During the course of his long years in power, Bismarck brought his ministerial colleagues into unconditional bureaucratic dependence by eliminating all independent statesmen. Upon his retirement, he saw to his surprise that they continued to manage their offices unconcerned and undismayed, as if he had not been the master mind and creator of these creatures, but rather as if some single figure had been exchanged for some other figure in the bureau- cratic machine.
Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1922)
Barring a major new war, the year 2007-08 may well be remembered in history as one of political transi- tions for the West’s major democracies. Before Kevin Rudd, the newly elected prime minister of Australia, there was Gordon Brown in the United Kingdom and Nicolas Sarkozy in France. By the end of calendar 2008, we will have a new president-elect in the United States and, in all likeli- hood, a general election here in Canada.
Peaceful transitions of government after free and fair elections are the very lifeblood of modern democratic life. A government is elected on the strength of undertakings made to the voting public, which in turn is supposed to hold the government to account for such undertakings and for its general competence. The logic appears tight " unassailable on principles, although perhaps in the details…Is it?
Let us look at these details, for much of Canada’s gover- nance happens in the bowels, well beneath the rambunc- tious veneer of parliamentary repartee and media bons mots. This article will make the case for a more empowered political executive in Canada " at least at the federal level. It will argue that our political parties are in dire need of des- ignated policy think tanks " preferably state-funded ones " to be able to form stronger, deeper and, most important- ly, more consistently prepared governments when they come to power. The case being made, therefore, is that a more effective political executive is the linchpin in strength- ening modern Canadian democracy.
All this clearly goes against the grain of the convention- al wisdom of recent political debates in Canada about the so-called democratic deficit, most of which have, in one form or another, stressed the democratic virtue of defanging an increasingly large and potent executive. Part of this pro- posed defanging often involves bolstering the role of the legislative branch, or Parliament: the effectiveness of its committees, the voting freedom of members and the system by which members are elected.
The democratic deficit of the last decade or so has tradi- tionally been attributed to the ”œfriendly dictatorship” of the executive branch of the federal government. The typical ill associated with Canadian government, according to this view, has been the apparent excess of power vested in the prime minister and his supporting machinery " to wit, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Privy Council Office (PCO), both of which are apparently disposed to usurping power from other branches of government, especially Parliament, but also from other parts of the executive; that is, from other ministries, and even from full cabinet. The apparent usurpation of power from Parliament, of course, has garnered the most attention, and seems to suggest a weakening of the democratic structure of our Westminster system of responsible gov- ernment " one in which an effective Parliament should be able to meaning- fully hold the executive to account.
The modern discourse about an ”œemasculated” or ”œirrelevant” Parliament really begins with Pierre Trudeau, as it was his government that introduced the elaborate cabinet com- mittee system that ushered in the modern power era of the three central agencies in Ottawa " Finance, Treasury Board and the PCO. Along with its political annex in the form of the PMO, the PCO became primus inter pares in the art of ”œgoverning from the centre” " principally on the strength of its control of the cabinet committee process, including full cabinet. To the clerk of the Privy Council " head of the PCO and chief bureaucratic adviser to the prime minister " eventually accrued more administrative power than most cabinet ministers have, and the degree of dependence on the clerk by more powerful players like the prime minister and his or her chief of staff became an undeniable, but (criti- cally) little-understood, fact of Canadian political life.
Because governments since Trudeau have developed and advanced their broad policy agendas primarily via the modern cabinet committee process, mid- to high- level officials in the PCO have also become extremely powerful players in government: influencing the sub- stance of policy discussions, provid- ing final policy recommendations to chairs of cabinet committees and " less widely appreciated " accelerat- ing or decelerating the pace at which a given file weaves its way through the increasingly complex cabinet committee system, depending on the interplay of political and bureaucrat- ic imperatives and intrigue. Under any given government, there may be half a dozen to a dozen such commit- tees. They cover the entire gamut of policy issues faced by the country, from foreign affairs to the environ- ment. And each of these committees is supported by at least one secretari- at within the PCO, which is populat- ed by a not insignificant number of policy professionals " civil servants with strong experience of govern- ment and often with specific policy expertise. These civil servants usually take the lead in setting the lion’s share of the agendas for cabinet com- mittee meetings and, in many cases, meetings of full cabinet. They also manage virtually all of the paperwork leading up to, and issuing from, these meetings. This monopoly or mastery of the process of government by elite civil servants is, again, little under- stood, but fundamental to a proper appreciation of how modern govern- ment in Canada really works.
For the most part, full cabinet in this system tends to receive policy advice or recommendations for which most of the details have already been suplied by officials in the PCO (prima- rily) and the other central agencies (secondarily), with support from other specialized ministries (line depart- ments), each of which can call on the expertise and incumbency of a large number of policy professionals in their own ranks. The policy marge de manœu- vre for cabinet ministers and political officials in this decision-making struc- ture is thus quite limited. They provide general ”œthematic” or ”œvalue” direc- tion, intervene muscularly (although often superficially) only on high-priority or sensitive matters and do their best to ”œput out fires.” Where battles are fought over particular files, ministers must be selective, as the number of files pass- ing through the committee system is very large and does not permit of much recycling of debates. Some ministers and political officials, including in the PMO, if not dis- tracted, will anticipate disagreements on specific issues prior to committee meetings and will work out problems off-line. But again, a significant major- ity of the details of policy are proposed, discussed and ”œironed out” at the bureaucratic level, mediated by the centre, and iterated through interde- partmental meetings, committees and consultations at levels that are below the levels not only of the senior bureaucracy, but of cabinet ministers, their political officials and the PMO. The clerk, through his officials in the PCO, is, for all practical intents and purposes, the master of this process.
In addition to control of the cabi- net committee process, the PCO, sup- ported by the entire government policy bureaucracy, plays a massive role in developing the effective agenda of the government of the day " first and foremost, by providing what is called transition advice to an incoming prime minister: thick policy books on every- thing from the machinery of govern- ment to economic and social policy. These policy books, although not usu- ally ”œcutting-edge” or revolutionary, provide a comprehensive brief on the state of the country (and the federal ministries) and strong advice on the preparation of a policy agenda for a new government. While the clerk, aided by PCO officials, dominates this transition process, the said advice typi- cally incorporates the input of most ministries of government, particularly at deputy or assistant deputy minister levels, supported, in turn, by the input of large complements of lower policy analysts. The transition advice provides detailed commentary on the electoral platform and the anticipated priorities of the prime minister-elect.
The advice will often take a posi- tion"ayea,nayormaybe"onthe ”œdoability” or ”œwisdom” of a certain initiative or policy proposed during an election. It may also take positions on files independently of the electoral promises made by the party in power: that is, it may propose a policy agenda that, while politically sensitive, is reflective of the very best advice of the bureaucracy. In the aggregate, this final package is intended both to impress the prime minister in respect of the competence of his or her civil service (and the PCO, his or her ministry, in particular) and to impress on the prime minister that the civil service’s advice is supported by serious policy profession- als from across government: that he/she would be wise to heed it.
So a lot, in short, happens below the radar of the elected political level " and well before ever reaching Parliament and the public. This is, of course, as it must be, for the most part, in a modernized Westminster system: a professional, anonymous, neutral civil service speaks truth to power, with the key executive processes of government decision-mak- ing headquartered in the PCO, and with much of the advice provided either directly by the PCO or through the PCO after consultation or brokering with more specialist line departments. The essential point, for our purposes, is that the advice of the civil service is more often than not supported not only by a very large number " an army " of policy professionals with long-standing experience in specific areas of policy, but also by a bureaucratic apparatus that profits from a very fine division of labour, both within individual ministries and across government. And here we get to the heart of the matter: This prolific division of labour allows the civil service, in preparing advice for the government " in the context of transition or that of day-to-day governing " to analyze any species of policy problem from a myriad of perspectives. Each section of a rele- vant ministry provides specific analysis from its own perspective, and, in turn, each relevant ministry provides aggre- gated analysis from a whole-of-ministry perspective, with PCO contradicting, challenging or coordinating these differ- ent perspectives to provide a so-called ”œwhole-of-government” view on a given matter.
As our country and our world become ever more complex, the scale of bureaucracy needed to tackle given issues grows, often exponentially. Enter, then, politics and the need for a democratically elected, accountable executive. Conventional renderings of this executive hold that, in the context of the Westminster system and a parlia- mentary majority, the prime minister and the PMO will jealously control the apparatus of government and " with limited debate or compromise " ram their agenda through or around a Parliament in which members are large- ly powerless and parties generally disci- plined. So, the argument goes, there must be a democratic deficit. Moves to bolster the muscle and legitimacy of Parliament are mooted. Arm’s-length bodies are stood up to oversee and audit government. Public inquiries are launched to investigate abuses of executive power.
Unfortunately, this conventional view of Canadian politics and public administration severely understates the dominant centrality of the standing bureaucracy, with PCO as its hub, in the policy-making process in Ottawa. The power of this bureaucracy, as men- tioned, stems from two key facts: incumbency and division of power. Both facts are amoral: neither good nor bad in and of themselves, but rather true of all large, modern bureaucracies.
Incumbency means that many bureaucrats, having been in their ministries, their policy field or ”œthe sys- tem” for sustained periods of time, know their issues cold and, just as important- ly, know the levers and valves " the norms, rules and process- es " of the administrative behemoth called the ”œfederal government.” They have a strong sense of what can be done and what cannot reasonably be done, given the constraints of the system. And, naturally, they are not bereft of biases " some more implicit than oth- ers " as to what should be done and what should not be done, irrespective of which party is in power.
On the other hand, an elected government " especially a newly elected government " is typically pop- ulated by a prime minister who, by virtue of a certain political experience and professional training, may well have become a policy specialist in one or more areas (although not necessarily in any) and a cabinet composed of individuals who are not necessarily specialists in any areas of policy " let alone those of their particular portfo- lios. And none of these individuals, the prime minister included, necessarily has any administrative experience in government. Equally importantly, the political officials supporting the prime minister in the PMO, and those who populate ministers’ offices, also not poor, if not altogether naive.
Seen against the incumbency and division-of-labour advantages of a modern bureaucracy that is ever larger, today’s real democratic deficit seems plain: the political executive is weak, thin and unarmed. It is ill-equipped to govern, public appearances of compe- tence notwithstanding. For it soon finds the ship of state exceedingly dif- ficult to steer, and meaningful changes of course in that ship, even if promised and legitimated in the course of a properly fought election, often very difficult to execute. The idea that a party, when coming to power or even well established in power, can easily give robust orders to the bureaucracy, and that the latter will simply admin- ister, now begins to appear quite abstract indeed…
A prime minister and party may come to power with a small set of priorities approved through election, as well as a presumed value system or framework for decision-making on non-priority files. However, once in government, they quickly discover that it takes a while to figure out how the internal policy decision-making system in Ottawa actually works that a good number of their electoral prom- ises " even priorities " are unrealistic or ill-advised (at least according to the civil service brief); and that the civil service " whether openly recalcitrant or not " already has a large number of issues and files of its own " long- standing files, in many cases " that it is proposing to advance through the new government, usually irrespective of which party is in power. A debate may ensue between political and bureaucratic levels on specific files or policy recommendations: barring gra- tuitous use of political authority, the bureaucratic level, by dint of incum- bency and division of labour, fre- quently wins the day. The political level " short on policy rebuttals and ill at ease with the process levers of the system " takes the brief. It now takes cues " on both policy and administration " from the bureaucracy. The dynamic of government is set; the Procrustean bed of Canadian policy- making is made. The political execu- tive, in extremis, becomes a mouthpiece for the bureaucratic machine.
This description evidently over- simplifies matters " if only to better illustrate the argument. Granted, the elected executive will on occasion give firm and effective direction to the bureaucracy on specific matters, and, having considered and analyzed a problem thoroughly, know exactly what it wants, up to the last detail. However, this is more the exception in Canadian government than the general rule. And this rule is that the elected executive is on most policy and administrative matters well out- flanked, outmanœuvred and, over time, ensnared by a bureaucratic apparatus that has most angles cov- ered. For every rhetorical volley fired by the prime minister or a cabinet minister, and for every two-pager of analysis prepared by a political party in support of an election promise or a policy proposal, the bureaucracy is equipped with dozens, scores or even hundreds of pages of analysis " often iterated and refined over several years. And it can mobilize this analy- sis to either affirm or undermine the election promise or policy proposal. If it wishes to oppose the government on a policy matter, then it may well speak truth to power. Failing this, it may exploit its intimate knowledge of the processes of government to frustrate the progress of the file in question. (In the case of a minority government or a government in its late stages, the civil service may simply choose to game the government on a particular issue; in other words, to wait the govern- ment out.) The political executive may well be left wondering why things are moving so slowly, if at all. If, on the other hand, the bureaucra- cy supports an initiative, it is then usually tasked by the government with filling in the details " details that the political executive has not thought through (time and capacity constraints oblige), and that are criti- cal to meaningful delivery.
So we have our problématique: the democratic deficit lies in the funda- mental imbalance between the electoral legitimacy of the political executive and the overwhelming policy-cum-adminis- trative power of the modern unelected bureaucracy. This imbalance lends itself to the perverse probability that complex policy promises made during the course of an election " despite the best of polit- ical intentions " will seldom be deliv- ered in any recognizable form. And the imbalance necessarily grows as the poli- cy environment becomes more com- plex: files require increasing degrees of expertise, and the incumbency and divi- sion-of-power advantages of the bureaucracy become ever more significant.
What is to be done? The govern- ing class must modernize " it must become more sophisticated, policy- wise. The said imbalance must be righted: measures must be taken to arm the political executive " more precisely, the parties that may each one day make up the political execu- tive " with the tools that will allow it to more effectively create and advance rigorous policy.
This article argues for the standing up of one serious, dedicated policy think tank for each political party " or at least one for each of the four or five major political parties at the federal level. (Let us call these simply the Liberal Policy Institute, the Conservative Policy Institute or something of a similar ilk.) Far more meaningfully than the current regime of political party ”œresearch,” these permanent think tanks, housed in prop- er quarters, would seek to provide each party with deep, standing policy capacity " capacity that could be mobilized on an ongoing basis by the leader of the party, whether in government or in opposition. If in government, these think tanks would provide the political execu- tive with a muscular foil to the civil ser- vice brief, and would be capable of developing highly detailed and ”œdoable” policy plans " plans that would form the basis of the government’s instruc- tions to the bureaucracy. These plans could go so far as to provide the govern- ment with draft memoranda to cabinet and draft lines for legislation, as well as specific implementation schemes that are alive to the nuances of interdepart- mental-bureaucratic politics (not just par- liamentary dynamics). In the event, the bureaucracy would still play its rightful role of speaking truth to power and pro- viding due diligence, but it would on most files of import be reckoning with a far better prepared political executive: one that has thought through most of the fine points of the different elements of its policy agenda, and that is highly deliberate in steering this agenda through the labyrinthine decision-mak- ing structures of the bureaucracy.
Power and " second best " the anticipation of power make the think tanks and their work most relevant. Depending on the file, the government lets its people in the party think tank know what it needs and what the state of affairs (the reality) is inside govern- ment. The think tank, in turn, can pro- duce " again, if the party leader wants it to produce. Out of power, the think tank could be used by parties to prepare in significant, practical detail the ele- ments of a potential agenda for govern- ing. Far better than the usual ad hoc task forces and country-wide ”œround tables” that political parties typically employ on shoe string budgets to devel- op ideas for future platforms, a serious political think tank would provide the party with its own standing (professional) army of specialists in various policy areas who could brainstorm, develop, consult on and iterate ideas and plans over the course of a sustained period of time, in preparation for power.
Who would populate the party think tanks? Critically, they would be populated mostly by thinkers with significant practical experience of government: former middle- to upper- level civil servants and erstwhile politi- cal officials with considerable understanding of the mechanics of gov- ernment and, ideally, real expertise in one or more areas of policy. All of them would have to be individuals who have given substantial thought to potential policy reforms in the federal system, and who have proposals in respect of how such reforms, based on their expe- rience in government, could be brought about (executed) in the context of polit- ical power. Academics or theoreticians with no experience of government would clearly not be well suited to occupy a large number of spots in such tanks, as the tanks would specifically serve the purpose of providing realistic and disciplined advice to their party leaders for immediate or eventual implementation in government.
The experience-cum-expertise of those in the party think tanks would serve to challenge the incumbency advantage of the civil service. And to challenge the huge division-of-labour advantage of the civil service, the think tanks would be substantial, impressive operations: not small or boutique oper- ations in the current idiom of independ- ent Canadian think tanks and political party research shops, but sizable organi- zations, consisting perhaps of a hundred or more genuine policy planners per party think tank, with credible coverage of all of the major policy areas. The pic- ture now gets serious…
Strong consideration should be given to making these party think tanks state-funded. Sustained state funding would provide the backbone for a sta- ble, standing policy capacity for each party " this in recognition that our democracy is, over the long run, ill served by political parties that have negligible indigenous policy capacity.
An ombudsperson position could be created to ensure that parties are properly spending money on research and policy development, and not according to the general political party proclivity to allow public relations and electioneering initiatives to cannibalize proper policy planning. An ombudsper- son could also relieve the state of the difficult impression that it is somehow ”œprescribing” appropriate behaviour for the political parties " even if it effectively does so in myriad areas already. Far from usurping the role of the civil service, state-funded political party think tanks in Canada would allow each of the political parties that really compete for political power to be equipped with a standing policy bureaucracy that is its very own, and that systematically prepares plans and advice for it alone.
This innovation would enable the political party to propose more robust policy initiatives when in opposition (if it so wishes) or in the course of an election campaign (again, if it so wishes). Even in the absence of actual articulation of sub- stantive policy initiatives in an actual election campaign, a think tank capacity would afford the party the opportunity to properly table and execute its ”œreal” plans when in power. In the event, it could well be envisaged that many of those in the think tank who would have prepared the pol- icy plans would, when the party forms government, come to populate some, if not most, of the PMO and the ministers’ offices. A gov- ernment could then presum- ably hit its stride far more rapidly, and with greater punch; transi- tions of power would be smoother; and the civil service, while still playing its tra- ditional advisory-administrative role, would get its ”œmarching orders” from political ”œmasters” who, by and large, know what they want, know of what they speak and know with whom they are dealing " to wit, an increasingly complex and sophisticated regulatory bureaucracy.
The real democratic deficit would be eased. To be sure, the party think tanks would be no panacea, and they would be moot in the case of a charla- tan leader who ascends to power and wants nothing of real policy reform. The essential point, however, is that the think tanks become hyperrelevant in the event that a party leader " an aspir- ing prime minister " genuinely desires policy change, especially major or com- plex policy change. The think tanks then provide the leader and the party with critical capacity to meaningfully prepare for such change and, if the chutzpah is there, to lead and effect change when in government. Our mod- ern democracy should demand no less.