The Harper Era and the erosion of the policy function of the federal public service

Professional athletes know better than most that when a muscle isn’t used it doesn’t take long for atrophy to set in, no matter how well developed that muscle once was.  And when the muscle is eventually re-engaged it can be a long and arduous road back to recovery.

After ten years of Conservative government the policy analysis and policy development muscle of the federal civil service suffers a sclerosis that will take a very long time to cure.

The erosion of policy capacity in Ottawa pre-dated the Harper government.  It is a problem that has been the subject of conversation among wonks for years.  Often its origins are pinned on the Chretien government’s Program Review of the mid 1990s, through which some federal departments had their policy shops cut or even gutted.  Moreover, throughout much of the 1990s demand for creative policy in Ottawa was weak, especially anything that cost money, due to the deficit control obsession.

But while the weakening of policy analysis and advice in Ottawa began at least twenty years ago, it accelerated radically during the Harper period.   There are several reasons for this.

The Harper Conservatives began their time in office with a deep mistrust if not disdain for the federal public service generally, and those charged with analyzing and providing advice on policy, specifically.  This skepticism toward bureaucrats was also evident when the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives came to power in 1984.  However, it quickly dissipated when the challenging realities of governing took hold, and once Prime Minister Mulroney and his Ministers realized that their opinion of officials as a bunch of Liberal leaning wets was wrong.  Unlike the Mulroney government, however, the aversion to public service policy analysis and advice resident in the Harper government did not diminish over time—it was more like a genetic condition than a virus that would run its course.  As a result muscle atrophy in the policy functions of the public service was compounded during the Harper period.

Another major cause of this disease stemmed from the fact that a large chunk of the Harper government’s program was driven by ideology and populism, not evidence or analysis.  The government’s criminal justice, tax policy and foreign affairs agendas are the most obvious examples of this kind of thinking.  A Prime Minister and Ministers that are animated primarily by ideology and populism, favour what one might term “political policy”, and are relatively impervious to evidence, analysis and argument, are not the kinds of decision makers the public service are equipped to deal with.  This further weakened the public service’s policy muscles.

The Conservatives also had a greater penchant than their predecessors to seek policy advice from experts and consultants outside the public service.  The most notable manifestation here was in the government’s preference to set up blue ribbon panels or commissions on all manner of important policy areas in which the government was not hamstrung by its ideology.  Notable files in this connection were support to the aerospace industry, R&D policy, defence procurement reform and even Canada’s role in Afghanistan.   While the panels addressing these and other issues were staffed by public servants, officials tended to provide secretarial and organizational support more than analysis or policy advice.

Furthermore, the private sector consulting industry—firms like KPMG, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Deloitte and Ernst and Young–which prior to the Harper government were bit players in policy analysis and advice to the federal government, became lead actors on many key policy stages over the past ten years, sidelining the professional public service.

Finally, under Mr. Harper’s watch, there were whole swaths of public policy—notably in health and the environment—where the government had virtually no agenda at all.  With no priorities to develop creative policy options for, the public service policy muscle got very flaccid indeed.

But what does all this history mean for the new Liberal government?

I argued in a previous Policy Options article that historically Liberal governments, for a variety of good reasons, have relied heavily on the public service to provide evidence based analysis and creative policy options.  By and large this approach to policy making served those governments well.  While Mr. Trudeau’s government is long on raw talent, it is the shortest on governing experience of any incoming Liberal regime in living memory.  Consequently, there is no reason to believe that the Trudeau government won’t lean on the public service at least as heavily as its Liberal predecessors did.  Unfortunately, it is quite likely that when the Prime Minister and his Cabinet push open that door of government they will be disappointed if not shocked at what they find on the other side.

Photo: Stephen Harper / Fair Use