‘Mental Prisons,’ the Public Service and Gilles Paquet

In the spirit of Paquet's call for the "highest and best use of irony and irreverence" and "methodological and intellectual cruelty."

In the spirit of Paquet’s call for the “highest and best use of irony and irreverence” and “methodological and intellectual cruelty.”

My review of Gilles Paquet’s Super-Bureaucrats as Enfants du siècle in the Hill Times:

Ralph Heintzman provoked considerable debate in his Canada 2020: Renewal of the Federal Public Service arguing for an independent, arms-length public service. Ruth Hubbard countered it with The real problem with the public service, arguing that the real problem is competency, not the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels. Maryantonett Flumian reminds us that politicians are elected, officials are not, and they have to implement government priorities as long as they do not break the law in How public servants support democracy: a response to latest Canada 2020 study.

Gilles Paquet adds his voice in Super-Bureaucrats as Enfants du siècle, which, while focused on officers of Parliament, casts his critique more broadly.

Paquet’s language, as always, pulls no punches. The “tribe” of super-bureaucrats form an “oligarchy.” They have a “sense of superior expertise and total infallibility.” They are agents of “counter-democracy” and impose their “technocratic and ideological views … usurping the role of elected officials.”

Officials practise “active or passive disloyalty” and are guilty of “sabotage.” The “fairy tale” of political reliance on anecdotes versus official reliance on anecdotes led to a “destructive … misuse of power,” which “translated in subterranean efforts to block, derail, or deflect the efforts of fairly able politicians.”

But apart from the tone, what is Paquet’s argument?

That super-bureaucrats, starting with officers of Parliament, but including adjudicatory bodies and the courts, have largely usurped the authority of the government and Parliament through “mandate creep with gusto.”

Their ideology or “diktats of indiscriminate compassion” allow them to portray themselves on the “side of the angels” while pursuing an “unlimited increase of the resources dedicated to the bureaucracy.”

“Super-bureaucrats and higher courts judges have often made unwarranted claims based much more on hubris than on superior competence, and couched in drama-queenesque rhetoric …”

Media and academics have been “defending tooth and nail the sacredness of the super-bureaucrats.”

Other critiques of officers of Parliament have been expressed more in terms of the diminished role of Parliament than of deference to the government (Donald Savoie).

But let’s take Paquet’s argument at face value that the super-bureaucrats and others, including “low-level bureaucrats” like he mentioned, have been actively undermining the government.

I wrote Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism as more critical of the public service than the government because I felt that we had failed in our role to provide neutral and impartial advice.

We did not acknowledge our ideological and value biases, our evidence base was too slanted towards these biases, and we clung to a narrow interpretation of risk.

But the government also shares some responsibility. It arrived to government with a stronger ideological focus, one that often coloured its perception of evidence and preference for anecdotes (e.g., labour market shortages), and its willingness to discount risk (e.g., recent number of Supreme Court defeats).

But more fundamentally, Paquet is arguing for little or no constraints upon the government of the day.

He devalues the balance that officers of Parliament, adjudicatory bodies, and the courts provide in a context where Parliament no longer plays that role, given increased partisanship, expanded use of time allocation, and omnibus legislation. These trends predate the Conservative government, but have expanded under it.

Moreover, Paquet is also silent on the government’s silencing of those whose statutory role requires them to be a watchdog (e.g., starting with Linda Keen) or kills bodies that provide independent advice (e.g., National Round Table on the Environment on the Economy).

And does he really believe that the original version of Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act, should not have been challenged?

Reading this paper alongside his companion article, On Critical Thinking, one is struck by just how much Paquet, so critical of others being trapped by their “mental prison,” falls into the same trap.

Is he as mindful of his own biases, ideology, and assumptions as he accuses others of “disingenuity, sophistry, and bullshit?”After all, all three can be found in the left, centre, and right-wing versions of conventional wisdom.

Heintzman’s Canada 2020 report continues to provoke debate (pay wall)



About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to ‘Mental Prisons,’ the Public Service and Gilles Paquet

  1. Pingback: Yes, minister, no more: Today’s bureaucrats have a different attitude: Yakabuski quoting Paquet | Multicultural Meanderings

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