Our health needs a healthy civil service: Picard

André Picard on the importance of a strong regulatory capacity and public service. His comment on Blueprint 2020 (highlighted) is unfortunately all too true:

Among other things, we need drug regulators who can regulate rigorously, free of political and corporate pressures. More broadly, we need a public service that works, and is free to work, in the public interest.

It’s not enough to have laws – let’s not forget that drug regulations were similar in Canada and the U.S. at the time thalidomide came along – we need people who can give those laws life, to embrace the spirit and not just the letter of the law, especially when it comes to ensuring public safety.

In short, we need to foster a new generation of Dr. Kelseys.

Sadly, we are doing exactly the opposite.

We have a public service that is muzzled, emasculated, derided and decimated.

There are about a quarter-million federal public servants in Canada, a considerably lower figure than from a decade ago. They serve a broad variety of functions from, overseeing national parks to ensuring aviation safety, and everything in between.

It is in our best interest, economically as well as socially, that every one of those workers serves a useful function.

Yet consultations with the public servants show that they feel mired in red tape and frustrated by cumbersome processes that leave them unable to do their jobs. That’s why the Privy Council has undertaken an initiative to transform the public service, dubbed Blueprint 2020.

The plan features some lovely rhetoric, such as Conservative Leader Stephen Harper saying in the introduction: “An agile, efficient and effective Public Service is essential to the well-being of Canadians.” And it is chock-full of good intentions.

But Blueprint 2020 lacks of a clear philosophical bent and strong political commitment to an independent, empowered public service.

What is required, especially in these difficult economic times, is a scientific, non-partisan approach to drafting and implementing policy.

While it is fashionable to bad-mouth the bureaucracy and sing the praises of free market, public regulation plays an essential role as a ballast to corporate excesses driven by self-interest.

The role of government, duly elected, is to formulate legislation and other policies in what it believes is the best interests of citizens. But its role is not to micromanage and bark orders down the line. Rather, elected officials should depend on civil servants for thoughtful, independent advice, especially on scientific matters.

What we need today is evidence-based policy-making if, for no other reason than it produces better policy.

Public servants should not be toadies, singing the praises of ill-conceived or partisan initiatives. Nor should they be muzzled. They should be offering constructive criticism to ensure policies are workable and fair, and analysis and insight that helps avoid unintended consequences.

For this, we need to create an atmosphere where public servants can innovate, take risks, and, as Dr. Kelsey did, call B.S. when necessary.

If we want better government and more sensible public policies, we need to give public-sector employees autonomy, authority and responsibility.

That, rather than a celebration of individual heroics, should be Frances Kelsey’s legacy.

Our health needs a healthy civil service – The Globe and Mail.

Kevin Page dismisses Privy Council’s Blueprint 2020 as ‘empty vessel’, other commentary

Hard to disagree with these comments by Kevin Page, former Parliamentary Budget Officer and currently attached to University of Ottawa, and Donald Savoie of Université de Moncton:

“I don’t see a vision and I have been very critical of the Blueprint 2020, but there is a context for change,” said Page.

“Where is the state of policy and financial analysis in government and its capacity to deliver services? We should be true to our values and no one can say we have been true to accountability and transparency in the past five years, moving on big initiatives with no supporting analysis.

“The public service is accountable to the executive but it is also accountable to Parliament and they have dropped the ball on that, and that comes with the price of lost public trust.”

Donald Savoie, the Canada Research chair in administration and governance at the Universite de Moncton, is also pushing for reform but argues the problem lies with the public service’s relationship with ministers, cabinet and Parliament….

He said all the chatter and discussions generated by Blueprint 2020 may be invigorating, especially for young public servants eager to harness technology and open up government, but it won’t work unless that relationship with politicians changes.

“I can’t figure out Blueprint 2020. It’s like grabbing smoke. I don’t understand where it is going. Maybe something fundamental or important is taking shape in the system and if that’s the case, good luck, but for someone from the outside looking in, there’s nothing there. It seems vapid … and until you deal with the role of ministers, Parliament and their relationship with public servants … the vision is only sentences in a report and will not have any legs.”

Kevin Page dismisses Privy Council’s Blueprint 2020 as ‘empty vessel’.

And the official government and bureaucratic view, predictably more rose-coloured:

Public servants waiting to see which vision for the bureaucracy will prevail in 2014

Lawrence Martin in the Globe takes a similarly hard-hitting approach, highlighting the relationship issue between the government and the public service. He goes too far in asserting the independence of the public service, given its role to serve the government of the day. Codifying a “moral contract” as suggested by Ralph Heintzman beyond the general understanding of “fearless advice and loyal implementation” is unlikely to happen, and would likely be too rigid. As always, finding the right balance is a challenge:

In the face of all the problems, top bureaucrat Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council, has unveiled Blueprint 2020, a vision for a reformed world-class public service. Many such reform and modernization schemes have been tried in the past with scant results. This one, which follows a commendable consultation process within the service, is full of fine-sounding stuff like citizen engagement, smart use of new technologies and a whole-of-government approach to improve service delivery and value for money…

But not much in Mr. Wouters’s plan appears aimed at restoring the degree of independence the public service has traditionally exercised. Its politicization, a most serious example being that of the Privy Council Office, must be stopped. The public service should be accountable not only to the executive branch but also to Parliament. On the latter, says Mr. Page, it has dropped the ball, at the price of a loss in public trust.

Meaningful reform would entail something like what’s been proposed by former Treasury Board executive Ralph Heintzman. What is needed, he says, is a “moral contract,” a charter that sets well-defined boundaries between ministers, public servants and Parliament.

 Time to renew Canada’s cowed, bloated bureaucracy 

In fairness to all, the challenge in any such PS renewal initiative is high, there are no formal evaluations of previous efforts at PS renewal that I am aware (some informal reflections, however),  the fundamental limits of what can be done given bureaucratic and political heirarchies (government works top down, not bottom up), not to mention the particular context of the current government-public service relations.

Professional and Non Partisan Thoughts on Renewing the Public Service: How Nudges Work for Government (and Might Work Against Blueprint 2020)

Good piece on nudges, and how some of the existing biases and approaches work against innovation in the public service.

Professional and Non Partisan Thoughts on Renewing the Public Service: How Nudges Work for Government (and Might Work Against Blueprint 2020).