May: The time and place for consultants

Good discussion and commentary on the issues which reflect some longstanding management failures at both political and bureaucratic levels as well as the overall complexity of government and accountabilities:

Canada’s budget watchdog says it’s time for a “deep dive” into the workings of the public service to unravel why departments are spending billions of dollars on consultants while also hiring a record number of employees.

Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) Yves Giroux said the recent spotlight on the government’s growing dependency on contracting for professional services — for everything from policy advice to running programs — raises fundamental questions about the role of the public service.

“Do we have the public service that we need right now?” he said in an interview. “Is it well equipped to deal with the challenges and the expectations that Canadians have of the public service — especially in light of its growth in recent years and the extensive use of outside advice and services?

“I think it’s time to do a real deep dive.”

Giroux is joining a growing chorus of experts who argue it’s time to fix the public service. Former clerks of the Privy Council Office, senior bureaucrats and academics are weighing in with views on what’s wrong and possible ways to fix it.

Giroux’s call comes with the release of his latest report on the government’s spending plans. They showed the cost of outsourcing will hit a record $21.4 billion this year. Spending on contracting has increased by more than a third since 2017-18.

He said the growth of consultants during the COVID-19 crisis was expected, but it hasn’t stopped. Rather than slow down to pre-pandemic levels, contracting which shot up 20 per cent in 2021-22, is still growing at a rate of more than 10 per cent this year.

The bigger question is why departments are adding thousands of employees to the federal payroll at the same time. The number of new hires has grown in lockstep with more consultants.

“If you increase the size of the public service, it’s because you feel there are needs that need to be met. That should reduce the use of consultants, but it’s not happening. They’re both growing in line,” said Giroux.

Personnel costs are the biggest single operating cost in government. The PBO estimates the seven-year hiring boom under the Trudeau government is expected to push the size of the workforce to about 409,000 jobs within five years. 

The PBO said spending on personnel grew an average of 6.7 per cent a year – from $39.6 billion to $60.7 billion since 2015. That’s about a four-per-cent increase in compensation for each full-time employee.

Giroux said it might make sense if services were improving, but the bureaucracy is taking a beating for backlogs and delays in passports, immigration, access to information and privacy (ATIP) requests, veteran services and employment insurance.

It also doesn’t add up because the government and unions claim public servants are as productive, if not more, since the pandemic and the recent shift to hybrid work.

“Services are not improving significantly. In fact, some would say they are improving not at all… So, I wonder what’s going on? It’s a real mystery,” said Giroux.

The House of Commons government operations committee is juggling three separate probes into federal contracting. The most politically charged is the $116 million the Trudeau government spent on scandal-plagued consultants McKinsey & Company. Canada’s auditor general Karen Hogan announced she will conduct a review into the McKinsey contracts.

The committee is also widening its study to contracts of other big consulting firms — Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), KPMG, Ernst and Young (EY) and Accenture.

Many worry the committee hearings are so focused on the political blowback of tarnished McKinsey and its possible ties to the Liberals, that getting at what’s behind the growth of consultants and employees is getting lost.

Consultants, who are hired for their expertise and new ideas, never seem to leave. Once in, they get a lock on work and prevent the public service from developing its own in-house expertise.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for departments to follow on what work is best done by public servants or contractors. Many expect such guidance will be one of the recommendations out of these studies.

Treasury Board argues both are growing simply because there is so much more work. An activist government, the Liberals have fingers in many pies and ministers have mandate letters with long to-do lists. Treasury Board President Mona Fortier has saidthe cost of professional services as a percentage of federal spending has largely remained the same since 2011.

Dominic Barton, McKinsey’s former global managing director, told MPs that McKinsey doesn’t provide policy advice. Rather, it “executes” what government wants to do, be it streamlining its pay or passport processes or digitization, moving paper-based operations to electronic.

But Barton also said the public service operates in the “stone age” and the government needs to up its game with more training and new technology.

“There’s a technology transformation that’s needed in this government and in all governments. I don’t want to be harsh about it, but we’re in the Stone Age. We have to spend the money. That will need a lot to be able to do it, but it will enable the organization to do more if we do it.”

The government is heavily reliant on IT consulting. Thirty per cent of its IT jobs are vacant and the experts they need are often not interested in becoming public servants. All this scrutiny will make public servants skittish about using them which could be a problem because “government can’t run without them,” said one senior bureaucrat.

The government contracts for all kinds of services. For cleaning, security, building maintenance, translation, temporary help and IT services. A Carleton University research team studying federal contracts took a run at breaking down the kind of services consultants offered departments.

Management consulting, which is typically for advice, is a small portion of government’s contracting bill for professional services. It has grown the most since in recent years and hit about $800 million in 2021-22.

But it’s the public service’s job is to provide frank and “fearless” advice to government – advice that puts the public interest first.

The growth in consulting raises questions whether public servants have lost its capacity to provide policy advice or their advice isn’t sought or trusted. Maybe they lack inhouse expertise or savvy to be good shoppers and buyers? Or are risk-averse public servants so cowed by years of bashing and criticism they opt for the safer course of running ideas by consultants or hiring those who provide the answer they think their political masters want to hear?

A common concern among those calling for reform of the public service is the centralization of power in the prime minister’s office and the frayed trust between politicians and bureaucrats. That relationship underpins Canada’s Westminster-style democracy.

Giroux, a long-time public servant before becoming an agent of Parliament, believes the public service has the capacity to provide advice if there’s an appetite for it.

“Is it because ministers don’t trust the advice they’re getting from the public service, which would be a big issue,” he said. “I think it leads to the need for a deep dive a thorough look at the state of the public service. Is it still the public service that politicians the executive, parliamentarians and Canadians expect.”

Giroux said the public service needs a top-to-bottom review of how the public service is structured, organized and equipped to deliver the kind of services Canadians expect today. In a 24/7 world, the public service has to rethink how it works, hires, pays, manage its workers, including where they work and hours of work.

Michael Wernick, a former clerk and Jarislowsky chair at the University of Ottawa agrees structural issues are key. He says the “core software” of government – its mountain of rules, job classifications, human resources regime and technology, are outdated.

“There’s very little attention to how it works. Its internal governance and processes and structures – basically the software on which it runs is like Windows 95,” he said

Donald Savoie, one of Canada’s leading experts on public administration, has argued for a royal commission. He said the “alarm bells about the public service have been ringing for a long time” and it’s time for a debate. Savoie says he was an “academic in the wilderness” when he warned about eroding trust and the concentration of power in the 1999 book, Governing form the Centre. Now, it’s a premise that’s widely accepted.

But Savoie said any efforts to reform the public service won’t get off the ground without the support of the prime minister.

Giroux said the state of the public service has been on his mind for a while. The pandemic dramatically changed the nature and how public servants work so the timing is ideal.

He recently mused at a Senate’s committee about a nonchalance pervading the public service, a ‘broken system” and the need to “crack the whip” in some departments. He lamented the lack of a “challenge function” for public servants. They set their own targets for the programs they run, often setting the bar “not too high so that it doesn’t look too easy but neither too low.”

“There are pockets of excellence, but there are also pockets of, I would say, nonchalance in the public service. They’re overwhelmed or something is not right. Not being inside the public service, unfortunately, I cannot pinpoint what is in need of fixing,” he said.

Source: The time and place for consultants

May/Savoie: Canada needs a royal commission to fix problems with the federal public service

There are so many issues where a royal commission would be useful and provide deeper insights and solutions to some of the weaknesses of Canadian government policies and programs:

Canada’s public service needs to be fixed. It’s growing like gangbusters, faces relentless attack, is losing the confidence of politicians, and struggles to keep up in a changing world because it is using decades-old policies and processes, says a leading expert.

Donald Savoie, Canada’s pre-eminent scholar and expert on public administration, is calling for a royal commission into the role of the public service, the first in more than 45 years, to fix its deteriorating relationship with ministers, Parliament and Canadians.

Savoie has written exhaustively about what’s wrong with the public service. But he now believes the non-partisan institution has so irreparably come off its moorings that only an independent royal commission can fix it.

“I reluctantly came around to a royal commission because I see no better option. I’m not a big fan of them. They’re costly and once launched can go off on tangents… But what else can we do?”

He says the time is right because the public service is under “sustained criticism with bureaucrat bashing taking hold everywhere.”

The work and expectations of the public service has changed dramatically over the past 45 years while the rules under which they operate stayed the same. Ministers of all political stripes have hired large staffs for policy advice, whereas they used to rely on getting that from public servants.

All of that is taking its toll on the morale of the public service, frustrating those who work there and discouraging those who may be interested in working in government.

The most worrisome problem is the lack of trust.

Forty years ago, a minister ‘s office had three or four assistants and the main policy adviser was the department’s deputy minister. Today, ministers have several dozen staff headed by chiefs of staff ­— equivalent to assistant deputy ministers — and have their own policy advisers.

“Why is it that 40 years ago there was no such thing as a policy adviser to a minister? It used to be a deputy minister, but now every minister’s office has four or five,” says Savoie. “That tells me ministers are saying: ‘we don’t accept the policy advice that comes from our deputy minister.’ That’s a pretty fundamental question.”

Public servants basked in accolades in the early days of the pandemic for responding quickly and getting benefits out to Canadians. That all turned as the pandemic eased and public servants were lambasted for moving too fast and making mistakes.

Service debacles such as passport and immigration delays fed Canadians’ growing discontent with government, while populist leaders such as Pierre Poilievre and anti-institution protest groups are tapping into that mistrust.

Savoie says it’s now increasingly popular to deride the public service as too big, overpaid, underworked and pampered with pensions and benefits few Canadians enjoy.

“I hear it, I understand it,” he says. “But where does all that bashing take you? We better have a sober second thought. This is a vitally important institution and all we’re doing is belittling it.”

Then, the rapid growth in the size of the public service, which went into overdrive during the pandemic, grabbed the spotlight.

The public service is growing faster than the private sector as the economy recovers from the pandemic. It’s bigger than ever and the Parliamentary Budget Office expects it will hit 409,000 employees within five years – and maybe more.

On top of that, outsourcing work to contractors – the so-called shadow public service – is also soaring. But all that growth isn’t paying off with better services.

Savoie laments that fixing the situation isn’t on anyone’s radar. The public service can’t do it. The prime minister, ministers and even the clerk of the Privy Council, the head of the public service, already have too much on their plate. On top of that, he argues, “nobody knows what to do about it. “

“The public service is an institution that’s been buffeted about for so long…but it can’t speak out,” says Savoie. “They can’t voice what they think is wrong.

“So how do we get to the bottom of these issues? I think we can only do that with a detached body, that’s neither reporting to the public service nor politicians, and can look coldly at how it has evolved and what needs to be done to fix it.”

Reforming the public service has been an enduring challenge for more than 50 years. There’s been debate over the years about who’s best to lead the way on reform – public servants, the government or Parliament.

A royal commission is an independent investigation into matters of national importance. It comes with broad powers to hold public hearings, call witnesses under oath and compel evidence. They make recommendations to the government on what should change.

There have been at least four such royal commissions into the public service over the years. The last ones are the Glassco Commission in the 1960s and the Lambert Commission in the 1970s.

The Glassco commission focused on government organization. Its recommendations can be summed up as “let the managers manage.” The Lambert Commission delved into financial management and accountability. Its work can be summed up as “make the managers manage.”

But Savoie says both commissions, led by businessmen, never considered how management reforms related to Parliament or ministers.

They were followed by a series of reform initiatives led by the public service – Public Service 2000; the 1990s Chretien government Program Review; La Relève of 1998; the Task Force on the Human Resources Services Modernization Initiative of 2015-16, through to Blueprint 2020, which has been updated with Beyond 2020.

Savoie holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton. His research and achievements are prodigious, and have influenced policy and public management. He has won too many awards to count ­— including being named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2022 — and has published 52 books and is always working on another.

Savoie has warned about eroding trust, the concentration of power and “politicization” of the public service in articles and books ever since he wrote the 1999 book, Governing from the Centre, a must-read in Ottawa circles that made him persona non-grata with then-prime minister Jean Chrétien.

Back in 2003, Savoie wrote Breaking the Bargain, about the unravelling of the traditional bargain underpinning the relationship between politicians and public servants.

Public servants are still nominally bound by that bargain. They are still expected to be anonymous and non-partisan and when meeting with parliamentarians, “have no distinct personality from their ministers” – like bureaucrats 45 years ago, says Savoie.

A recent report, Top of Mind, by two think tanks – the Ottawa-based Institute on Governance and the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University – also threw the spotlight on the increasingly troubled relationship after probing public service executives at all levels of government about their biggest challenges.

Stephen Van Dine, who led the project, argues reform is overdue and supports the idea of independent review by a royal commission.

“Recent events have shown a fundamental decline in understanding between the roles of elected and unelected public officials resulting in poor decisions, absence of foresight and planning to anticipate policy needs,” he says. “It means policy options to address climate change, health care reform, and cost of living are likely less robust.”

The Top-of-Mind report found that today’s executives worry about falling public trust in government; the decline in senior bureaucrats giving “fearless advice” to ministers; a hollowing-out of policy capacity; a post-pandemic economic reckoning; conflicts among levels of government; and the need for public service reform.

There is a growing appetite to reform the public service. Politicians, public servants and Canadians don’t feel it is working like it should, but it’s not a groundswell and won’t be a vote-winner for the campaign trail.

The Trudeau government was elected in 2015 as saviours of the public service, with promises of a new “golden age,” but some argue an all-powerful PMO and mistrust has made things worse.

The big worry for those like Savoie who believe the “strength of Canada depends on the strength of the public service” is that with the rise of populism and its push for smaller and less intrusive government it will be fixed by sweeping cuts, downsizing and privatization.

“There has to be a rational way to do this,” said Savoie.

Source: Canada needs a royal commission to fix problems with the federal public service

The public service’s biggest disruption in decades : hybrid work

Happy I’m retired. That being said, I tried to work from home one day every week or two weeks to prepare presentations or thought pieces, away from the transactional files (but of course remaining available as need be).

In some cases, such as coordination with regions, being virtual placed NHQ on the same footing and improved engagement compared to the tedious phone conference calls, according to some colleagues and friends who worked during the pandemic.

But understand employee preference as well as political and management concerns regarding appearances, after all, those who can work from home are privileged compared to those in front-line service, whether public or private sector:

The return-to-work pushback of Canada’s public servants could lay the groundwork for the most radical change in the federal government’s relationship with its employees in a century.

The resistance reveals a grassroots shift taking place in the public service that’s all about power and control.

The public service is one of the most hierarchical employers in the country. It has operated the same way for decades. Management decides everything about staffing; how and where people work. Employees have little choice but to toe the line.

The pandemic that sent public servants home to work challenged that hierarchy by giving federal employees a taste of controlling their time and job location – factors that had been largely out of their hands.

After more than two years of working remotely, public servants like it and resent the idea of giving up the newfound control of time. They feel more productive, enjoy better work-life balance, have more child-care options. It’s also cheaper: no commuting, no parking, no restaurant or takeout lunches.

And for the first time, they had control of their space. No more cubicles. Hundreds took jobs without having to move to Ottawa and many others picked up and moved around the country.

But that flexibility has come with a price, and no city has felt the pinch like Ottawa, the nation’s capital and home to most departmental headquarters. The Ottawa Board of Trade estimates one-quarter of the city’s workforce worked downtown pre-pandemic and 55 per cent of those downtown workers were public servants sent home, leaving ghost offices behind. (A CBC radio broadcast on Aug. 25 talked about the topic.)

It also forced the biggest rethink of the future of work and the government’s relationship with employees as it officially shifted to a hybrid workforce this fall.

It will not be an easy ride.

Lori Turnbull, director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University, called the shift to a hybrid workforce the most disruptive change in decades.

The public service has had its share of disruptions over the years – unionization and collective bargaining in the 1960s, massive downsizings and restructuring in the 1990s, the Y2K bug, 9/11, even the disastrous Phoenix pay system. This, however, could be as seismic a shift for the employer-employee relationship as when patronage was abolished a century ago and replaced with the merit system for the hiring and promotions of public servants.

“As far as disruptions go, this is the biggest one in decades, if not ever, because it’s a completely different ballgame when it comes to relationships, and how people manage their lives,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull said remote work gave workers flexibility and the value of that newfound freedom flowed more to their personal lives than their work lives. The government can’t expect to “put that genie back in the bottle,” without a fight, she said.

“Now, people, even the lowest rungs of the organization and seen as the least powerful, were given the sense of autonomy about their time and space and that is having fundamental repercussions on how the organization and management works,” said Turnbull.

The big question is whether the return-to-office will end this flexibility or will it spark worker rebellion? Before the pandemic, the thought of working only two days at the office was beyond the wildest of dreams. Today, it’s not flexible enough.

Public servants are openly voicing their displeasure about returning to the office. A growing number are mobilizing internally, speaking out on social media, signing petitions and writing letters to MPs. Some are resorting to access to information requests to get to the bottom of the decision to send them back.

Employees who want to work remotely feel the return-to-work guidelines are arbitrary and imposed top-down from management with no rationale. They feel unheard and that there is no evidence supporting why employees have to spend specified days in the office unless to satisfy political pressures, said one union official who is not authorized to speak publicly.

“If there’s a need to have public servants in the office, what is it?” the official said. “What we’re seeing right now is people being called back for the sake of being called back for political reasons.”

It will be a top issue at the bargaining table. Unions are hoping to enshrine remote work provisions into the collective agreement to give employees more say in determining where they work. Just as important is inflation, and unions, which are emboldened by a global talent shortage, are asking for big raises.

The unions’ long game is that employees will permanently have the option to work remotely. That’s a big and controversial change, however, which would mean rewriting rules, policies and collective agreements. Not to mention that Treasury Board President Mona Fortier has already said working at home is a privilege, not a right. She insists Treasury Board won’t give up its power to organize the workplace, including where employees work.

Unions hope to find some negotiating room around where public servants work. They also want less arbitrary decisions about who can work from home and what they can do remotely. That could mean explanations in writing beyond the blanket “operational requirements” that workers are hearing.

Turnbull warns a workforce feeling management exercises too much control over their time can breed mistrust and resentment that undermines productivity.

But flexibility is unknown territory for the government. More than any other employer, it has little experience with flexible work models. A study by Jeffrey Roy showed that the senior echelons are most comfortable with the traditional in-person office model – from ministers’ offices to deputy ministers and central agencies.

Flexibility on where people work opens a pandora’s box of issues. What happens to the value of work? How does it affect the 7.5-hour work day, overtime and pay? How are employees accountable when they no longer report to the office? How to track productivity, performance or deal with discipline when working from home.

Meredith Thatcher, cofounder and workplace strategist at Agile Work Evolutions, said the unfolding workplace evolution will depend on the “maturity and skills of the individual managers and whether they have the trust of their employees.”

“It is a societal earthquake that has happened, and the fallout will be years to come,” she said. “Assuming everyone will just fall in line and return to the office either full-time or mandated time is naive. The world of the office has shifted on its axis and many executives have not figured that out yet.”

But Donald Savoie, a leading public administration expert at University of Moncton, argues there is a lot more at stake than flexibility. Back in 2003, Savoie wrote Breaking the Bargain, about the unravelling of the traditional bargain underpinning the relationship between politicians and public servants.

He says public servants also have a bargain undergirding their relationship with Canadians. The public is losing confidence in the public service and its ability to deliver services – crystalized by a summer of chaotic delays at airports and passport offices.

He said Canadians are discontent with government, and populist leaders like Pierre Poilievre and anti-institution protest groups are tapping into that mistrust. He said a public service griping about going back to the office is ripe for attack.

Many see public servants asking for the freedom of an independent contractor or entrepreneur to work when and where they want while keeping the job security, pay and benefits few other Canadians enjoy.

“My advice to federal public servants: think about the institution. Think of the public service, not just your self-interest. There’s something bigger at play here. It’s called protecting the institution that you’re being asked to serve. I think too many federal public servants have lost sight of that.”

And Turnbull said Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette, a head of the public service, bears a big responsibility for the institution. She’s out in front urging departments to get employees back to the office.

“The clerk has to worry about the reputation of the public service and the sense that they have been given too much flexibility and now we see services crumbling. Even if there’s no truth to that the perception, it’s something she has to worry about,” said Turnbull.

Source: The public service’s biggest disruption in decades : hybrid work

My latest: Disconnect between political priorities and service delivery [focus on passports and immigration]

Article below as behind a paywall:

The disconnect between government commitments and its ability to deliver on targets and service levels has never been clearer as the immigration and passport backlogs attest.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser indicated that the 2023-25 plan will likely include a target of 500,000 new permanent residents by the end of the plan. The number of temporary foreign workers will also increase significantly following relaxation of eligibility requirements (length of permits; increase in the cap allowed from 10 to 30 per cent; no longer refusing applications in low-wage occupations in regions with unemployment higher than six per cent), and the large number of Ukrainians arriving in Canada due to the war.

These current and planned increases are happening against the backdrop of large backlogs in permanent and temporary resident, citizenship and passport applications.

The resulting public and political outrage has prompted a mix of short-term measures, both symbolic such as the formation of a task force to improve government services as well as substantive, to alleviate applicant frustration (e.g., triage of passport applications, more online application tracking tools for immigration-related programs).

Why the disconnect?

Public service expert Ralph Heintzman focuses on the comparative neglect of service in relation to policy and program development (“poor cousin”) and how Service Canada never lived up to its promise to overturn that hierarchy in favour of citizen-centred service. As someone who has worked at Service Canada to implement that vision during the early days, we developed tools like score cards to maintain focus on service. Heintzman notes that departments do not focus on citizen and applicant satisfaction as current service failures illustrate.

Donald Savoie, a Canadian public administration expert, looks at the more fundamental issue of the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, and the need for the latter to have clear goals in order to implement effectively. The political level generally has conflicting goals, reflecting different stakeholder interests, and has a bias for the shiny and new, rather than program management, as any party platform will illustrate. Senior public servants are more akin to “courtiers,” rising through policy rather than service-delivery ranks, and have a “limited understanding of how best to help frontline managers deliver programs and public services.”

While his argument that government cannot be managed by using private-sector practices is valid at the policy level, I would argue that private-sector measurement and service practices are needed for the reasons outlined by Heintzman.

When service delivery is essential, as in the case of pandemic-related financial supports, the political and bureaucratic levels focus accordingly, and address the trade-off between speed of delivery and program integrity.

It is unclear the extent to which the public service advised the government that its focus on meeting its political objective of increased immigration would mean a surge in backlogs across programs, given reduced capacity during the pandemic.

The need for digitalization, modernization, and renewal of IT infrastructure was driven home during the pandemic. In the short-term, the IRCC has delivered online applications and updates for some programs. For the longer term, the challenges are greater, given the complexities of programs and government structures, the time involved and the need for effective management, as the Phoenix pay system debacle illustrates.

While the government is ultimately accountable, stakeholders, with some rare exceptions, bear some of the responsibility. Businesses complain about backlogs, but press for higher levels that exacerbate pressures, as do other levels of government, immigration lawyers, and consultants, settlement agencies, academics, and activists. While the general support for immigration across all these groups is laudable and exceptional compared to other countries, it also reveals an unhealthy group think that is unwilling to consider seriously trade-offs between addressing backlogs and increased levels.

Air Canada’s announcement that it is trimming capacity in order to ensure meeting their on-time performance service standards contrasts with the inability of the government to manage immigration and passport demand and related expectations. While I disagree with the government’s overall approach to increased immigration, a more responsible government would engage with stakeholders to explain the constraints and institute a partial and temporary reduction in immigration levels to reduce the backlog.

Politically, it is harder for governments to be open about service delivery issues than the private sector. However, being up front avoids the inevitable drip-drip of revelations of problems that result in greater public and media attention and prolonged controversies.

The challenge for the public service is to “provide stronger advice to the political level on the constraints and trade-offs inherent in public administration” on service delivery issues, always tricky to carry out in practice.

Canadians may not appreciate the abstraction of large numbers, but they do understand the many personal stories of those who are waiting for decisions, whether in passport lineups or applications in the system. As Heintzman, Savoie, and others have noted, government failure to deliver on services or communicate in advance of service delivery issues undermines overall trust in government.

Source: Disconnect between political priorities and service delivery

Savoie: Prime ministers, unwittingly or not, have unleashed powerful forces when they told government managers to embrace private-sector management practices while leaving their accountability requirements intact

More reiteration of Savoie’s ongoing concerns but nevertheless worth reading on easy slogans clash with the messiness of politics, the challenges of providing service and the institutional realities:

Presidents and prime ministers, in four countries with different political institutions, came to power with easy slogans: doing more with less; deliverology; joined-up government; empowering managers; drain the swamp; fix bureaucracy; and the list goes on. But once in office, their focus quickly shifted to more pressing issues and intense demands on their agenda.

Presidents and prime ministers, unwittingly or not, unleashed powerful forces when they told government managers to embrace private sector management practices while leaving accountability requirements intact. Their management reform efforts were little more than shots in the dark, generating unintended consequences, undermining what they sought to accomplish, and giving birth to new problems. The reforms failed to recognize that government operations and government bureaucracies remain fundamentally political because politics is always a key part of the equation. The question is not whether politics and administration should be separated. The point is that they cannot be separated, beyond the superficial, so long as public servants and their work answer to politicians. We still need to remind political leaders that the public and private sectors are different in both important and unimportant ways.

Presidents and prime ministers have misdiagnosed the patient in several ways: failing to see that the problem is not in government bureaucracy, but in political institutions; failing to understand what government bureaucracy is good at; failing to appreciate that management in the private sector cannot be imported to government bureaucracy; and unwilling to understand that government policy-making and decision-making are intrinsically political. The wrong diagnosis gave rise to the wrong medicine that made the patient’s condition worse.

There are reasons why government bureaucracy is hierarchically organized and governed by formal rules and procedures. The model has met the test of time and it took root in the four countries surveyed in the book. It served England well as it extended its empire all over the globe. Government bureaucracy served France as a beacon of stability through several periods of political chaos, the United States as it introduced federalism to the world and made representative democracy work, and Canada as it brought together two nations and several regions with distinct economies over a vast thinly populated territory.

Presidents and prime ministers have debased all institutions, except their own offices. Parliament, Congress, and the National Assembly in France have lost standing. In Britain, the cabinet, Parliament, political parties, and the public service now count for much less than they did. They have all lost standing inside and outside government. A Downing Street adviser said that “Basically in No. 10 Downing St., there is a complete contempt for Parliament and that attitude permeates the entire government.” The same can be said about Canada.

The public service, operating under traditional public administrative principles and values, can perform at a high level. But there are conditions to be met. The conditions require for the political class to establish clear goals—pursuing the war effort during the Second World War comes to mind. When the political class comes up with unclear or conflicting goals, the public service will internalize these conflicts and put things on hold. The civil service can never play the role that politicians are asked to play. The public service can provide the fuel but it can never provide the direction.

The machinery of government in all four countries has learned to kick issues upstairs for resolution. When they get there, they invariably run up against an overloaded agenda. This explains why so many issues are placed on hold and why the status quo dominates in government operations. It is also where many issues, ideas and new approaches to management and budgeting go to die. This problem belongs to politicians, not public servants. However, “bureaucrats” are often blamed for it.

In brief, presidents and prime ministers have misdiagnosed the problem confronting government, thinking that the problem of government bureaucracy was behavioural rather than institutional. By diagnosing the patient as a behavioural problem, they made it a behavioural problem. They have turned senior public servants into courtiers. New management measures have motivated them to look up to promote the interest of their political masters rather than look down to support frontline managers and workers in delivering public services.

Career officials have been able to carve out a role to assist their political masters not by recommending what they ought to do but rather recommending what they can do. They have become adroit at diffusing a political crisis and at falling on hand grenades to protect presidents and prime ministers. This does not, however, square easily with a traditional value of public administration—serving with integrity, impartiality and offering advice to presidents and prime ministers without fear or favour. Because they made it to the top by understanding how best to manage the blame game and to make things happen for their political masters, they have a limited understanding of how best to help frontline managers deliver programs and public services. If senior career officials do not want to play the part of courtiers, they know that the politicians in power will turn elsewhere to get things done and there are now many places outside of the public service for politicians to turn for advice and deliver what they desire.

On management, politicians decided—wittingly or not—to play fast and loose with institutional norms long associated with public administration. They wanted to install a bias for action inside government operations without dealing with accountability requirements. They, in effect, created a halfway house which has not been able to deliver on their expectations of being able to do more with less and at the same time improve service delivery.

Presidents and prime ministers did not make government less of a political institution by centralizing more and more political power into their own hands and offices. Rather, they have made government operations even more political and, at the same time, eroded further the efficacy of government.

The political and publicness characteristic of government operations shape the behaviour of civil servants, not the other way around. Presidents and prime ministers looked away from issues that cried out for attention—the structure of government based on ministries and departments, re-assigning responsibility and accountability requirements, and the apparent inability or unwillingness of politicians and their institutions to provide clear goals. Rather than fundamental change, they continue to opt for fantasies or for the latest fashions and fads only to be abandoned when they turned out not to constitute the solution. Career public servants are left saying: “O Lord lead us not into new approaches.”

Donald J. Savoie is the author of Government: Have Presidents and Prime Ministers Misdiagnosed the Patient? This is an excerpt from this book, published by McGill-Queen’s/Brian Mulroney Institute of Government Studies in Leadership, Public Policy, and Governance, in May 2022. 

Source: Prime ministers, unwittingly or not, have unleashed powerful forces when they told government managers to embrace private-sector management practices while leaving their accountability requirements intact

Public service full to bursting with deputy ministers

Alan Freeman on the growth in the number of deputies, picking up on some themes of Donald Savoie:

Here’s a quiz. How many deputy ministers are there in the federal government’s Treasury Board Secretariat?

If you answer “one,” you’ll get a point for logic. After all, as you learned in your first-year university Canadian politics course, a deputy minister is the top public servant in a government department — the boss — whether it’s Transport or Global Affairs or Treasury Board.

But this being Ottawa in 2019, “one” is the wrong answer. How about six? That’s right. The Treasury Board actually has six top officials in the deputy minister (DM) category. Five are full deputies and a sixth is an associate deputy. They’re all appointed by the prime minister to their jobs, and get better salaries and more generous pension benefits than other executives, all for being part of the (once) exclusive club of Ottawa mandarins.

Treasury Board is just one example. Deputies are popping up throughout the federal government like potholes in March. Global Affairs has four, at last count, National Defence three. But it’s Innovation, Science and Economic Development (the old Industry department) that wins the Oscar for best performance in deputy overkill. It’s got four deputies, plus five other DMs, if you include the heads of the five regional development agencies the department supervises. That’s a total of nine.

Of course, the same department has four ministers, including full ministers for science, tourism and small business. A mini-government of its own.

It’s an extraordinary phenomenon that’s the result of political expediency and bureaucratic empire-building. As of today, there are 83 deputies in the federal government: 38 deputy ministers and 45 associate deputy ministers, an increase of 11 positions in the past decade. Since the Trudeau government was elected, nine have been added.

The number of executives in the government has been growing like topsy for years, at twice the growth rate of the public service as a whole. The deputy explosion is just another symptom of a system that’s out of control.

This growth has not just added people, it’s added new layers to the top bureaucracy. Where once there were a group of assistant deputy ministers with specific responsibilities reporting to a deputy at the top of the departmental bureaucratic hierarchy, there are now senior assistant deputy ministers, associate deputy ministers, and even senior associate deputy ministers, all adding to the general confusion.

“It’s huge. It’s cumbersome. They’ve created a whale that can’t swim,” says Donald Savoie, the New Brunswick academic who has studied the federal bureaucracy for decades.

“All of these people have to be relevant, so they create work for themselves. They slow everything down.”

How did we get here? As Savoie notes, the position of associate DM developed a few decades ago. Part of it was classification creep. Then was the desire to reward public servants who may have been very competent, but didn’t have the “gravitas” to make it to the deputy level.

Another reason, according to Savoie, was that promotion to associate DM was seen as a way of getting around wage freezes imposed on senior bureaucrats. If you can’t give a trusted official an annual increase, promote him to a higher-paying job. First it was only the big departments that got an associate DM. Then they spread everywhere. Even a small department like Veterans Affairs now has an associate deputy minister, both appointed by the PM, both with DM salaries.

Politics have also intervened, particularly since the Liberals returned to power. Remember that first Trudeau cabinet, the gender-equal one with 15 men and 15 women? When people found out that five of the women were actually “junior” ministers of state, all hell broke loose and Trudeau was forced to make them all full ministers, with higher salaries. But that also meant they needed a deputy or an associate to help them out with their “portfolio.”

So we have a weird kind of deputy minister, who reports to a minister but doesn’t really have a conventional department to take care of. There’s Guylaine Roy, who became a deputy last summer when Mélanie Joly was demoted from Canadian Heritage and was given the smorgasbord job of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie. The actual public servants (it must be a tiny number) seem to have stayed in their home departments, so it’s hard to know what exactly a deputy is in charge of in those circumstances.

Likewise, a new deputy was appointed for Status of Women when that became a full cabinet position and department again.

And there’s now a deputy minister for public-service accessibility, who was appointed in July when Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough was given the additional responsibility of improving access for people with disabilities in the federal sector. At the same time, the chief information officer, Alex Benay, was promoted to a DM-level job. Both are part of the Treasury Board gang of six.

Improving accessibility may be a laudable goal, but why is there a need for a full deputy minister? Using the same logic, you could argue that there should be a deputy minister to encourage women in the public sector, or visible minorities or Indigenous people. There’d be no end to it.

And of course, there’s now an associate deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement whose sole responsibility is the Phoenix pay system. That seems a guarantee that the job will be around long after the system is fixed or replaced.

Is there any end in sight? Not really. This week, there was another cabinet shuffle and another newly minted minister, this time for Rural Development. Bernadette Jordan got the job, largely because Trudeau needed an MP from Nova Scotia in the cabinet and there seemed no other place to put her.

By Friday, a new breeze of austerity had clearly blown in from the Privy Council Office, which now says Jordan will be supported by the existing deputy minister at Infrastructure for some of her files, and by the Innovation deputy for the rest. A bit of a respite from the DM tsunami, but you can be sure it won’t be long until another new deputy minister is created.

Source: Public service full to bursting with deputy ministers

What government is good at, and how it can improve: Donald Savoie

Great summary of his book by the author.

While I found his provocative diagnostique largely convincing in laying out some inconvenient truths, his policy recommendations are relatively undeveloped, reinforcing ironically one of his main insights/critiques of the upstairs/downstairs nature of those who manage policy (or analyze it) and those who serve Canadians directly:

Being good at managing the blame game matters a great deal in the Ottawa bubble and in the national media, but less so elsewhere. Adding oversight bodies and rules and regulations has made the federal public service not only thicker but also more Ottawa-centric. Other than opposition politicians calling for still more oversight, no one is happy with the incessant calls for more rules and regulations. Morale in the federal public service has plummeted and surveys reveal that citizens are unhappy with the quality of public service.

One can only applaud the Clerk of the Privy Council’s recent call for public service to be better at taking risks, delivering front-line services, and producing change and making it stick. To give life to this call, the government will have to revisit the many layers of oversight bodies and accountability requirements put in place over the past 15 years. Unless this is done, management reform efforts in the federal government will continue to give the appearance of change, while actually standing still.

Was pleased to see my book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism, cited for its examples of the political level asserting its control over policy.

Source: What government is good at, and how it can improve – The Globe and Mail

Canadian Heritage shows how public service seeks to foster innovation

Good initiative and equally good debate about its utility (I had tried equally to institute the Google 20 percent time set-aside – without much success):

As part of a push in the bureaucracy to find new ways to work, Canadian Heritage is one of a dozen departments taking a page from Google and letting employees spend up to 20 per cent of their time working on temporary projects outside their usual job descriptions and the usual procedures.

Deputy minister Graham Flack said the initiative – called “micro-missions” – was developed to bring some flexibility to the rigid organization of departments.

“The theory behind micro-missions is, in government, it’s actually very difficult with our traditional HR systems to move people around,” Mr. Flack said.

Mr. Flack also chairs a committee of top bureaucrats who work on new ideas, and the group invites junior employees to join their discussions to get fresh ideas and a better view on the ground.

“We operate in a very hierarchical organization, and sometimes [we have] to give them a reality check,” said Francis Nolan-Poupart, a 27-year-old policy analyst at Employment and Social Development Canada, who sits on the committee.

But just because an idea worked for Google does not mean it will work for the government – or even for other tech companies. Konval Matin, the director of culture at Shopify in Ottawa, and Anna Lambert, the director of talent acquisition, said their company – a rising star in Canada’s tech world – tried giving employees time every week for special projects, but it just did not work.

“We realized you would get so enthralled in your day-to-day that you wouldn’t actually set aside the 20-per-cent time,” Ms. Matin said.

Marianne Hladun, an executive who leads the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s young-worker file, said the union has some concerns that projects might just add work for already stressed employees.

“In a lot of cases, people are just trying to keep their heads above water,” Ms. Hladun said. “In some departments, which I believe Canadian Heritage falls into, … people are doing special assignments but they’re not being compensated at appropriate levels. That’s a bit of a concern to us.”

Leaders at both the political and bureaucratic level have warned that many areas of the federal public service are suffering from poor workplace environments that are hampering service delivery and the mental health of the work force. In her final annual report last year as the top bureaucrat in Ottawa, Janice Charette said there was an urgent need to create a “healthy, respectful and supportive work environment.”

Donald Savoie, a professor at the Université de Moncton and a leading expert on public administration, said he thinks some of the innovative projects are just “band aids” that do not fix deeper problems affecting morale in the public service. “For a government to say, we’re going to have hackathons, or collaborative events, or spaces, that, my friend, is the easy part. The much more difficult part is redefining the role of the public service so that it would resonate.”

Shopify holds townhalls on Fridays where employees are encouraged to share what they are working on, and talk about what is going well and what is more challenging than expected – just as Canadian Heritage tried to do with its pizza lunch.

Ms. Matin of Shopify said even the executive team takes part occasionally – and the exercises have been good not just for morale, but also for productivity as workers from different teams pick up tips from each other.

“The stuff that’s really easier said than done is the trust and the autonomy,” Ms. Matin said. “Not being afraid of letting people experiment and try new things and potentially fail. But the cool thing is, let them fail, let them talk about it.”

Traditionally, the public service is not known for taking risks. Mr. Brison acknowledges the potential for failure as more public institutions and individuals are empowered to try new things and make more decisions on their own. As a political leader, he could be held responsible if something goes wrong. But he says that is part of pushing the public service to do better.

“The only way to avoid ever making any mistakes is to do nothing,” he said.

Source: Canadian Heritage shows how public service seeks to foster innovation – The Globe and Mail

Tories call for probe of public servants who aided report on tax agency

Valid concerns regarding the breach of the impartiality of the public service, not just leaking of documents (which also is problematic):

The Conservatives are calling for an investigation into claims that Canada Revenue Agency employees teamed up with an advocacy group for a report that alleges mismanagement and political interference in tax investigations that cost billions in uncollected revenue.

Conservative MP Ziad Aboultaif, the party’s national revenue critic, said the involvement of public servants in such a report during an election is “disturbing” and shouldn’t be ignored just because a new government was elected.

“I would hope that the Minister of National Revenue realizes the seriousness of this and is investigating the supposed wrongdoing, not ignoring it because the incident took place under the previous government,” said Aboultaif.

“There is a principle involved here; it is not about party politics. Canadians expect their public service to be both professional and neutral.”

The report, by Canadians for Tax Fairness, was based on 28 interviews with former and current auditors and other tax specialists. They alleged the agency is mismanaged, undermined by major budget cuts, and that it targets ordinary taxpayers over the “big-time tax cheats” hiding money offshore.

Public servants are supposed to be non-partisan and loyal to the elected government. They face even stricter limits on their behaviour during an election.

Aboultaif argued neutrality is part of the job and that public servants give up the right to criticize government policies when they join the public service.

“Public servants take an oath of office and agree to abide by a code of ethics while employed in the civil service,” he said.

….So far, the Canada Revenue Agency has rejected the report’s allegations as unfounded. It said it was unable to determine if the ethics code was breached because it didn’t know who the employees were.

Donald Savoie, Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the University of Moncton, has written books on how the traditional “bargain” or relationship between public servants and politicians is broken. He says this case is one of the most blatant violations yet.

“If public servants become political actors, which is what is happening here, that is just not how the Westminster system was conceived. We are reshaping fundamental tenets of the system on the fly without any reflection or debate.”

Savoie argued this is an issue that warrants the attention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to clarify what is expected of public servants today.

“This is a government issue, not a CRA issue. It should be raising alarm bells in the Privy Council Office and Treasury Board because it goes to the heart of the fundamental role of the public service.

“I think the prime minister, cabinet and head of the public service should be responding.”

Source: Tories call for probe of public servants who aided report on tax agency | Ottawa Citizen

The earlier article ICYMI:

Source: Public Servants ‘blow the whistle’ on tax system shortfalls | Ottawa Citizen

A change in government alone won’t fix the malaise: Savoie

Always interesting to read Savoie’s observations.

A good list of fundamental questions facing the public service:

A change in government in itself will not address the malaise confronting the public service. It can, however, open a window to answering fundamental questions about organizing government.

If nothing belongs to a single department any more, should we still rely on traditional line departments to come up with policy proposals and deliver public services? Should government have self-governing delivery arms tied to policy centres led by ministers? If government departments and agencies cannot retain revenues or their budget, how can we expect them to remain frugal? How can we streamline accountability requirements? How can we isolate, at least some government operations, so that missteps become lessons learned for managers rather than “gotcha” fodder for the blame game? How can we improve relations between ministers and the public service, government and Parliament?

Dealing with fundamental questions will force senior government officials to go beyond giving the appearance of change while standing still. The question needs the attention of at least some senior ministers and some senior public servants operating away from the demands of the day. Past reform attempts have sadly ignored Parliament, which may offer some explanations for their failure.

Why not structure a House of Commons committee and ask that it pursue these questions?

Public servants should be encouraging this debate. They should, however, shy away from partisanship, even the appearance of partisanship. The one thing that gives the public service strength, credibility and standing with Canadians and, yes, with politicians, is its non-partisan status and the ability to serve all politicians without fear or favour.

I would add to the list greater awareness and mindfulness of public servant biases and values, rather than just focusing on more avert partisanship, to improve the impartiality and neutrality of advice.

Source: A change in government alone won’t fix the malaise – The Globe and Mail