Klassen: When the bureaucrat is the boss, democracy starts to suffer

While many written upon the relationship between elected representatives and the un-elected public service, seems like an odd time to express this concern where governments that have relied on public health expertise have responded much better to COVID-19 than those who have not.

In the end, elected representatives are accountable through the ballot box for the decisions that they take. At a time of a pandemic, going against public health expertise is a high-risk approach as the US and UK approaches illustrate:

The government response to COVID-19 in Canada has made explicit how much power bureaucrats have amassed. Civil servants are more influential now than ever, not because they make decisions but because they are the keepers of the specialized knowledge necessary to govern the country.

Politicians enact laws and decide on budgets but have little, if any, expertise in a policy area. For example, how can one person, such as a prime minister or minister, understand the complexities of the Income Tax Act with its more than 3,200 pages? The expert knowledge of a particular field such as public health resides with permanent officials, such as Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer and her 2,400 staff at the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Sometimes politicians have the luxury of time before reaching a policy decision, which minimizes the influence of government bureaucrats in shaping the outcome. Typically, a new program or trade agreement is implemented after years of proposals, consultations, hearings and opportunities for politicians to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the implications and trade-offs.

In contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic demands the enactment of new programs and laws in a matter of weeks, if not days. Canadian politicians have relied exclusively on the advice of bureaucrats in designing responses at the federal, provincial or municipal level. Politicians of every stripe have adhered to the instructions of public health bureaucrats. All speeches by politicians and government statements highlight that “the government is acting on the best advice of public health officials.”

U.S. politicians have been less keen to follow the advice of bureaucrats. Donald Trump makes comments that are at odds with his public health advisers. He places blame on the public health officials at the World Health Organization. Democratic and Republication governors pursue strategies on public health guided in some significant measure by ideology. The populist streak in the U.S. and the enshrined right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence produces a politically diverse response to COV-19.

“Peace, order and good government,” enshrined in Canada’s constitution, has guided the relationship between elected politicians and appointed civil servants since before 1867. Peace and order require stability and continuity, which is what permanent public servants provide regardless of the party in power. Good government requires specialized knowledge, which the public service also provides. Unlike the U.S., Canada’s politicians do not disagree with their senior civil servants on key policy matters.

A century ago, Canada’s federal public service was small, with more than half of its employees working for the post office, and in transportation and customs-related jobs. Income taxes, as a temporary measure, had just been introduced in 1917. At that time, the responsibilities of Cabinet ministers were considerably simpler than today, decision times much slower, and the news cycle much longer.

Starting in the 1940s, when the role of government expanded dramatically as the welfare state grew, power began to seep from elected officials to bureaucrats. The depth of knowledge required to understand public policy decisions is no longer available to ministers, who remain in portfolios for two years on average, during which time they must also fulfil their constituency and parliamentary duties.

One outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is that bureaucrats will be even more influential, at least in matters related to public safety. This may seem an appealing prospect but is not in the best interests of Canadians.

Allowing public health experts, military planners, transportation engineers, educators and other unaccountable government officials to determine policy is undemocratic. Democracy means accepting the messy business of politics with its partisan rivalries, compromises, tradeoffs, U-turns and inconsistencies. Democracy also demands that politicians have the fortitude to set aside – at times – the specialized and rational calculations and recommendations of their officials.

Thomas Klassen is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University in Toronto.

Source: Klassen: When the bureaucrat is the boss, democracy starts to suffer

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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