There are very few countries in the world where public sector controversies are of interest to Canadians. However, given that Canada operates under a Westminster system the recent public developments in the United Kingdom are of particular importance to those Canadians who are interested in innovation in government.
Currently, there are two major public sector issues playing out across the ocean that will ultimately land on Canada’s shores. The first revolves around the ongoing and very public spat between the Prime Minister and his civil service about the degree to which Whitehall (the public service) has supported the coalition since it was formed in 2012.
Specifically, the coalition government has been expressing its frustration with the public service by publicly accusing senior officials of deliberately undermining the government’s ambitious policy agenda by engaging in a form of guerrilla warfare. Only a few months ago, a particularly outspoken critic of the public service, Nick Herbert, resigned from the Cameron Ministry to sit as a backbench Member of Parliament so that he would be able to advocate for more direct political control over the public service.
In January, the London Times noted that the struggle between ministers and mandarins was “poisoning relations across Whitehall and threatening to derail David Cameron’s reforms.” In general, the perception is that “the tension over the pace and scale of coalition policy has given way to outright mistrust in some departments with ministers feeling blocked by an unwieldy and unwilling Civil Service.” One Tory Cabinet minister said that the working relationship was akin to both sides waging a permanent “cold war.”
Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, who recently described the civil service as “hopelessly bureaucratic” and no longer fit for its purpose, has recently enjoined the debate. “Time has passed them by,” he said. Blair has also stated that, “there is an inherent dysfunctionality in the gap between that we really want the system to do today – implementation, delivery, performance – and what they are traditionally geared up to do, which is analysis and policy advice.” Moreover, Cameron and Blair both refer to the satire, Yes, Minister, as a documentary rather than a comedy.
The second major development in the U.K. concerns efforts to make the executive ranks of the public service more accountable and under the control of the government of the day. The most recent Cameron initiative has been the creation of Departmental Boards “to advise on and supervise the strategic clarity of individual departments, the development of business practices, the hiring of talented people, the reporting of performance results, and the availability of clear performance information.” To give weight to this effort each Departmental Board is led by a private sector management executive. In the event that the Departmental Board concludes that the permanent secretary (deputy minister) is underperforming, the board can recommend to the Prime Minister that the permanent secretary be dismissed.
While public debates about the role of the public service are rare in Canada, many readers will recall that on occasion the public service has served as a political football during election campaigns. The most vivid example concerns Brian Mulroney who, as the new leader of the Progressive Conservatives, campaigned across the country in 1984 promising to give the “Liberal” public service “pink slips and running shoes” when he was elected prime minister. Ironically, Mulroney acted quite differently once in office when he discovered that the public service was able to be as loyal to him as it had been to previous Liberal governments.
Aside from having a devastating impact on the morale of the more than 460,000 public servants in the U.K., the implication of increased scrutiny on senior officials and of public attacks on the perceived excessive powers of the public service signals a changing role for the public servant in government.
The appropriate role in a Westminster system is a complex one that constantly needs review as the role of the government evolves in democratic nations. In 2006, the newly elected Conservative government in Canada also developed its own approach to redefining the role of the public service by passing the Federal Accountability Act.
The recent front-page stories in the U.K. demonstrate that the role of institutions is an organic one that changes with evolving definitions of who acts in the public interest and how much power each constituent part should have in the governance of a nation. The changes sweeping across the U.K. should be of considerable interest to those who are interested in governance in Canada.
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa (firstname.lastname@example.org).