Canada’s public service needs to be fixed. It’s growing like gangbusters, faces relentless attack, is losing the confidence of politicians, and struggles to keep up in a changing world because it is using decades-old policies and processes, says a leading expert.
Donald Savoie, Canada’s pre-eminent scholar and expert on public administration, is calling for a royal commission into the role of the public service, the first in more than 45 years, to fix its deteriorating relationship with ministers, Parliament and Canadians.
Savoie has written exhaustively about what’s wrong with the public service. But he now believes the non-partisan institution has so irreparably come off its moorings that only an independent royal commission can fix it.
“I reluctantly came around to a royal commission because I see no better option. I’m not a big fan of them. They’re costly and once launched can go off on tangents… But what else can we do?”
He says the time is right because the public service is under “sustained criticism with bureaucrat bashing taking hold everywhere.”
The work and expectations of the public service has changed dramatically over the past 45 years while the rules under which they operate stayed the same. Ministers of all political stripes have hired large staffs for policy advice, whereas they used to rely on getting that from public servants.
All of that is taking its toll on the morale of the public service, frustrating those who work there and discouraging those who may be interested in working in government.
The most worrisome problem is the lack of trust.
Forty years ago, a minister ‘s office had three or four assistants and the main policy adviser was the department’s deputy minister. Today, ministers have several dozen staff headed by chiefs of staff — equivalent to assistant deputy ministers — and have their own policy advisers.
“Why is it that 40 years ago there was no such thing as a policy adviser to a minister? It used to be a deputy minister, but now every minister’s office has four or five,” says Savoie. “That tells me ministers are saying: ‘we don’t accept the policy advice that comes from our deputy minister.’ That’s a pretty fundamental question.”
Public servants basked in accolades in the early days of the pandemic for responding quickly and getting benefits out to Canadians. That all turned as the pandemic eased and public servants were lambasted for moving too fast and making mistakes.
Service debacles such as passport and immigration delays fed Canadians’ growing discontent with government, while populist leaders such as Pierre Poilievre and anti-institution protest groups are tapping into that mistrust.
Savoie says it’s now increasingly popular to deride the public service as too big, overpaid, underworked and pampered with pensions and benefits few Canadians enjoy.
“I hear it, I understand it,” he says. “But where does all that bashing take you? We better have a sober second thought. This is a vitally important institution and all we’re doing is belittling it.”
Then, the rapid growth in the size of the public service, which went into overdrive during the pandemic, grabbed the spotlight.
The public service is growing faster than the private sector as the economy recovers from the pandemic. It’s bigger than ever and the Parliamentary Budget Office expects it will hit 409,000 employees within five years – and maybe more.
On top of that, outsourcing work to contractors – the so-called shadow public service – is also soaring. But all that growth isn’t paying off with better services.
Savoie laments that fixing the situation isn’t on anyone’s radar. The public service can’t do it. The prime minister, ministers and even the clerk of the Privy Council, the head of the public service, already have too much on their plate. On top of that, he argues, “nobody knows what to do about it. “
“The public service is an institution that’s been buffeted about for so long…but it can’t speak out,” says Savoie. “They can’t voice what they think is wrong.
“So how do we get to the bottom of these issues? I think we can only do that with a detached body, that’s neither reporting to the public service nor politicians, and can look coldly at how it has evolved and what needs to be done to fix it.”
Reforming the public service has been an enduring challenge for more than 50 years. There’s been debate over the years about who’s best to lead the way on reform – public servants, the government or Parliament.
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A royal commission is an independent investigation into matters of national importance. It comes with broad powers to hold public hearings, call witnesses under oath and compel evidence. They make recommendations to the government on what should change.
The Glassco commission focused on government organization. Its recommendations can be summed up as “let the managers manage.” The Lambert Commission delved into financial management and accountability. Its work can be summed up as “make the managers manage.”
But Savoie says both commissions, led by businessmen, never considered how management reforms related to Parliament or ministers.
They were followed by a series of reform initiatives led by the public service – Public Service 2000; the 1990s Chretien government Program Review; La Relève of 1998; the Task Force on the Human Resources Services Modernization Initiative of 2015-16, through to Blueprint 2020, which has been updated with Beyond 2020.
Savoie holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton. His research and achievements are prodigious, and have influenced policy and public management. He has won too many awards to count — including being named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2022 — and has published 52 books and is always working on another.
Savoie has warned about eroding trust, the concentration of power and “politicization” of the public service in articles and books ever since he wrote the 1999 book, Governing from the Centre, a must-read in Ottawa circles that made him persona non-grata with then-prime minister Jean Chrétien.
Back in 2003, Savoie wrote Breaking the Bargain, about the unravelling of the traditional bargain underpinning the relationship between politicians and public servants.
Public servants are still nominally bound by that bargain. They are still expected to be anonymous and non-partisan and when meeting with parliamentarians, “have no distinct personality from their ministers” – like bureaucrats 45 years ago, says Savoie.
A recent report, Top of Mind, by two think tanks – the Ottawa-based Institute on Governance and the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University – also threw the spotlight on the increasingly troubled relationship after probing public service executives at all levels of government about their biggest challenges.
Stephen Van Dine, who led the project, argues reform is overdue and supports the idea of independent review by a royal commission.
“Recent events have shown a fundamental decline in understanding between the roles of elected and unelected public officials resulting in poor decisions, absence of foresight and planning to anticipate policy needs,” he says. “It means policy options to address climate change, health care reform, and cost of living are likely less robust.”
The Top-of-Mind report found that today’s executives worry about falling public trust in government; the decline in senior bureaucrats giving “fearless advice” to ministers; a hollowing-out of policy capacity; a post-pandemic economic reckoning; conflicts among levels of government; and the need for public service reform.
There is a growing appetite to reform the public service. Politicians, public servants and Canadians don’t feel it is working like it should, but it’s not a groundswell and won’t be a vote-winner for the campaign trail.
The Trudeau government was elected in 2015 as saviours of the public service, with promises of a new “golden age,” but some argue an all-powerful PMO and mistrust has made things worse.
The big worry for those like Savoie who believe the “strength of Canada depends on the strength of the public service” is that with the rise of populism and its push for smaller and less intrusive government it will be fixed by sweeping cuts, downsizing and privatization.
“There has to be a rational way to do this,” said Savoie.
This article was produced with support from the Accenture Fellowship on the Future of the Public Service. Read more of Kathryn’s work here.