Prime ministers matter when it comes to public service reform. In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron has led an ongoing battle with the civil service as he has tried to reform that institution in his vision. And who can forget Margaret Thatcher’s privatization of public sector services and her drive to bring private sector values to the public sector? The Ontario Public Service still remembers a similar drive by Premier Mike Harris between 1995 and 2002.
In the last 20 years, the federal public service has gone through a number of Clerk-led renewal initiatives. The question is: how much impact have they had? One could argue that the real changes in the federal public service have occurred when the politicians of the day took charge. Today, the re-shaping of the federal public service is being led by the President of the Treasury Board.
The Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell was Canada’s 19th Prime Minister from June 25 to November 4,1993. She is Chair of the World Movement for Democracy and a member of the Council of Women World Leaders and the International Women’s Forum. She was in Ottawa last fall, and editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe asked her what she believed were the drivers of change in the public sector.
Overall, I would say the need to deal realistically with changes. Probably the biggest driver of change, if one looks at the history of Canada, has been the increased scope of government, the growing demand on the part of citizens for governments to meet certain needs.
I think the drivers of change include people’s concerns that big government means fewer liberties; technologies that have made people more independent and more able to do things on their own; and concerns about levels of taxation, particularly if you have growing income inequality. Oddly enough, the people who have the most income are often the ones who are most hostile to government expenditure.
There has also been a dramatic change in social values, and the way we use the law. Ideally, government ought to be that part of society that’s able to allocate values for the long term. But long-term decision-making in politics is very difficult, because the electoral cycle often dominates things.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he believes the civil service is dysfunctional. What are your views?
I think politicians have a responsibility to create the public service that will function for their countries. I say this because I work in countries where people are trying to create new democracies and one of their big “lacks” is a professional public service. When you’re a politician and you have an idea, somebody has to translate it into a program, somebody has to understand how you take an idea and create a deliverable outcome from it.
I think part of the problem in Britain is that the structure of their public service is wrong: the senior officials around the politicians tend to be public servants. In Canada, as Minister of Justice, I had my deputy minister, but I also had ministerial staff and my chief of staff. My legislative people worked with the department, but their goal was to make sure that the minister’s desires were met. I had the mandate and I was accountable, and if the people of Canada didn’t like what I did, I could be turfed out. Public servants can’t be.
But my observation was that most public servants that I was involved with thrive on clear direction. Sometimes you may get resistance, and I think that’s when the politician needs to be able to hold people to account.
You have used the terms followership and leadership. Can you explain what they mean to you?
When I talk about followership, there’s the question of how much citizens know, how intelligently they exercise their votes, and whether they’re willing to provide that grassroots support for good policymaking. And if you don’t focus on enlightening the public, you will be simply led, pushed by the least informed, the most militant. You see this in the United States, where the Republican Party is wagged by the tail of the Tea Party because they’re the most active and get involved in the primary elections that choose candidates.
Leadership includes moderation and understanding because you’re governing a population that doesn’t all think alike, and so you have to have compromise. It’s not a sign of weakness or moral vacillation, it’s a recognition that in seeking the national interest, you’re not necessarily going to be able to optimize any one group but maximize, as much as you can, the satisfaction of as many people as possible to try to create policies that work and will inspire respect and enable you to move ahead, whether it’s in law enforcement or economic development or sensible taxation regimes.
And if the public sector writ large can’t deliver, do we run the risk of an increasingly disengaged population that is a potential threat to our democratic system?
Yes, I think so. And again, I do a lot of work in countries that are coming out of dictatorship: people can know what they want, but the political institutions are often immature. I think there are two kinds of corruption. There’s the kind of corruption that is almost a rational response to a lack of services, where people try to get themselves ahead because the system doesn’t work; there isn’t enough money to pay public servants, so people take a bit of a payoff to deliver a service, kind of pay-as-you-go. It’s corrupt in the sense that they shouldn’t have to do this, and people shouldn’t have to pay, but it doesn’t necessarily undermine the entire system.
Then there are the “corruptocrats” who just take everything for themselves and put their own people in place and repress their opponents. That’s a worse kind of corruption, because it’s a kind of corruption that doesn’t enable you to build. The problem is that if petty corruption gets too entrenched, it’s sometimes hard to move people into a different way of doing things.
You have to have the resources to pay people fairly, you have to have the mechanisms of detection and adjudication that enable them to hold you to account. And that requires the development of a public sector, which includes the whole administration of justice.
But here, in many ways, things that governments used to do they don’t need to do anymore; there are bodies and services that can do it. And the big challenge for our time, and even from my time in politics, is figuring out what is government best designed to do and what is best left to the private sector.
You say that the role of the politician is to make sure government is doing the right thing. Yet many politicians say government simply has to be smaller.
I think that’s too simplistic. Rather than making it smaller, I think avoiding unnecessary growth is a different way of looking at it. Saying: “What is it that government needs to do well, funded as well as we can afford to fund it?” When you look at the resources we’re able to take in the forms of taxation, fees, et cetera – all the sources of revenue for the government – how much can we afford to do?
I used to say there’s no limit to the amount of good you can do, there’s a limit to the amount of good you can afford to do. That’s a realistic thing, because if the government begins to take too much of the national revenue, then there isn’t enough money available for private sector development, and then it becomes a stultifying effect on the economy.
This is why we need experts, why we need thoughtful people within our public service who can be the custodians of the historical lore of what’s been tried, what the newest thinking is. Yes, we can reach outside for experts, but we need people who understand the reality of public decision-making. People who work in the public service are more likely to have that.
When I was Justice Minister and I was taking firearms legislation through Parliament, my team was also working on amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act and some of them were feeling very discouraged because they thought it was a waste of time. I sat with them one day and I said, “I can only take one highly controversial piece of legislation through Parliament at once. If I try to table this legislation, it will fail. But as soon as the firearms bill is passed, you’d better be ready.”
It’s that kind of conversation which allows people to understand their own constraints. It’s not to politicize the public service, but to enlighten the public service, to make the public service politically aware, not politically operative but politically sensible. They’re serving people, and to understand where the electorate is, and again, to help politicians communicate ideas in terms that are readily accessible to people who don’t spend their whole time thinking about public issues and who are not professional economists. Most people are too busy trying to earn a living to think about this stuff all the time. Politicians are paid to think about it; public servants are paid to think about it.
If you were meeting young public servants who had just joined the public service, what advice would you give them?
I would tell them that they’re probably going to have a lot of frustrations. I think there are challenges in bureaucracies, but I would tell them to be smart at their field, be emotionally intelligent, to understand that they’re operating in a hierarchical, complex structure. Support those who are above you, but also make sure that you make it clear what you’re able to do. So master your own field, and also be sensitive to the broader needs out there of consumers for what it is that you’re doing.
There’s also that whole side of the public service that delivers programs. Public servants are accountable for delivering on those programs. It’s not good enough to say, “Oh, it’s a disaster.” If Tony Blair says it’s a disaster, well, what did you do about it while you were in government? That’s your responsibility. Nobody else can take it on. Only you can.