Quote of the week
“High-quality government will result from working with staff rather than constantly undermining them.”
— Sue Ferns, Prospect Union
It’s all very well to talk about making government smaller. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to move ahead and do so.
But smaller government is only part of the puzzle. Surely it’s not perverse to assume that one goal must be to ensure that there are enough of the right public servants left to do what’s needed.
Sue Ferns of Prospect Union has some criticisms in this regard for Francis Maude, the Cabinet minister who is leading the downsizing of the U.K. government. Her comments might well apply to governments in Canada.
At minimum, she argues for a strategic approach to government downsizing “building on a better understanding of what exists.” In common parlance, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
So what exactly is the value of a public servant to a government?
Referring to the policy function, she sums up the value of public service policy advice brilliantly: governments need the “integrated day-to-day policy advice provided by civil servants with knowledge of the issues and institutional memory.”
While accepting the value and practice of “commissioning” policy advice from third parties, she argues that the danger with using it alone may result in short-termism and bias.
I would add that the power of the official policy expert should be his or her unrelenting commitment to the public interest. Few outside organizations can claim this neutrality.
So if governments are committed to the long -term public interest, how should they approach downsizing of the public service?
Ferns argues that at minimum governments should make sure that there are “enough skills left within the government to enable it to be an intelligent customer and sufficiently informed as to the quality of the advice it procures or receives.”