Fear, loathing and hyper-partisanship
Canada's public service is expected to be one of the largest victims of the budget, which increasingly is looking like the product of an extended grudge match against Ottawa. This probably shouldn't surprise us -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government came to power as the anti-Ottawa-establishment party and has continued to wear that mantle, even as it became the Ottawa establishment.
What's it like to work in this environment? We're going to get some more glimpses in the days and weeks ahead, I'm thinking, as newly unemployed public servants, unmuzzled, are freer to speak.
Before then, though, we've been offered this picture, by the late, great Canadian political scientist Peter Aucoin (who sadly died last summer) and the posthumous publication of this paper on "the New Political Governance (NPG)." It's a scathing indictment of the hyper-partisan, communication-obsessed world of public service today. And if nothing else, it shows that perhaps, somewhere down the road, the laid-off bureaucrats may be a bit relieved to have escaped this workplace.
You can click on the link above to read the whole paper, but I've put some snippets here (bold parts are my emphasis):
In contrast to legitimate democratic control of the public service by ministers, NPG constitutes a corrupt form of politicization to the extent that governments seek to use and misuse, even abuse, the public service in the administration of public resources and the conduct of public business to better secure their partisan advantage over their competitors (Campbell 2007). At best, this politicization constitutes sleazy governance; at worst, it is a form of political corruption that cannot but undermine impartiality and, thereby, also management performance to the extent that it assumes management based on nonpartisan criteria.
The obvious temptation for governments is to treat media that are not on side politically as hostile forces to be managed with tactics that emulate the worst of the fourth estate themselves: gross misrepresentation, outright untruths, and the suppression of government information that should be publicly accessible according to the law. Not surprisingly, the Australian, British, and Canadian governments have become both highly centralized and highly politicized in their media management, an obsession of ministers and their political staff. As a result, the public service is under pressure to engage in media management, including government advertising, in ways that support the government and thus, at a minimum, put their impartiality, including the public's perception of their impartiality, at serious risk.
The major risk to impartiality from this group of pressures (freedom of information) is the temptation of public servants to commit less to paper, to fail to keep appropriate records, and to participate in efforts to restrict what is made public. Experience confirms that a diminished adherence to formal procedures constitutes the space for unrecorded political interference, primarily by political staff, in what should be impartial processes of public policy implementation.
It is one thing to impartially outline and explain a government's policy. It is quite another to function as a government's agent in promoting its agenda. To the extent that the public service is expected to communicate the government's message in ways that advance or defend its merits, impartiality is undermined. Not surprisingly, the communications function of government has become the black hole of public service impartiality.
The risk with political staff operating as a separate force in government is not primarily unaccountable behavior or too great an influence on ministers. Rather, it is that in promoting and protecting the government as the governing party, they all too easily regard the values of a nonpartisan public service and the distinct spheres of authority assigned to public servants as obstacles to be overcome in the pursuit of effective political management. The continuous trashing of traditional public service values and structures in numerous quarters simply reinforces the perceptions of political managers that public servants will invariably stand in the way of a government implementing its agenda unless they can be co-opted as allies.
There's lots more there, but you kind of get the picture. And I'll leave you with this thought, which I've made before in this space: In the private sector, it's definitely not OK to demonize your employees or lay them off as the product of a grudge. It constantly surprises me how willing we are to tolerate, even expect this to happen with the public service, not to mention the CBC, in the wake of this budget.