Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias – One Year Later

From the Hill Times

While ‘fearless advice and loyal implementation’ remains the valid fundamental principle, some discussion of notional “guidelines” on its application may be helpful to both the political and bureaucratic level.

OTTAWA—When I wrote Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism a year ago, my intent was to provoke discussion on the relationship between the government and the public service.

My argument was that providing “fearless advice and loyal implementation” was challenging given the sharper, more conservative ideology, of the government. This led to frequent challenges, often anecdote-based, of the evidence and social science basis of our policy advice.

But we in the public service were far from blameless. We failed to acknowledge our own implicit ideology and bias consequently did not draw from a wide enough evidence base to be aware of where the government was coming from. We all too readily dismissed anecdotes rather than acknowledged them as part of the evidence.

Other former officials have also commented on the strained relationship.

Ralph Heintzman, in Canada 2020: Renewal of the Federal Public Service, argued for an independent, arms-length public service. Ruth Hubbard and Gilles Paquet disagreed, arguing that the real problem is public servant competency in The Real Problem with the Public Service and Super-Bureaucrats as Enfants du siècle. Maryantonett Flumian reminded us that officials have to implement government priorities as long as they are legal in Proposed Public Service Reforms Could Give Bureaucrats Too Much Power.

So the good news is that the conversation is happening and ongoing.

In promoting my book, I spoke with a variety of groups, including former deputies, policy analysts, students, academics and journalists.

The limited feedback I received from the political level indicated that I had achieved my goal of balancing government and public servant perspectives.

From these discussions, particularly with more senior officials, it was clear that there was a relationship issue, for which both sides shared responsibility.

But it was striking that the theme of mutual distrust and suspicion permeated most levels with direct experience in working with the political level.

Equally striking to some was that the relationship, and the overall approach did not change once the government obtained a majority in 2011.

Some pointed out that I over-simplified the ideological divide, as public servants in economic departments have more conservative views than those in social departments. Others questioned whether it was values, rather than ideology, but did not disagree on the divide.

Others acknowledged that the public service had not adequately prepared for the transition by not understanding the ideological and values roots of the government.

Some expressed frustration at providing advice that was routinely discounted or viewed as disloyal, and questioned how it was possible to provide advice when the government’s world view was so at odds with their best, professional advice, even acknowledging their implicit biases.

Most were pessimistic that a change of government would necessarily change things for the better, as the success of the Harper government in implementing its agenda and controlling the message was not lost on the other parties.

Those with longer memories warned against nostalgia for “the good old days,” noting that they were not as good as portrayed.

It was unclear the degree of which the relationship issue was being discussed within and among departments, or whether the Destination 2020 initiative, a more comfortable process discussion, overshadowed a more fundamental re-examination.

With the appointment of the new PCO Clerk, Janice Charette, the question of rebuilding the public service arises.

David McLaughlin in Five Ways to Renew the Public Service, argues for reducing the churn of deputies, building back research capacity, engaging with “smart, committed Canadians,” shifting the Canada School of Public Service to being an “ideas incubator,” and lastly, thinking about the long-term.

Mel Cappe similarly noted the need for good analysis and evidence, and the risks of replacing evidence with ideology.

David Zussman, in Off and Running, raises the issue of how to prepare for transitions and what the relationship should be between PS and political level post-election.

The relationship issue needs to be addressed as part of transition planning for what may or may not include a change of government.

This starts with the acknowledgment that the public service has to be more mindful of its assumptions, biases, values and, yes, ideologies.

It means that in parallel with the detailed briefing books, a more fundamental examination of the values and ideologies of the major parties is in order.

Understanding their values and ideologies better will help public servants be prepared to support an incoming government on the many issues not identified or addressed in their public platform.

While “fearless advice and loyal implementation” remains the valid fundamental principle, some discussion of notional “guidelines” on its application may be helpful to both the political and bureaucratic level.

Lastly, if one accepts the premise that some of the restraint and other measures (e.g., the Census, science and research capacity, lack of transparency) have harmed the ability to serve Canadians, the public service needs to come up with a short, focused list of areas where rebuilding is required for discussion with any incoming government.

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