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

Highest ever number of Muslim Canadian MPs elected in new House | hilltimes.com

Good range of interviews on the large number of Muslim Canadian MPs elected:

In interviews last week, MPs, political insiders, and academics said the newly-elected legislators from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds will bring unique perspectives, community feedback and different life experiences to the table which will prove to be valuable in the overall legislation and policy-making process at the highest level of government. They also pointed out that these MPs are not just token representatives of their respective communities but people who have solid credentials in a variety of professions including law, medicine, and business.

“Every Member of Parliament will bring their values to the debates and values are shaped by religion, by experience, by the community that they come from. So, it will shape their values and values will shape what they have to say and their positions, no question,” said Prof. Donald Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the Université de Moncton and one of Canada’s leading experts on public administration, in an interview with The Hill Times.

He said Muslim MPs and MPs from other religious backgrounds will have important input in Parliamentary debates in the new Parliament.

“They will have very important points of view that need to be heard,” said Prof. Savoie, adding that Muslim MPs should also not be stereotyped.

“Let them come and debate the issue and let’s hear what they have to say. What they will have to say is as important, as relevant, and ought to be listened to, as much as a white MP from Newfoundland, or from British Columbia.”

Meanwhile, pollster Greg Lyle of Innovative Research said that MPs from different cultural and religious backgrounds will offer valuable input in legislative debates on social and economic issues that affect all Canadians.

“When you are in the room, you don’t have to wait for someone to think about you. You’re right there to bring your concerns front and centre,” Mr. Lyle said.

He said that newly elected MPs from a variety of demographic groups won their ridings because they were the best candidates. Using the example of Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.), Mr. Lyle said she is an indigenous woman who ran in a riding that has almost negligible presence of aboriginal people, but won by a margin of about 9,000 votes.

 “In a lot of cases, people are just nominating the best person for this job and they happen to come from different backgrounds,” Mr. Lyle said.

“When you look at their resumés, they’re not getting appointed as tokens. These are people who have really impressive stories to tell,” Mr. Lyle said.

Muslim MPs interviewed for this article said that the previous government’s Anti-Terrorism Bill C-51, the so-called Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act Bill C-24, the niqab debate, and the barbaric cultural practices snitch line affected the Muslim community directly and motivated it to get engaged a lot more actively than in past elections.

“The community is reaching a new level of maturity, overall. The Muslim community in Canada tends to be a newer community. It’s going through various levels of growth and sophistication, maturity as a newer Canadian community,” said Mr. Alghabra who represented the riding of Mississauga-Erindale, Ont., from 2006 to 2008, lost the two subsequent elections and was elected again on Oct. 19.

“This was a new milestone in that growth process. There’s a greater level of sophistication, greater level of awareness about the importance of getting involved. It was demonstrated through various groups and organizations and individuals,” said Mr. Alghabra.

Ms. Ratansi, who represented the riding of Don Valley East from 2004 to 2011, lost the 2011 election but was re-elected last month, also reiterated that the divisive issues that the Conservatives pushed in the campaign made the Muslim community get involved more actively.

“People got a little concerned about the negativity against Islam. A lot of intelligent people who are lawyers, [legal scholars] who teach law in universities, who are accountants, businesspeople like me, got a little fed up with this constant badgering of Muslims as if we were a homogenous group and we all work the same way. We don’t,” said Ms. Ratansi, adding that unlike the impression portrayed by some in the last government and some news organizations, the Muslim community, overall, is a peaceful hardworking community trying to make the world a better place.

Carleton University Prof. Howard Duncan, who has conducted extensive research on immigration integration theory, multiculturalism theory, globalization, and migration, in an interview, predicted that the election of MPs from different religious and cultural backgrounds will encourage those who did not participate in this election to get engaged in the political process.

“What you’re going to find as time goes by is that immigrants from other countries and other religious and ethnic backgrounds are also going to participate more in politics,” said Prof. Duncan.

Andrew Cardozo, president of Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy, told The Hill Timesthat in the current international political scenario, a number of political conflicts are religion based. He said he hoped that the newly-elected MPs from different religions will prove they can all work together.

“If you think of it in global terms, the biggest division that’s taking place amongst people in the world is around religion. It’s good when you have a country that’s religiously diverse. It’s good to have so many religions represented. With many of them in the same caucus, there should be room for discussion and accommodation when there are differences,” said Mr. Cardozo.

Source: Highest ever number of Muslim Canadian MPs elected in new House | hilltimes.com

Justin Trudeau joyfully mobbed by federal civil servants

PM Trudeau at the rebranded Global Affairs department. Unprofessional but understandable:

Suddenly there was a buzz and the crowd moved forward.

Trudeau appeared and began to make his way out of the building. He was swarmed. Many took photos and even selfies along the way.

Liberal Cabinet 20151106

Trudeau was mobbed as he tried to leave the Lester B. Pearson building Friday. He told the crowd his government would need the civil service’s absolute best. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The prime minister was hugged. Cheers erupted. He smiled, waved and stopped by the door.

He thanked the crowd for supporting the members of his cabinet, who had just left.

Then he continued: “We’re going to need every single one of you to give us, as you always do, your absolute best.”

They applauded and cheered some more. Some yelled back: “You’ve got it.”

One longtime staffer nearby said he’d never seen anything like it. Not in all of his years.

And it might not be the only instance of a crowd forming to welcome a minister Friday.

On Facebook, a photo circulated of civil servants at another location waiting to greet Sajjan.

Source: Justin Trudeau joyfully mobbed by federal civil servants – Politics – CBC News

And Donald Savoie puts it into context:

Donald Savoie, a public administration expert at the University of Moncton, said public servants are gripped by “the euphoria” of working for a government that promises renewed respect.

He said many hope they are returning to their “days in the sun” when public servants worked on policy and were listened to. He likened it to when Pope John XXIII opened the Vatican and liberalized the Catholic Church.

As a result, bureaucrats’ heckling and cheering, and unions revelling in their political campaigns, may not be appropriate but isn’t unexpected.

“Don’t try to make sense of this. School’s out and people are beside themselves with joy,” Savoie said. “Stay tuned, it’s too fresh. Wait until things calm down in a few months.

“I wouldn’t get too worked up because what happened today doesn’t define the public service and its non-partisanship.”

Public servants shed cloak of impartiality – at least for the day

Union wants top bureaucrat to help restore public service ‘neutrality’ | Ottawa Citizen

Various commentary on the decision by unions to play a partisan role in the election. I agree with the overall message that this harms the overall public service-political relationship:

This wasn’t the first election in which unions opposed the government of the day but many say it was the most aggressive.

“The decision of unions to campaign against Harper … was unfortunate and harmful because it legitimizes the Conservative view that the public service is a partisan institution. I don’t think it is, but the actions of unions certainly makes it appear to be,” said Ralph Heintzman, a University of Ottawa professor who has proposed various reforms to restore public service neutrality.

He said a Liberal or NDP government would have to wonder about whether the public service could turn on them.

“No party can rejoice in public servants becoming actively involved in electoral politics against the government,” said Heintzman. “Mulcair and Trudeau … can’t be thrilled with unions campaigning against the Conservative government because it suggests that if unions don’t like what you do, they will become partisan again.”

That trust was further called into question when a secret policy briefing, prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs for deputy ministers on Canada’s shrinking international clout, was leaked during the election campaign. Charette called in the RCMP to find the leak. In a separate incident, the deputy minister at Citizenship and Immigration called the Mounties to track down who leaked that the Prime Minister’s Office had directed bureaucrats to stop processing Syrian refugees pending an audit.

Donald Savoie, a Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at Université de Moncton, said leaking information to embarrass the government in an election is such a breach of the public service’s ethos that the clerk had to play hardball and call the Mounties.

“They hurt the institution they service. What is the opposition supposed to think if they do this to the government of the day; what will stop them from leaking when we’re the government?” said Savoie.

But Daviau is convinced the public service will have the trust and respect of the Liberals or NDP because both parties were “forthright” in their promises and consulted with unions on their proposed reforms months before the election.

“I feel confident that with the declarations of the other parties to revert back to the traditional way of doing business, that the genie can be put back in the bottle, but now comes the work to get us back to where we were,” said Daviau.

But Heintzman said the eroding neutrality of the public service goes much further than unions’ electoral activism and the system needs a structural overhaul.

He said the Conservative government “exploited all the ambiguities of the parliamentary system for its own partisan advantage,” pushing public servants over the line that used to be drawn between politics and public service.

A big problem, he said, is that deputy ministers didn’t challenge this politicization of the public service, particularly “turning the PCO into a partisan communications machine.” The most talked-about example was a video Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre had public servants produce with department funds to promote the Conservatives’ universal child-care benefit.

“The clerk is part of the problem. (Her) role corrupts the public service by creating a hierarchy of power that no deputy minister will challenge. The deputy minister is appointed by the clerk, looks to the clerk as boss and won’t challenge directions from PCO,” said Heintzman.

David Zussman, the Jarislowsky Chair on Management in the Public Sector at the University of Ottawa, has written a book on transitions from one government to another called Off and Running. He said questions about neutrality will have to be dealt with but they won’t be on the priority list of a new government.

But the public service is the key player in managing a transition, giving it a “chance to shine” – which can go a long way to rebuilding trust, Zussman said.

Source: Union wants top bureaucrat to help restore public service ‘neutrality’ | Ottawa Citizen

Public servants brace for war against Conservatives | Ottawa Citizen

More on the Tony Turner fall-out and the public service unions campaigning against the Conservatives:

It’s unclear when Environment Canada — Turner’s employer — will make a decision on whether the singer breached the ethics act with his song. This will turn on whether he can still be perceived as objective and impartial at his job, which is tracking migratory bird patterns.

But [Donald] Savoie and [Ian] Lee agree on one thing: the partisan Harperman performance could undermine any party’s trust in the neutrality of public servants and could particularly reinforce the Tories’ long-held view that bureaucrats are mostly a bunch of Liberals.

“The public service should be concerned about this,” said Savoie. “If the Conservatives are re-elected … they can question if they can really get policy advice that supports their agenda without fear or favour,” he said.

“If Harper sees this video he might say, ‘We can’t trust public servants’ advice …. so let’s go somewhere else.’ This doesn’t help a relationship that has been strained for years.”

Agree with Savoie as both the Turner song and the union campaign will only further Conservative distrust of the public service, not without reason.

Source: Public servants brace for war against Conservatives | Ottawa Citizen

Donald Savoie: How government went off the rails

Donald Savoie confirms the policy/service delivery hierarchy.

My experience when Service Canada was established, and then watching how the both the Government and the public service whittled away at the vision of making service as important as policy, is a case in point.

Another example was Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s inability in 2010-12 to implement a series of inter-related changes – new citizenship test, language assessment process, anti-fraud efforts and program review cuts to the regions – which resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of new citizens:

Below the fault line is where government is coming up short, often because the ones operating above it have no appreciation of how the machinery operates. It is also where the great majority of Canadians deal with their government. The view among politicians and the courts is that government is about 90 per cent ideas and 10 per cent implementation. Making a policy or program announcement, defining the right media line and keeping an eye on the blame game as it is played out in Parliament and the media are what truly matters. They expect that program managers below the fault line should simply run on their tracks and avoid providing fodder for the blame game. The view among the majority of Canadians and front-line government workers, however, is that government should be 90 per cent delivering services efficiently and 10 per cent ideas. Canadians are too often left waiting, for an hour or so, to talk to someone after calling a 1-800 number, days to get a phone call returned or weeks to get an answer to what they regard as a straightforward question.

Not only have we overloaded the machinery, we have also misdiagnosed the patient. The thinking that we could somehow make the public sector as efficient as the private sector was misguided, costly and counterproductive. The thinking conveniently overlooks the fact that the public and private sectors are different in both important and unimportant ways. Consider the following: 76 per cent of public-sector employees belong to a union versus 16 per cent for the private sector. The blame game plays very differently in both sectors and the private sector has an unrelenting bottom line, while the public sector has none, or rather has a top line called the prime minister, Parliament and the media. In the private sector, good managers learn to delegate down. In the public sector, good managers learn to delegate up.

In the search for a bottom line, governments have created an abundance of oversight bodies, management constraint measures and vapid performance and evaluation reports. It has only made the machinery of government thicker, more risk-averse and created a veritable army of public servants kept busy turning a crank not attached to anything. It has also given rise to a serious morale problem in the public service.

This is not an indictment on what government tried to do or on the role of government in modern society but rather how the government tried to do it. Thinking that you can simply pile on responsibilities to the existing machinery and somehow emulate private-sector management practices while retaining the command and control approach to operation is where things went off the rails.

  Donald Savoie: How government went off the rails