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What government is good at, and how it can improve

Donald Savoie is Canada Research Chair in Public Policy and Governance at Université de Moncton. He is author of What Is Government Good At? A Canadian Answer, which on April 27 won the 2015 Donner Prize for best public-policy book by a Canadian.

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A leading PEI businessman asked me, a few years ago, "What book are you working on these days?" I told him the title: What Is Government Good At? His response: "Gee! That's going to be a short book." It is not a short book. The question speaks to all facets of governing: partisan politics, administration, decisions flowing from the judiciary, the never-ending calls for greater transparency and accountability requirements, and the thinking that management in the public sector can be made to look like the private sector. And, unlike the private sector, government is expected to pursue activities whether or not it is good at delivering them.

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It is government that is expected to deal with wicked problems. No government will ignore a national disaster, be indifferent to an aboriginal community facing a political or economic crisis, or avoid raging debate about the impact of climate change. Wicked problems have no visible beginning or end. They require investing resources with no assurance that the desired benefits will be achieved and often without the tools to assess the impact. If government decides to avoid dealing with society's wicked problems, they will be left unattended. The cost to society over the longer term would be prohibitive.

All government activities are tied to Parliament, to partisan politics and the incessant demands of the 24-hour news cycle. This requires politicians to be good at generating blame, avoiding blame, playing to a segment of the population to win the next election and avoiding risks. And it requires senior public servants to be good at embracing and defending the status quo, adding management layers and staff, keeping ministers out of trouble in the news media, responding to the demands from the prime minister and his office, and managing a complex, multiobjective organization operating in a politically volatile environment.

It is important to stress that the prime minister, ministers, and many senior public servants see considerable merit in the ability of government to be good on all these points. It comes with the territory and it is their territory. They set the rules. It is the most important measure of success, and for them government has to be good at these things if it is to be good at anything else.

Conversely, government is not as good as it once was at implementing policy, managing human and financial resources with efficiency and frugality, innovating and dealing with non-performers, paying sufficient attention to service delivery and front-line workers, and evaluating the impact of policies and programs.

Over the years, we have added one program after another, one unit after another to the machinery, one officer of Parliament after another, while expanding central agencies and making them responsible for a wide variety of activities. Taken in isolation, one may be able to justify each new program, new unit, new officer of Parliament. However, when they are taken together, we have created a machinery that can no longer operate efficiently as it tries to deliver programs and services in an era of permanent election campaigns.

Being good at managing the blame game matters a great deal in the Ottawa bubble and in the national media, but less so elsewhere. Adding oversight bodies and rules and regulations has made the federal public service not only thicker but also more Ottawa-centric. Other than opposition politicians calling for still more oversight, no one is happy with the incessant calls for more rules and regulations. Morale in the federal public service has plummeted and surveys reveal that citizens are unhappy with the quality of public service.

One can only applaud the Clerk of the Privy Council's recent call for public service to be better at taking risks, delivering front-line services, and producing change and making it stick. To give life to this call, the government will have to revisit the many layers of oversight bodies and accountability requirements put in place over the past 15 years. Unless this is done, management reform efforts in the federal government will continue to give the appearance of change, while actually standing still.

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