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A Review of: Breaking the Bargain: Public Servants, Ministers and Parliament
by Martin Loney

Donald Savoie has established a reputation as an acerbic critic of Canada's governing structures. In his latest contribution he turns his attention to the profound changes that have transformed the relationship between Canadian politicians and public servants. Savoie's central thesis is that the line between politics and administration is increasingly blurred with consequent problems for both bureaucratic and political accountability. In his previous book Governing from the Centre, Savoie examined the growing concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office and the resulting decline in Cabinet government and parliamentary accountability. Here Savoie argues that while the autonomy of cabinet ministers has been eroded, the growth of horizontal decision-making, with departments becoming increasingly dependent on reaching shared goals in program design and delivery, diminishes ministerial accountability. Increasingly the Canadian public service marches to its own drum, often in ways that cost Canadian taxpayers dearly.
The introduction of managerial approaches derived from the very different world of the private sector has lead not to increased efficiency but confusion over objectives. The public service is risk-averse, more anxious to avoid public controversy than to deliver value-for-money services. It is also subject to a degree of adversarial scrutiny unknown in the private sector. It has certainly become clear that the business-management approach failed to deliver.
The catalogue of recent bureaucratic fiascos is long. It includes the billion-dollar boondoggle at Human Resources and Development Canada, the $2-million gun registry bill, the implementation of which rocketed to close to a billion dollars, the numerous scandals at Public Works, the diversion of health funds intended for aboriginal programs, and the Radwanski affair, in which the problems plaguing the Commissioner's office were noted by both the Public Service Commission and Treasury Board without either agency taking any effective action. What is striking about all these cases is the absence of clear ministerial or bureaucratic accountability. Mel Cappe, deputy minister at HRDC during the height of the Transitional Jobs Fund fiasco, went on to head the public service. He currently holds the plum posting of High Commissioner in London. Alfonso Gagliano left Public Works with a diplomatic posting to Denmark, and, in a reminder that truth is often stranger than fiction was tipped as ambassador to the Vatican. David Dodge, former deputy at Health, is now chairman of the Bank of Canada. The list of those involved in the gun registry imbroglio is as long as responsibility is elusive. Radwanski appears to have escaped further censure with an apology that convinced few, while the oversight failures of Treasury Board and the PSC attracted little comment, a reflection of the diminished expectations characteristic of today's public service sector.
The decline in accountability has been accompanied by the increasing politicisation of public service. Fifty years ago, the line separating politics from administration was clear, and senior public servants were not identified with whichever party happened to be in power. Today, Alex Himelfarb, Chretien's handpicked head of the public service, sees nothing improper in making a speech in which he informs participants in a symposium: "we will have Human Resources reform, we will have health reform and we will have an innovation agenda and we will have a skills and learning agenda and we will reach out to Aboriginal people and poor people and we will make sure every kid has a good start in life." In earlier days, Savoie observes, this kind of speech would "properly have been left to politicians." Today roles are so indistinct that Himelfarb attended the Prime Minister's farewell dinner for his cabinet members.
The politicisation of the public service and the continuing erosion of the merit principle is further demonstrated by the ability of a minister's political staff to transfer on preferential terms after three years of service, frequently without any competition, into the senior levels of the public service. Those familiar with such staff will have no doubt that for most it is the only basis on which they might secure selection. The practice grew rapidly under Trudeau and while the Mulroney government made equally enthusiastic use of such patronage, the Liberal Party's preponderant role in government for most of the last forty years ensured a cadre of Liberal functionaries at the core of the ostensibly neutral public service. Recruitment and promotion has also been adapted to meet the Liberal's enthusiastic courting of the ethnic vote. No less than 20 per cent of new public service appointments and promotions must come from visible minorities', a figure far in excess of labour market availability and a direct attack on the merit principle.
Savoie's contribution to understanding the marked shift in political and bureaucratic power in Canada is impressive. He makes a number of recommendations designed to increase the power of parliament and create clearer lines of accountability for program design and delivery, but it is not clear where the audience for such reforms is situated. Paul Martin talks enthusiastically, if vaguely, about addressing the democratic deficit, but neither his career at Finance or his well-financed take-over of the Liberal Party suggest any real appetite for change. The current system serves the Prime Minister. Senior public servants are extraordinarily well rewarded as measured by any historic comparison, even as, by the same measure, the service is more costly and error-prone. The business-management approach may be flawed but as Savoie argues it "has served senior public servants well An advisory committee from the private sector helps determine their salaries. Their pensions are more generous than ever, and they have many opportunities for employment after they retire. in industry, lobbying firms and consultancy." The cuts of the mid-nineties are a distant memory. The federal public service has grown by some 25 per cent in the last five years even as the ranks of senior officers have been swelled by a plethora of new appointments. Savoie cites one department that boasts no less than 17 assistant deputy ministers, below which are yet more associate assistant deputy ministers, directors and director generals.
If there is any positive correlation between this burgeoning bureaucracy and the quality of government it is not easy to discern.

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