Yes, minister, no more: Today’s bureaucrats have a different attitude: Yakabuski quoting Paquet

Yakabuski presents one side of the debate on the political-bureaucratic relationship, that of Gilles Paquet and his followers, which emphasize ‘loyal implementation’ at the expense of  ‘fearless advice.’

Many others take the contrary view, flagging the rise of ideology and the decline of ‘fearless advice’ (e.g., among the former public servants fingered by Paquet and his acolytes, Mel Cappe on ideology over evidenceRalph Heintzman: Creeping politicization in the public serviceKevin Page delivers a warning to the public service, among academics, Boundary between politics, public service is ‘no man’s land’: Donald Savoie, David Zussman quoted in Ideology, minority rule, distrust shaped Harper government’s relationship with public service).

As I argued in my book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism, written from my perspective working to implement change by then Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and CIC Minister Kenney, the public service failed to provide impartial ‘fearless advice’ and recognize its own ideologies and biases, and was not quick enough to shift to ‘loyal implementation’ once the advice had been given. (Disclosure: I had worked with Paquet and his press on Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias but our divergence of views was too great).

Canadians need to understand better how the balance between the bureaucratic and political roles plays out in the related debates over evidence-based policy (and which evidence), the decline of government policy expertise and data and other issues.

While academics and some journalists can and do raise these issues, former public servants should also contribute to discussions on the role of the public service and the political-bureaucratic relationship given their on-the-ground experience.

While such contributions run the risk of having a partisan element in their critique of Conservative government actions (and certainly being perceived this way), it is also non-partisan in that such contributions also form advice to any future government on both framework and specific policy issues (which of course, it would be free to accept or refuse).

And of course, the sharper ideological edge of the Conservative government compared to the more centrist public servant perspective accentuates distrust on both sides:

This view is echoed in a March article in Optimum Online, a public-sector management journal that Prof. Paquet edits. The article, by a senior Ottawa-based policy analyst using a pseudonym, asserts that “many senior federal public servants [develop] a conviction that they are better guardians of basic values of our democracy than elected officials. While this attitude had to be somewhat tamed while they were on active duty, it has become fully unleashed in retirement.”

The author goes on: “This has naturally generated a flow of self-righteous condemnation of current government policies by many newly unencumbered retired senior officials, and has thereby provided immense moral support for those senior public servants still in active duty – former colleagues and friends – to heighten their own passive (or semi-active) opposition to the elected government from within. As a result, the corridor of what has come to be regarded as tolerable disloyalty from within would appear to have widened considerably.”

This trend is nearly certain to outlive the Harper government. Future governments will become even more suspicious of the bureaucracy they inherit. To some extent, such suspicion has always existed. But Canada has always resisted the American practice of administrations stuffing the top layers of the bureaucracy with political appointees. Prof. Paquet worries that will change unless the principles of bureaucratic loyalty and discretion are restored.

“Loyalty breeds loyalty,” he says. “It’s 50-50.”

For my take on the same article, see The Demonization of Stephen Harper.

A review I did on an earlier Paquet article, Super-Bureaucrats as Enfants du siècle, provides further material for this ongoing debate (‘Mental Prisons,’ the Public Service and Gilles Paquet).

Source: Yes, minister, no more: Today’s bureaucrats have a different attitude – The Globe and Mail

And my letter to the editor on this can be found here.

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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