12 June 2008

From the G&M: "The broken chain of answerability"

By one definition, a gearhead is a person who is extremely interested in computer hardware and software and they work.

Well, if that's the case, then Donald Savoie could be called a govhead. He's got an extraordinary interest in and knowledge of the hardware and software of government.

Savoie holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Universite de Moncton. He's an accomplished public servant and academic with a resume that would make even the highest achievers feel inadequate.

His most recent book - Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom - won't make the national best seller list, but among academics and others interested in how government runs, Savoie's writings will become required reading.

Savoie condensed part of his recent book into a two page article last month in the Globe and Mail. His observations should startle Canadians into re-examining the federal and provincial government sin the country. Likely, Savoie will go unnoticed, not just unheeded.

Let's hope not:
The relationship among Parliament, the prime minister, ministers and public servants is in need of repair, and we are ill served by pretending that all is well. We should no longer tolerate court government, by which a political leader with the help of a handful of courtiers shapes and reshapes instruments of power at will. Those with the power to introduce change for the better are reluctant to do so because they enjoy being able to wield tremendous power.

We need to define, preferably in law, the role of the prime minister, cabinet and the public service and give public servants an administrative space of their own to manage government operations, while recognizing that the prime minister and ministers must always have the authority to override public servants in all matters not covered by statutes.


What is to be done? The time has come to engage Canadians in a debate on the role of Parliament, officers of Parliament, the prime minister, cabinet and the public service, and for Canadians and public servants to tell Parliament, "Heal thyself." Political parties need to take the lead and launch a meaningful debate on the state of our national political-administrative institutions. The issue is vitally important, and parties should engage their members in the debate. It provides an opportunity for political parties to be more than election-day organizations, to offer meaningful opportunities for involvement and to become effective vehicles for promoting thoughtful debates and change.