workers and expanding bureaucracy.
“We’ve taken away from the music-teacher type people, people on the front line delivering services.
“We’ve reduced their ranks and what have we added?
“Well, if they don’t have the policy advisory function that we once did, the one thing we’ve added - and in my view grossly oversupplied - is oversight bodies, oversight functions, reporting requirements,” he explained.
“Not that long ago, 25 years ago, 71 per cent of federal public servants were in the field, in regional offices and local offices.
“Today, it’s down to 57 per cent.
“Imagine the shift,” he said.
Professor Savoie said that the public service is now burdened with so many reporting requirements that many public servants are “shell-shocked” about always having one or more oversight bodies looking over their shoulders.
The extra reporting burden, far from increasing transparency, has taken a toll on the system, said Professor Savoie.
He noted that the resulting accountability reports, with few exceptions, are rarely read.
“They are busy turning cranks that are not attached to anything, and there is a tremendous cost to taxpayers, and there is a tremendous cost to the traditional culture of the public service,” he said.
“A big part of what people do in government is blame avoidance,” said Professor Savoie, who noted that Parliament and the media are “blame machines.”
Public servants have been getting squeezed out of policy advisory roles since the 1980s, and it’s happened not just in Canada, but across Anglo-American democracies, said Professor Savoie.
“It’s not a Tory phenomenon and it’s not a Liberal phenomenon.
“Politicians, starting in the 1980s, decided that public servants had too much influence on policy so they pushed them back, they pushed them far back,” he stressed.
The shift raises the question, Professor Savoie said, if we don’t want public servants to be policy advisers, what do we want them to do?
The change in priorities has also created a culture clash in the public service, he said.
Newer public servants are taught to respond more to central government agencies, political requirements, and oversight bodies while old guard public servants are rooted in the tradition of policy advice and delivering services to Canadians.
“That’s two different cultures: one looks up, one looks down.
“When I say, ‘What happened to the music teacher?’ Essentially really what it means is what happened to that second culture,” he said.
When Professor Savoie was speaking to senior bureaucrats about his book, they tried to persuade him not to write it, he said.
They were concerned that it would heap more criticism onto the already unloved civil service.
“I don’t think this book is critical of the public service, or critical of politicians, it just explains how we’ve gone astray,” said Professor Savoie.
“I think we need to give a sense of value and esteem to the public service.
“I think we cannot denigrate the public service and think that all will be well,” he said.
* Jessica Bruno is a journalist with Canadian news weekly The Hills Times
The full article first appeared at www.hilltimes.com