Policy
May 7, 2012

Whither the fearless adviser?

During the last few months, many public servants in Canada have been dusting off their policy texts as they search for answers to some of the most complex issues that they will face in their careers as a result of the economic turmoil gripping the country.

This is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that policy advisors spend years training for but never expect to actually experience in their professional careers. While the stakes are especially high and the consequences of the decisions of national significance, those involved in providing policy advice are being guided by the same principles that characterize the work of all policy analysts in Canada’s public sector.  

At its core, policy advice requires a complex skill set that includes analytical talents and interpersonal abilities. In 1979, Aaron Wildavsky described policy advising as the art and craft of “speaking truth to power.”  By this he meant that public servants have an obligation to provide their political masters with the unvarnished truth based on the best and most rigorous analysis that time and budget allow for.

Under these conditions, policy analysis and giving advice to politicians is not for the faint of heart since it requires a commitment to ideas, an ability to make choices, and instincts for survival. This is especially the case when public servants have to provide advice that is not going to be welcome at the political level. For example, one can see the downside risk when a public servant argues against a policy option that a government has already publicly committed itself to implementing.

While the role of governments has changed dramatically over the years, the definition of speaking truth to power has not. What has changed is the way in which policy is developed as well as the relationship between the politicians and the public service. Twenty five years ago, for example, the Canadian public service could be characterized as anonymous, well hidden and the unchallenged primary source of policy advice. As a result, public servants could be candid with their political masters in the full knowledge that their advice would be confidential.  

Today, the situation has changed dramatically, due to at least two major factors. First, there are many more players involved in providing advice and input into the policy decision process than ever before. This would include a growing number of political advisors, many of them working outside of the formal government structure. As well, third-party experts from the think tank community or from interest groups provide alternative points of view, and are prepared to contest publicly the government’s policy preferences. The changing face of Canada has also encouraged policy advisors to look at a wider range of policy options in order to capture the diverse values of the Canadian public. All of this has taken away the exclusive role previously played by the public service.  

Second, over the past decade, there has been increased scrutiny of public servants due to the changing nature of accountability in society but especially since, at the federal level, the passage of the Public Service Modernization Act, the Federal Accountability Act, the Access to Information Act and the wide use of the Auditor General’s reports as an accountability document.  Collectively, these measures have forced senior public servants into the public arena by obliging them to be publicly accountable for all activities falling within their areas of responsibility.  

If these two issues were not enough, the expanding program delivery roles of not-for-profit organizations, the emergence of alternative service delivery mechanisms (including partnerships) as viable options for governments, continuing deregulation and the liberalization of markets, and the recognition of the need for horizontal policy development have all contributed to making the public policy arena more complex.  

Because of these developments, government is now only one of many players in the development and delivery of public policy – sharing the space with the other governments and the profit and not for profit sectors. Only in rare circumstances is a single level of government the dominant or only actor in a policy area.

With these dramatic changes to the process, the public sector has adapted to working with external and alternative sources of policy advice and has also learned to share information with stakeholders.  

However, not all is working well.  
First, the public service is still struggling to maintain an expertise in policy areas as older workers retire.  Second, policy units appear to spend a disproportionate amount of time on managing the process rather than on the substantive issues.  Third, the increased public access to policy advice has made it more difficult to provide confidential advice that will not find its way onto the front pages of the local media. Finally, there appears to be less interest in speaking truth to power given the extremely partisan environment that often characterizes newly elected governments and currently dominates Ottawa.  In fact, there is the possibility that providing “fearless” policy advice to government might disappear under the weight of uncompromising political direction and the increased pressure to hold officials to account in the public arena.  

Speaking truth to power is the one principle that ensures the public service works in the public interest by offering an independent perspective on policy alternatives. Speaking truth to power also contributes to increasing program effectiveness since it arms decision makers with the pros and cons of policy alternatives before they make decisions.

From a different perspective, the absence of speaking truth to power will ultimately devalue policy work in government and greatly diminish the attractiveness of a government career for young professionals. At a minimum, speaking truth to power should remain the ideal of policy analysts who hope to be able to analyze and present the policy alternatives, but realize they do not have the power to decide.  

They should, however, have the opportunity to provide honest advice.

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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