Donald Savoie: How government went off the rails

Donald Savoie confirms the policy/service delivery hierarchy.

My experience when Service Canada was established, and then watching how the both the Government and the public service whittled away at the vision of making service as important as policy, is a case in point.

Another example was Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s inability in 2010-12 to implement a series of inter-related changes – new citizenship test, language assessment process, anti-fraud efforts and program review cuts to the regions – which resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of new citizens:

Below the fault line is where government is coming up short, often because the ones operating above it have no appreciation of how the machinery operates. It is also where the great majority of Canadians deal with their government. The view among politicians and the courts is that government is about 90 per cent ideas and 10 per cent implementation. Making a policy or program announcement, defining the right media line and keeping an eye on the blame game as it is played out in Parliament and the media are what truly matters. They expect that program managers below the fault line should simply run on their tracks and avoid providing fodder for the blame game. The view among the majority of Canadians and front-line government workers, however, is that government should be 90 per cent delivering services efficiently and 10 per cent ideas. Canadians are too often left waiting, for an hour or so, to talk to someone after calling a 1-800 number, days to get a phone call returned or weeks to get an answer to what they regard as a straightforward question.

Not only have we overloaded the machinery, we have also misdiagnosed the patient. The thinking that we could somehow make the public sector as efficient as the private sector was misguided, costly and counterproductive. The thinking conveniently overlooks the fact that the public and private sectors are different in both important and unimportant ways. Consider the following: 76 per cent of public-sector employees belong to a union versus 16 per cent for the private sector. The blame game plays very differently in both sectors and the private sector has an unrelenting bottom line, while the public sector has none, or rather has a top line called the prime minister, Parliament and the media. In the private sector, good managers learn to delegate down. In the public sector, good managers learn to delegate up.

In the search for a bottom line, governments have created an abundance of oversight bodies, management constraint measures and vapid performance and evaluation reports. It has only made the machinery of government thicker, more risk-averse and created a veritable army of public servants kept busy turning a crank not attached to anything. It has also given rise to a serious morale problem in the public service.

This is not an indictment on what government tried to do or on the role of government in modern society but rather how the government tried to do it. Thinking that you can simply pile on responsibilities to the existing machinery and somehow emulate private-sector management practices while retaining the command and control approach to operation is where things went off the rails.

  Donald Savoie: How government went off the rails  

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.

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