Super-bureaucrats and counter-democracy - Canadian Government Executive
Best Practice
May 7, 2012

Super-bureaucrats and counter-democracy

One of the most paradoxical Biblical parables, found the Gospel of Luke, is that of the dishonest servant who, being asked to render account of his misadministration to his master, realizes that he will be dismissed. Therefore, he assembles his master’s debtors and commits forgeries, which dramatically reduce their debts. It is said that following his dismissal he was held in high esteem and supported by the debtors with whom he had conspired to rob his master, but was also cynically admired by his master for having shown such good sense as an “enfant du siècle.”

This sacred text, which I must admit I find somewhat confusing, will serve as a starting point in an analysis of the relationship between elected government ministers and super-bureaucrats (deputy ministers, commissioners, CEOs and the like). For, in spite of the mutual admiration recently expressed by ministers and heads of the public services in the pages of Canadian Government Executive magazine, all does not always run smoothly, as “enfants du siècle” are also present among them.

According to the conventional model, the deputy minister serves the minister. He must inform his minister to the best of his knowledge, give advice and then proceed to carry out his minister’s wishes with loyalty, imagination and creativity as long as those wishes do not run counter to the laws of the country. This model remains realistic and a large majority of super-bureaucrats fulfill this function loyally and creatively.

However, at the same time, this model is, in a subtle way, being put into question. Some deputy ministers and other super-bureaucrats have begun to suggest that their mandate differs from that of simply informing and assisting their minister. They have declared themselves to be the direct and privileged interpreters of the public interest, and to have the responsibility of standing on guard for the country when facing elected representatives whose legitimacy, according to them, has become questionable.

One would expect that such weird theorizing would be denounced by academics and the media. Far from it, many of these are in agreement. They have denounced the corruption of a political system that allows for all and sundry to act as broker and to seek to influence the government (active citizens… what a horror!), and have demanded that the superior moral authority of super-bureaucrats be recognized as uncontestable by granting them additional powers.

This seed of counter-democracy (one of the best guarded secrets in Ottawa) has begun to germinate and flower. Empowered by the moral support of some right-thinking journalists and academics, these newly minted crusaders – deputy ministers and “independent” adjudicators of all types – have come to consider themselves to be justified in their active or passive disloyalty vis-à-vis their elected masters in the name of the higher interests of the country.

Such theorization is undermining parliamentary democracy as we know it.

Fortunately, the vast majority of super-bureaucrats and deputy ministers do not subscribe to these views. They are aware of the impropriety of such a claim on the part of bureaucrats who should not attempt to usurp the role of preeminent and even exclusive interpreters of the highest interests of the country. However, such a position is vigorously defended by an active minority of super-bureaucrats – direct descendants of the dishonest servant. The worm has entered the apple and this has consequences.

Hundreds of adjudicators are in charge of “independent” and varied Commissions and there are dozens of deputy ministers. Yet, it only requires a small fraction of these officials to consider themselves authorized to be disloyal to their ministers in the name of the higher interests of the country – especially if we do not know who they are – to completely transform the relationship between ministers and super-bureaucrats. If one out of twenty is potentially passively or actively disloyal (and no one knows who belongs in that category), the general ministerial paranoia becomes understandable: one no longer knows whom to trust! Some striking examples of this paranoia have occurred recently.

The pressures from adjudicators (such as Judge Gomery and some of his academic epigones) seeking to institutionalize such a higher moral and legal authority for super-bureaucrats is indicative of this trend. Even though the late Arthur Kroeger and some senior bureaucrats denounced such proposals, they did not succeed in stemming the tide.

A far-reaching process of counter-democracy has ensued in the underground. The crusading super-bureaucrats proclaim that in our present age of distrust, they are the only line of defense capable of protecting citizens. These Knights Templar are in the process of knocking our democratic machinery off-balance.

Elected representatives have attempted to take measures to protect themselves from such disloyalty. However, such measures have been timid and not well received. Also, those who have installed such measures have exposed themselves to the disapproval of the media and academics, as well as to the displeasure of their subordinates (including those who are loyal).

In a system where the majority of senior public servants are loyal, suspicion and distrust have begun to slowly take a firm hold because we allow a small minority of disloyal (active or passive) persons to operate in total freedom with the explicit support of a large portion of the media and of a certain retinue of academics for whom this counter-democracy is laudable.

The situation is even more critical in a situation when the election of a new minority government follows ten or so years of a majority government of another stripe. A certain natural apathy sets in, not only because the bureaucrats in place are not always quick to adjust to new ideas but also because these new ideas may indeed be only temporarily in good currency since the minority government may fall. It is in such a compost heap that this new dogma of the super-bureaucrat, supposedly more trustworthy and independent than an elected representative, has been allowed to germinate.

The real tragedy created by the lack of punishment for deception and irresponsibility at the top of the bureaucracy resides in the fact that the majority of senior public servants and super-bureaucrats (who loyally serve the government) cannot help but be frustrated and discouraged by the climate of distrust which has been implanted – a climate which is explicable but is inflicting much undeserved distrust on them. However, who can honestly accuse the elected representatives of being unreasonable when a small non-identified minority may be seeking to sabotage them and where any effort to control or severely punish such disloyalty is held in contempt and sharply criticized in the media.

Meanwhile, if the wishes of the minister are to be carried out each day and if the elected representatives succeed in enacting any of the promises made to the electorate, it is through the efforts of senior public servants and of the public service as a whole. A conflictive equilibrium is thus in place: elected representatives and bureaucrats need each other; they are complementary, they have to work together.

It is therefore essential to take a moment to clarify the burden of office of one and all, and to rid the system not only of the saboteurs (who are destroying the capital of trust and professionalism required to ensure that the public service contributes to good governance) but also of the theory promoting “sabotage as a way to better serve th

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