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Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom

By DONALD J. SAVOIE. IPAC Series in Public Management and Governance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Pp. xiii, 441, bibliographical references, index.

This is an important and provocative book. It is vintage Savoie. As implied by its title, the book paints a disturbing picture of government accountability. The theme--"that the public sector is in urgent need of fundamental reform"--is sketched across a broad canvas, comparing the experiences over the last half century of two Westminster parliamentary governments--the United Kingdom and Canada. The images are bold and vibrant, distilling the deteriorating relationships among politicians, civil servants, and citizens as reflected through their first-hand experiences and perceptions. The brush strokes are strong and deliberate, the paint thickly applied, creating texture, tension and contrast as we are led along the rocky road of public accountability from its origins in the idealized Weberian bureaucracy and its so-called "golden era," through "disenchantment" characterized by "obligation to self," "searching for values and loyalty," and "voices everywhere," and eventually to the central theme of "court government" and the "collapse of accountability." On much of the canvas, the colours are at the cool end of the spectrum, conveying a somber tone and reflecting Savoie's conclusions about the increasing inability to secure effective accountability through institutional processes and the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. As the eye moves further into the painting, one detects a warmer palate, a possible ray of hope under the lights in the studio, with Savoie's recommendation that accountability requirements "be geared to the individual rather than to processes or a doctrine that speaks to collective responsibility and to ministerial responsibility for the activities of civil servants" (pp. 335-36).

There are four clearly discernable under-paintings to the canvas: his three earlier works: Thatcher, Reagan, Mulroney: In Search of a New Bureaucracy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994); Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); Breaking the Bargain: Public Servants, Ministers, and Parliament (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003); and The Gomery Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program (Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2005 and 2006), for which Savoie was director of research.

His newest book takes us on an extensive journey of public accountability that is both diagnostic and prescriptive, although the focus is primarily on the former. Savoie skilfully uses the journey to build his case to explain what he sees as the collapse of accountability and the concept of ministerial responsibility and to underpin his proposed reforms. His case is built around a thorough and comparative examination of the fundamental forces and structural dynamics that shape the critical interactions among politicians, civil servants, and citizens. Through his in-depth diagnosis he probes the vital organs that have sustained and supported our traditional system of public-sector governance. He describes how our political administrative institutions took form through the development of democratic institutions and the birth of the Westminster-Whitehall system and the traditional bureaucratic model. Against this backdrop, he concludes that there was a '"golden era for government' a time when Parliament was able to hold the government to account ... when government was considerably smaller, and when civil servants had no reason to have a distinct persona from the government of the day" (p. 70).

Savoie observes that the public sector began to lose its way in the 1970s in Anglo-American democracies, and he traces the underlying reasons for this--the collapse of Keynesian economics and the inability of governments to deal simultaneously with unemployment, inflation, and debt; the intensity of criticism directed at the bureaucracy; the decline of deference in society; the rise of market capitalism and a shift in focus to the individual and away from community; globalization and the reduced influence of national governments; declining confidence in public institutions; the decline of political parties; and the increasing influence of the media as epitomized in "gotcha" journalism and instantaneous "sound bite" news coverage.

The author is at his best in bringing to life the inability of governments to adjust to these broader societal changes thorough a seemingly endless series of partial, sporadic and, at times, comprehensive changes. He analyses in detail the huge challenge and yet limited success of instilling new public-service values on top of the traditional ones. He analyses the diffusion of voices in the policy-making process, the extensive use of access to information, the rise of "whistle blowers," the collapse of civil-service anonymity, the increasingly aggressive media, with their focus on personalities and mis-steps, and the proliferation of single-purpose special parliamentary agents. He draws out the implications that all this has had in centralizing major policy-making in and around prime ministers and their "courtiers" (political advisers and key civil servants). He concludes that civil service loyalty has taken on new meaning, shifting from traditional loyalty to institutions to loyalty to the individual.

He continues his diagnosis by looking at government from the bottom up, from the perspective of civil servants working on the front-line as they deal with citizens and deliver services. He describes how much more difficult their job has become in the face of efforts to empower employees and minimize constraints only to find that with the emergence of scandals--whether real or fabricated--politicians are quick to call for new centrally prescribed rules. He explores government from the top down, analysing how for top civil servants the job has become more difficult, but for different reasons. He concludes that managing media relations and the need to protect the prime minister and ministers has resulted in a convergence in the skills of elected politicians and senior civil servants and that this in turn is having significant effects on accountability.

Savoie then revisits accountability and the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. He describes how on the most important issues facing the government, power resides tightly in the hands of the prime minister and a handful of his most trusted political and civil-service courtiers, whereas on all other issues it is turned over to the government system of diverse horizontal networks operating across an array of departments and concerned parties outside government. On both counts, Savoie contends that the effects on accountability are profound. It allows politicians to become more involved in administration, reduces the capacity of civil servants to say "no" to ministers, leads to plausible deniability on the part of ministers and senior civil servants, and diffuses accountability. In short, Savoie concludes that accountability has collapsed to a form of "blameless accountability" (p. 268), where holding government to account for a member of Parliament is "an exercise in grabbing smoke" (p. 273).

On the basis of his diagnosis, Savoie argues that the reform agenda must be "brave." He proposes nothing short of a new model of accountability, with its foundations consisting of five major, far-reaching changes:

-- define in statute the prime minister's role;

-- establish in statute a distinct personality of the civil service so that civil servants have a legal basis for resisting instructions from elected politicians to perform essentially political tasks; resolve the confusion among accountability, responsibility and answerability;

-- establish a distinction between top-level civil servants in central agencies and those delivering programs and services to the public; and

-- use the spending estimates to establish a publicly accessible process to hold civil servants accountable for administrative overhead costs and the management of financial and human resources.

Finding the right balance for the public service between responsiveness and loyalty to the government of the day on the one hand and independence and impartially on the other is never an easy task. Savoie argues that the balance cannot be restored by renewing the largely unwritten conventions of the past. His solution is to establish a firmer foundation in law that would clearly spell out the duties of prime ministers and senior public servants and ensure that as individuals the latter are directly and publicly accountable to parliamentarians for their administrative responsibilities. Indeed, he concludes that "'unless a distinctive administrative space is carved out for civil servants so that probing management questions can be put to government managers in a public forum, they will neither have a proper sense of ownership of their work nor be able to recapture the credibility needed to enjoy the kind of public support they once had" (p. 344).

I am not entirely persuaded by Savoie's argument. Maintaining the critical balance between responsiveness and independence is tricky at the best of times and something that becomes absolutely critical at the worst times. Policy and administration are intertwined. There is no doubt about the need to change the attitudes, culture and behaviour of politicians and civil servants. At a minimum our unwritten conventions and our formal rules need to be renewed. But can governments actually draw a universal and workable statutory line between political direction and undue political influence? Surely on such critical issues, situations and circumstances matter and it is at times like these--the defining moments--when politicians and public servants must draw on the core values of the public interest to do the right thing. Just as we need to clarify the administrative space of civil servants so too do we need to improve the quality of political partisanship and political leadership.

I am not overly confident in Savoie's proposal to reform the estimates process as a means of holding civil servants accountable for administrative overhead costs and the management of financial and human resources, simply because I have limited confidence in parliamentary committees to deal with substantive managerial issues. While there is much evidence that parliamentary committees can focus on the political dimensions of issues there is little to suggest, particularly in Canada, that they have the incentive and the capacity to deal with administrative and managerial issues of the public service. In fact, there is risk that these managerial and administrative issues will be used by the politicians to score political points. This is particularly true of the estimates process where parliamentarians, during periods of majority government, have no ability to change an expenditure item and where, in minority governments, the focus has been on the smell of a scandal over travel expenditures of a worthy governor general rather than a careful examination of administrative overhead expenditures. Furthermore, the negative fallout from this political gamesmanship will land squarely on the shoulders of deputy ministers and senior civil servants who even with their own legislatively defined administrative space will find it most difficult to counter a simple political argument with a complex administrative one under the glare of the media spotlight.

Savoie has done great service to Canada. His book paints a clear and disturbing picture of accountability and provides a fresh perspective on what could be done about it. This portrait of the Canadian polity commands a prominent place in our national gallery where it can stimulate informed public debate among politicians, public servants, citizens, the media, and academics to bring about the changes that are necessary to restore robust accountability in government.

David A. Good is professor, School of Public Administration, University of Victoria, and a former federal assistant deputy minister.
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Author:Good, David A.
Publication:Canadian Public Administration
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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