Has the public service lost its way?

5 minute read

In the March 5th issue of the Ottawa Citizen, Professor Donald Savoie identified a host of pressing concerns about the role and future of Canada’s public service, which he believes has lost its way.

As Savoie sees it, decades of reforms aimed at making government operate in a more business-like way – known to wonks as the New Public Management – have completely backfired.  Promises of a nimbler, more efficient public sector have translated into costly and oppressive oversight and a bloated, ossified bureaucracy that crowds out front-line services to citizens.  The solution?  A back-to-basics return to the practices of the past.

Like Savoie, we at the Institute on Governance have a long history as students of Canadian government and many of us have had careers in the public service.  We share his concern about the effectiveness of the public sector, and some of the problems he identifies – costly and stifling oversight regimes, blame-game watchdogs substituting for true parliamentary scrutiny and an uncertain public service – resonate deeply.

But, if we have mixed feelings about his diagnosis, we are of one mind on the adequacy of his prescription.  We look forward to reading his upcoming book and the ongoing public discourse, which should continue.

What we question is the relevance of New Public Management (NPM) as a scapegoat, and the idea that the right way forward is to turn the clock back.  The IOG is no spokesperson for NPM, but in our view it’s a symptom of underlying change in the government-citizen relationship, not the cause.

Leaving aside the fact that the Government of Canada’s forays into NPM were never very deep, the real question is why so many jurisdictions turned to it in the first place. The reason, we suggest, is that there have been dramatic, long-term shifts in the way governments and citizens view one another.

A better-educated, skeptical, demanding and sophisticated public doesn’t see government the way its grandparents did.  Citizens are increasingly aware of the limits of what government can do for them and increasingly begrudging of the costs of doing it.  They are notoriously non-deferential and put little trust in a benign protector.  Governments, in turn, tread on eggs more than in the past, constantly watchful of public opinion and aware of the need to give value for money.

Furthermore, in our increasingly networked reality, issues and problems easily spill out of the organizational boundaries of government institutions.  Technologies have evolved at an incredible rate, but the institutional learnings that governments require to apply this new reality to problems progresses far too slowly.  Online networks are increasingly beating government at its own game.  Forming and reforming around social issues, economic production, even national defence and terrorism, these networks have become gathering points of knowledge that can convert into rapid action.

Governments, which once defined citizens' roles and responsibilities, are finding that citizens are turning to different communities and organizations to marshal resources and launch solutions.  Governments may be key players or not. The name of the game is relevancy! To remain relevant, governments must be more agile, open and collaborative in their approach to pressing public problems.

The multiple sources of information and policy that Canadians have at their disposal today is exactly why governments must up their game. The relationships between: the legislative and executive arms of government, politicians and mandarins, senior leaders and rank and file public servants must perforce evolve to match this new reality.  As for public servants, the standard is excellent policy advice and excellent management. This standard is what will continue to attract new generations of public servants.

Current public servants continue to serve with the same bedrock values as their predecessors. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the modern expression of these values takes on new expression.  In today's public service-constantly challenged to do more with less- the values of frugality, parsimony and probity have taken on new meaning. The one value that could be exercised with greater frequency is that of speaking truth to power, but even that is a matter of degrees and the creativity with which to fashion the delivery of uncomfortable truths.

While the merits of The Federal Accountability Act can and should be debated, the kinds of transparency and accountability measures found in it have not, as Savoie suggests, sprung up to fill a gap left by the managerial liberties of NPM. They are symptoms of the same urge to reconnect government and citizenry, to reassure citizens that government acts in their interests and not its own.

As for Savoie’s back-to-basics cure, it misses the mark. Its centerpiece seems to be a return to line-item budget scrutiny by Treasury Board.  But surely that level of transactional engagement is not feasible given the scale of modern government.  The fact is that centralized controls remain comprehensive and highly prescriptive and public sector managers have nothing like the discretion of their private sector counterparts.  And whatever latitude senior public servants have received from Treasury Board has been more than offset by a deepened emphasis on their accountability for management – not only through higher due diligence standards but through a requirement that deputy heads account before Parliament for departmental management.

The day-to-day management of these accountability issues, based on our traditional departmental structures, is one of the biggest constraints to co-ordinated policy across all governments.  Silos rule and have been reinforced in ways that citizens do not applaud.  "Who's in charge" becomes more important than "what's the outcome". The most important issue for citizens is outcomes and they don’t line up with departmental boundaries. From the citizens' perspective, government is one entity, and they would like it to act like one!

In this world, it is high time that we reviewed the alignment between accountability and outcomes:  that we challenge our elected representatives to learn their jobs and not rely solely on their "watch dogs", that we have a serious debate about how theses matters affect outcomes and innovation.

Governments and the public service are well positioned to be incredibly relevant in drawing together Canadian voices to make decisions together in the common good. This ethos of public service combined with the use of technology to reach Canadians in more timely and meaningful ways creates the foundation for social and economic gain that we all seek. The public service has not lost its way, but it is evolving just like the rest of society to capture and define the role that Canada needs today.

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About the author

Maryantonett Flumian

Maryantonett Flumian


As the President of the Institute on Governance, Maryantonett Flumian is responsible for the development of the Institute’s vision and strategic direction, project and partnership development, and the fostering of programs to promote public discussion of governance issues.

She is a seasoned senior executive at the Deputy Minister level in the Canadian federal Public Service with more than 20 years of large-scale operational experience in the economic, social and federal/provincial domains. She is internationally recognized for her work as a transformational leader across many complex areas of public policy and administration such as labour markets, firearms, fisheries, and environmental issues. She was the first Deputy Minister of Service Canada. Her current research focuses on leadership, collaboration, governance, and the transformational potential of technology primarily in the area of citizen-centered services. Maryantonett was at the University of Ottawa between 2006 and 2009 initiating programming for the development of senior public service leaders.

Maryantonett holds a Master’s Degree in History and completed comprehensive exams towards a PhD in History at the University of Ottawa.