In the January issue, Ruth Hubbard and David Zussman discussed the importance of speaking truth to power. Zussman sounded an alarm that public servants now face growing difficulties in doing so due to both organizational and political realignment whereas Hubbard made the case for thoughtful collaboration at the interface between elected officials’ ministers’ and senior public servants’ deputies.
Even beyond such vital issues, however, deputies face the equally important challenge of determining the truth via an entire new set of dialogues both within and extending beyond the boundaries of the public service. In a digital world where information and power are increasingly dispersed, the new public servant must rethink how decisions are arrived at’ who has input, and how. The sort of collaboration at the top that Hubbard speaks of in terms of deputies and ministers must become systemized throughout the policy-making and service-design processes. The future of governing is less about the apex of power and certainty and credentials of those occupying high office, and more about the collective intelligence of all stakeholders.
The challenge here is the cultural cleavage between the digital opportunities for more participative forms of governance, and the mindset of government that seeks to control information and decision-making as much as possible.
The Clerk of the Privy Council routinely gives speeches lamenting excessive rules and calling for greater degrees of freedom for public servants to take risks and be creative. Yet the political apparatus extending from the Prime Minister’s Office seeks to minimize uncertainty and exert higher levels of influence over ministers’ and by extension the organizations and managers supporting them.
Moreover, as the Internet raises expectations of transparency and involvement, the tendencies of government for secrecy and containment remain. The erosion of trust on the part of the public is the invariable result, as the citizenry grows wary of hearing politicians pronounce’what Canadians want,’ when what Canadians really want is to be more directly involved in exercising oversight and providing input into both policy and service design. The report on service excellence by Accenture Consulting demonstrates this point well, as in most all countries the public laments the limited efforts of their governments to listen and share authority.
Perhaps the recent federal budget offers some modest hope of learning in this regard, as the highly centralized version presented in November, creating cynicism and crises, gave way to a more consultative effort that was largely leaked in advance of the actual speech (in contrast to the cloak of secrecy that has historically been the norm). Still, as important as such a high level shift may be, it is no recipe for systemic reform.
The most important shift in political leadership that is urgently required is one that acknowledges that public servants are central to achieving performance objectives (even as ministers collectively set the broad parameters of such objectives politically). Deputies can then, in turn, seek more participation and innovation by employees and stakeholders in order to foster dialogues predicated less on process than results.
It is not by accident that the most digitally advanced and transparent governments across Scandinavia are managed, by and large, by autonomous and decentralized public sector organizations’ that, in turn, seek to collaborate when it makes sense to do so. Historically nurtured traditions and structures both empower officials and hold them to account, and political interference in the operations of the state is rare and exceptional. It is this sort of environment that enables speaking truth to power’ as power is shared openly and intelligently.
Tomorrow’s deputies must enjoy new opportunities for organizing and managing both within and across their fiefdoms, accepting more visible and direct lines of public accountability as a result. The starting point for such change is an abandonment of the shackles of the Westminster doctrine that only ministers can be publicly vetted, a doctrine that has already been weakened by prime ministerial dominance. The conundrum remains the reluctance of those with power to remodel it and to accept the risk (and potential rewards) of finding a better way.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).