Michael Pitfield served in the Public Service of Canada from 1959 to 1982, holding a variety of positions, including Deputy Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs, and Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet. In 1982 he was summoned to the Senate of Canada. Since 1984 he has been Vice-Chairman of Power Corporation and a director of several private corporations. His interest in public policy research dates at least from the mid-1960s, when he was Secretary and Research Supervisor of the Royal Commission on Taxation. He was an original member of the IRPP’s Board of Trustees in 1973. On the occasion of IRPP’s 30th anniversary, Mr. Pitfield is being made a Lifetime Fellow of the Institute. He was interviewd by Policy Options editor William Watson in early April.
William Watson: What difficulties did the government you were associated with face in trying to put reason at the heart of all its decision-making?
P. Michael Pitfield: We did not really face difficulties with that because we put young people at the heart of the system, people who were fresh to government, people who had credentials to validate and reputations to earn.
William Watson: What role did the think-tanks of the day play?
P. Michael Pitfield: There were not a great many think-tanks at that time and those that existed were largely concerned with the preservation of the status quo. Their access to people was hampered by a whole lot of bureaucratic constraints and rules aimed at preserving territory or seniority, or clout of one kind or another, and forcing creative thinking into preconceived pockets. At the same time, there was no process in place for establishing priorities and planning accordingly. One of the first things we tried to do was to set out a short list of ten questions that the government felt itself anxious and bound to cope with, regardless of departmental jurisdictions and expenditure constraints.
William Watson: Do you think that the role of think-tanks has changed since then?
P. Michael Pitfield: I would hope so. Our aim was to increase access to information and the free flow of ideas, to stimulate debate, all eminently desirable. The enemies were the status quo, vested interests that had working for them a system of monitoring and rules that discouraged the creative thinking that we felt the circumstances demanded.
William Watson: What do you think their role should be now and how might they play it better?
P. Michael Pitfield: Issues today are much more highly politicized, more inevitably ”œgovernmental.” We are dealing with strong pressures exercised in complex systems that require careful understanding, including the knowledge of history and culture. List the shortcomings of our political system, spot them and you begin to have a list of changes that need to be made. Not change for change’s sake, which is a great danger.
William Watson: How did your involvement with the IRPP come about?
P. Michael Pitfield: In good measure from exposure to the American experience. The Americans are pretty active in the development and protection of their own political system. They watch over their system vigorously and have a host of instruments to do so. Their ongoing awareness is a product of the work of private and public and mixed mechanisms that monitor the performance of ”œthe system.” Their monitors comprise an informal, complex system, which includes universities like Harvard and private-sector foundations, as well as other actors. I got into the system through the then XXth Century Fund " now simply the Century Foundation " and that experience caused me to reflect on the Canadian reality.
William Watson: What problems did the IRPP face in conducting its research and getting its message out?
P. Michael Pitfield: We thought we were the fresh new thinkers that would be welcomed by the government. We did not have an adequate sense of realpolitik. On a more mundane level, there were budgetary problems, ongoing constraints, political interface problems.
William Watson: What took up most of your time during your years at the Institute?
P. Michael Pitfield: I don’t know if it was ”œmost of our time,” but a lot of effort went into dealing with questions of who’s up and who’s down, which made it difficult to focus on day-to-day reality and requirements.
William Watson: What do you think about the current state of policy-making and debate in Canada?
P. Michael Pitfield: It takes place in very different circumstances. There is a much greater role played by special interests today than was the case 30 years ago; governments and other decision-makers operate with one eye ever peeled on polls and focus groups; the political landscape is fragmented, but our electoral systems make no provision for the representation of that fragmentation. Some of the new reali- ty has yet to be accommodated; we are a nation living largely in a small num- ber of conurbations that exercise polit- ical power, if at all, only indirectly; we possess electronic instruments that could already have revolutionized the political process, but are so far being used to effect only incremental change. We sometimes lament a lack of leadership today, but, perhaps, there is less scope for it.
William Watson: Do you see progress from three decades ago or have things got worse?
P. Michael Pitfield: I think there has been moderate progress, not nearly as much as I would like, but some.
William Watson: How might the debate be improved?
P. Michael Pitfield: By much broader acceptance of freedom of information on the one hand and, on the other, by an acceptance of the real requirements of government, its constraints and its opportunities.