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