Good Government, Bad Government

Earlier this month President Obama gave an eloquent and important defense of government, something few politicians have done over the past few years, including here in Canada. Here he tells his audience of students that there are some important things that we can only do together and that’s what government is. “Government is us”, he says, not some foreign threat. The police and fire fighters and correctional workers and diplomats are our government, as are the doctors, nurses and technicians who deliver medicare on our collective behalf, as are the teachers and curators, the soldiers and aid workers and the scientists who watch over the safety of our food and drugs and preserve our natural resources, as are the administrators and policy makers and regulators.

The unrelenting and escalating assault on government is changing public attitudes. We rarely hear people talk any more about politics and public service as a noble calling. We are more likely to hear derision. Even many of those in the private sector who now take such comfort and pride in the exceptional performance of our financial sector were not so long ago deriding politicians and bureaucrats for “not getting it” when they opposed bank mergers or mergers of banks and insurance companies. We quickly lose sight of the fact that our regulatory system and the ‘bureaucrats’ who uphold it were key to our performance. In this climate, politicians and corporate leaders instead compete in government bashing. When is the last time we heard a speech here in Canada on the importance of government and the value of our public service?

Even more troubling, the assault on government is changing government. I mean the layers of rules and oversight that make every action slower and more expensive. I mean the layers of reporting requirements that make it expensive for third parties to deliver and impossible for small nongovernmental organizations to work with government. I mean the focus on control over results and rules over values. I mean the search for culprits to blame and the instinct to impose more rules and layers of control in response to any misstep that makes the headlines. I mean the growing climate of fear that leads to risk avoidance and even paralysis just when we need ingenuity and creativity. An organization built on mistrust won’t be able to deliver the goods.

I also mean the endless cycle of nickel and dime cuts to the operations of government. I can hear the outcry now about a public servant (former) defending his own or promoting big government or putting the interests of government ahead of those we serve. All nonsense. Nickel and dime cuts serve nobody’s interests. They have little to do with the size of government. Government can easily grow substantially even while its operations are constantly cut. Government, in fact, has been simultaneously cutting operations and growing, whether because of the costs of Afghanistan or stimulus or new programs or prison construction or, for that matter, new layers of control and oversight, and politics is rightly about these kinds of choices. And, I might add, public servants have been front and centre in initiatives such as the program review of the 90s where, for better or for worse, programs and services were cut and so too were public servant positions and operating budgets. But for the most part politicians would prefer cutting operations than cutting services and programs which has inevitable political costs. In the big program review, the government of the day obviously decided that the political costs were a price worth paying to regain fiscal sovereignty, and the public service was on board. But these endless nickel and dime cuts achieve nothing. They demoralize, they siphon energy and they gradually erode quality which in turn provides the justification for another round of cuts. There are better ways of incenting and rewarding innovation and efficiency and there are more honourable ways of reducing government if that’s what Canadians want.

The assault on government has stunted its evolution and constrained its performance, feeding a vicious cycle of deterioration and disdain. It has not allowed the public service to adapt to the times – when change is everywhere and speed matters, when citizens have the knowledge and tools to be partners, when the problems we face are big and unfamiliar and need the best minds working across traditional boundaries, and when new technologies make that possible.

And the great irony is that the centre and centre-left opposition are only too happy to pile on and blame government corruption, ineptitude and mismanagement. They are happy, it seems, to promise even more cuts, more control, more oversight, and, somehow pretend that they will also deliver less bureaucracy. Apparently, they don’t understand or don’t care that they are aiding and abetting those who would like to limit government’s role to the greatest extent possible. They shore up the view that government is bad. And, in so doing, they contribute to government’s decline and undermine their own policy goals.

So, it’s time to defend government because we need it and to fix government because we need it to be better. The two go together. Big job.

Perhaps we could start with a review of the Accountability Act and all the layering that preceded it which seem not to have delivered the more open and transparent government Canadians want but the opposite, a government more tightly controlled and closed and, in the end, inevitably less effective. And let’s give more latitude for action and innovation to our regional offices and missions abroad. Of course they have to work within the rules, of which there are too many, and policies of government but they shouldn’t have to ask permission of Ottawa to act or to talk. A renewed public service will be one that has the room to hook into and support local initiative and energy, to listen and work through and with others, to adapt to diverse and changing local needs and circumstances, to innovate. And lets rebuild research and mid and long-term policy, not in isolation but with universities and think tanks and non-government organizations and like-minded countries. Our public service cannot be allowed to become as short-sighted as minority politics seems to have become. And let’s make the investments in technology that our Auditor General recommends because they are key to greater efficiency and better service and also will enable the partnerships and networks a better public service will need. There was a time just a few years back when we took pride in being a world leader – number one – in e-government. We need that same commitment more than ever. And let’s recruit the best young minds to work in and with government as a vocation and an opportunity to serve, to learn, and to make a difference.

These are all areas that deserve government attention and will be subjects of future posts. In the meantime, maybe one of our political leaders could stand up and remind us all that politics and public service are noble callings and we need to invest in government for now and for the future.

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