Fixing the public service will take greater political will than we’ve seen so far — and it will require more than tinkering with the size of the bureaucracy.

A retired deputy minister explained to me over breakfast, in no uncertain terms, what was wrong with the Canadian public service. He said, ”It is seriously, seriously overstaffed. There are far too many people running around pretending to be busy, creating mindless work for themselves and others. One should just decide one day to cut the size of the public service by half and you would see a dramatic improvement. That is the solution we need to look at, nothing else will work. We have tried everything else and nothing has ever worked.” Strange thing about recently retired senior public servants — they are quick to see that the service is too big soon after they leave government. It is quite a different matter while they are in office. I recall, as a young public servant in Ottawa, telling my deputy minister that I felt that there were too many people in the department for the required work. His reaction was swift. He proceeded to tell me that I was showing a disturbing level of disloyalty to the department. He pointed out that if I truly felt this way, I should seriously think about leaving.

I did leave, both the department and the government. When I saw him several years later in Ottawa, he too was no longer in government. He had just left a meeting at the Privy Council Office where, he reported, he had met with some fifteen to twenty public servants to go over what he described as a relatively minor issue. He commented on the waste of talent and resources in government and said that things were not like that in his current work in the private sector. Obviously, he had completely forgotten our conversation of several years earlier. When I reminded him, he replied, ”There is an old saying in government —  in matters of public policy, you stand where you sit.” What it told me was that there is no point asking a public sector manager if his or her department, agency, or unit has too many employees. You will never get a straight answer. Indeed, you are most likely to hear that more staff and more resources are needed and that things are stretched to the limit.  This is not a Canadian phenomenon. It will be recalled that Margaret Thatcher declared a freeze on hiring the day she came to office and scrapped plans to add new positions. She ignored the claim in the civil service briefing books that the 733,000-strong civil service was already stretched to the limit and that ”even modest” cuts in staff would inhibit departments from functioning effectively. Early in her first mandate, she directed that the civil service be reduced in size by nearly 15 percent. By the time she left office, it had been cut by over 22 percent, down to 569,000. Essentially, Thatcher imposed cuts simply by outlining targets and underlining the importance of management reform. It can hardly be described as a sophisticated approach, but it worked, at least from her perspective. Convinced that more could be done without a reduction in services, she simply declared that cuts could be absorbed through superior management practices, by importing private sector approaches, and just by old-fashioned cuts throughout government departments. She stuck to her position and met her objectives.

I asked Sir Robert Armstrong, one of the authors of the briefing books, if Thatcher had it right when she ignored their claim and imposed cuts by picking a number out of the air. Yes was the answer. ”Why, then,” I asked, ”did you attempt to persuade her to hire more public servants?” The answer: ”Permanent secretaries made their claim, and we packaged the various requests and made the case for more resources.” The suggestion is that it is up to politicians to determine the size of the public service, particularly when it needs to be cut down, and also to decide whether departments truly need more people. However, this implies that politicians can, on their own, somehow secure the knowledge and generate the necessary interest to establish the proper size of the public service. In one of my earlier books, I wrote that it is no longer sufficient to ask senior public servants to speak truth to power, to their political masters; they also need to speak truth to one another and to their own organization.

… Many people intuitively suspect that there is something not quite right with government bureaucracies. According to public opinion surveys, Canadians are convinced that the bureaucracies engender massive waste. For example, one survey reported as far back as 1997 that Canadians believe that of every dollar Ottawa spends, it wastes forty-seven cents. Things have hardly improved since the late 1990s.

To be sure, there is now a reluctance to defend the role of government on any grounds —  from efficiency to promoting the collective interest. The few who still argue against tampering with the existing machinery of government and its ”armies” of entrenched officials are on the defensive and are discounted by both the political left and political right. Even people who had supported the ideas and social welfare programs of leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Clement Attlee, T.C. Douglas, Lester Pearson, and Adlai Stevenson are now calling for changes to the apparatus of government. A serious candidate for the presidency of the United States in the run-up to the 2012 election pledged to make Washington ”irrelevant” in the lives of Americans.

Why is this so? Though the pursuit of a ”just society” led governments to introduce new policies and programs in the 1960s and 1970s, one can hardly argue ”mission accomplished.” Certainly, a variety of programs were introduced, but there is no sign that a just society has arrived. Indeed, there is ample evidence that inequality in society is more pronounced today in most Western democracies than it was in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Tony Judt writes that the greatest extremes of private privilege and public indifference can be seen in the United States and Britain —  ”the epicentres of enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism.” He notes that Britain ”is now more unequal —  in incomes, wealth, health, education and life chances —  than was the case in the 1960s and 70s.” In Canada, inequality in income has been on the rise. Before the mid-1990s the ratio between the wealthiest and poorest Canadians was eight to one; it is now ten to one.

Politicians on the campaign trail often point to waste in government spending, but more often than not they sing a different song once in power.

Is bureaucracy the problem? John Kenneth Galbraith, himself a leading proponent in the twentieth century for a greater role for government in society, maintained that bureaucracy had given government a bad reputation. Defending the system had become ”more than the liberal task,” he insisted. ”It is far more important now to improve the operation than enlarge and increase its scope. This must be the direction of our major effort.”…

In Canada, left-of-centre politicians such as Allan J. MacEachen and Lloyd Axworthy have openly questioned the work of public servants. Reg Alcock, a senior minister in the Paul Martin Liberal government, called bureaucrats ”the enemy,” and as Treasury Board president he declared that he hoped to bring the public service ”back to its glory days.”…

Public servants are not free to engage politicians in a public debate about the merits of their work or the reasons why the public sector no longer enjoys the credibility it once had. However, they do not hesitate to voice their views in private. Bev Deware, former deputy minister of defence and associate clerk of the privy council, likely spoke for a number of senior public servants when he said, ”Politicians should learn to heal themselves and their institutions before they try to heal the public service.” At the same time, many politicians are equally convinced that the problem lies not with themselves but with public servants and the public service.

From time to time, citizens will get a glimpse of waste in government when a financial audit reports that someone broke the rules or when the results of an access-to-information request uncovers financial or administrative abuses. It will be recalled, for example, that the auditor general revealed in 2001 that the federal government had sent home-heating cheques to 1,600 prison inmates and a year later declared that senior bureaucrats had broken ”just about every rule in the book” in mismanaging the Chrétien government’s sponsorship program. Such incidents are widely reported in the media, and they give bureaucracy a bad name. But they are often isolated cases and represent a minuscule amount of the government expenditure budget. In any event, they can never tell the whole story of how government decides and why. Often they speak to the problem, not to the cause.

In this book we set out to answer a number of questions. How well are government operations managed? What has been the impact of private sector-inspired management practices on government operations? How does the government shape and manage its expenditure budget? Students of public spending maintain that taxpayers have ”implicitly come to understand that there are underlying forces that invariably lead both bureaucrats and politicians to be inefficient and wasteful in public expenditures.” What are these forces? What forces also shape relations between elected politicians and public servants in managing government expenditures? How does the relationship influence government spending?

Politicians on the outside looking in have a greater capacity to see a need to cut spending than those in power do. Politicians on the campaign trail often point to waste in government spending, but more often than not they sing a different song once in power. The mayor of my own community stressed the need to be ”cautious with spending” in his first mayoralty campaign and pointed to the previous council’s growing operating budgets as a serious problem. After four years in office, the city’s operating budget grew by about 30 percent. What happens to politicians after they assume office?

Canadian politics and its public sector remain fundamentally about ”Who gets what, when, how.”

This volte face is hardly limited to my community. Stephen Harper in opposition and as head of the National Citizens Coalition called on the government to initiate ”tough government spending cuts.” Stephen Harper in government has apparently held a different view. Between his accession as prime minister in 2006 and his March 2012 budget, government spending grew to the tune of 5.5 percent per annum, outpacing the rate of inflation.

Control in either the public or private sector allows managers to assess whether or not their plans are implemented effectively. The budget arguably is the most important instrument of control in both sectors. In allocating funds, private sector firms expect a healthy return on their investments. The feedback is direct, quick, and blunt. What about the public sector? Governments in the Western world have, over the past thirty years or so, sought to make the public sector look like the private sector, at least when it comes to management. One can now ask, how has the budget process in government changed to accommodate this new reality?…

We have witnessed in more recent years an explosion in the literature on government spending. For the most part, the studies have looked at the point where politicians and public servants meet or where politics and public administration meet. This study seeks to go further; it explores both how government operates and decides and how it manages operations. Thus, we look not only at where politicians and public servants meet but also where government operations simply roll on in the vast complex world of public administration. In brief, it explores not just how decisions are made but also why and how government bureaucracies operate the way they do.

There have been a number of attempts to overhaul the management of the public sector over the past thirty years or so. We have seen efforts to relax procedural rules and processes, to introduce explicit performance standards; we have seen competition between public and private sector units, centralization of the policy-making process, and the disaggregation of activities, most notably a split between policy and delivery. These efforts were designed to make the management of the public sector resemble that of the private sector. Governments in all Anglo-American democracies, for example, decided to borrow a page from the private sector in introducing pay-for-performance schemes. But these, like most other reform measures, have met with limited success.

Western countries are now confronting a crisis in public spending, and an overhaul —  ranging from pensions, social services, and education to health care —  is being called for. The managing director of the International Monetary  Fund (IMF) has, at least on the face of it, a simple cure for a country’s debt crisis: cut public spending and increase taxes. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a message for the G20 leaders shortly before he hosted them in Canada in 2010, noting that the Western world is confronting a very serious fiscal challenge and ”to meet this challenge, we must deliver firm, credible plans that will put our countries on a path of fiscal sustainability.” However, he waited until he secured a majority mandate before unveiling sweeping spending cuts.

Where does one look for the answer? I have laboured through many government documents, consulted elected politicians and public servants, read the literature, and published extensively in this area. My own experience as an adviser to various governments at both the provincial and federal levels, as well as abroad, suggests a pattern: politicians want to squeeze savings from government operations and bureaucracy; but public servants insist that if significant savings are to be realized, the politicians must generate the political will to cut programs…

In planning this book, I consulted the work of the pioneers in the political science and public administration fields. I hold that both fields have lost sight of the more important issue: ”Who Gets What, When, How.” Harold Lasswell’s classic, published in 1935, sought to establish a lasting model by exploring the politics of multilateral bargaining between interest groups. His work resonates today as much as it did some eighty years ago, and it applies more to the Canadian setting than at any time in the past. Canadian politics and its public sector remain fundamentally about ”Who gets what, when, how.” This brings us back to the question, Why can a village no longer afford a music teacher while a government department in the area has grown from a staff of 2 to 150 in some sixty years?


Donald J. Savoie holds a Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton and has been an adviser to numerous federal, provincial and territorial government departments and agencies. This excerpt is taken from the introduction to Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? How Government Decides and Why (Montreal, QC, and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013). Excerpted with permission.