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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Friday, May 09, 2008

What We Need is More Democracy Not Less

Re: “Time to Stop Prime Ministers From Ruling Like Kings”, Kathryn May, The Ottawa Citizen, Monday, May 05, 2008

As is often the case with Donald Savoie he has got it both right and wrong at the same time. His identification issues facing government today is smack on. When he says government is increasingly centralized in the executive he’s on target. When he speaks of the breakdown of the relationship between politicians and what was meant to be a professional, non-partisan public service is smack on too. The ideas of Cabinet solidarity and single ministerial accountability have clearly gone by the wayside and the belief in an anonymous public servant fearlessly offering advice to an elected government is also more legend than fact.

Yet Savoie’s analysis is incomplete and his solutions reflective of his backward looking fascination with restoring ‘the golden years’ of government in Canada when the practices of government were designed for simpler times.

Savoie omits as a factor that Canadians are more educated and better informed on almost every issue than their predecessors a century ago. Citizens can access just about any kind of information they want, when they want it over the Internet. This leads to a populace that is more judgmental but also more desirous of being engaged. Their expectations of government are higher as are their expectations of behaviour public servants and politicians.

Sadly, one of these new expectations is that government should be responsible for just about anything citizens don’t want to be bothered with -- not just the old basics of safety, the economy, trade and international relations. Today we have factory run education, health care, child care, elder care, immigrant care, culture care, poor people care, community care, industry care and many other government activities where citizens have bit by bit abdicated their traditional personal responsibilities to the State.

Savoie also ignores that issues today are more complex -- not because they weren’t complex in the past but because we’ve already done the easy work, creating a social safety net and producing a standard of living and quality of life that are the envy of much of the world. We’ve already picked the low hanging fruit. To keep society improving, as citizens expect, governments have to be more responsive, better learners and more capable of productively building upon the human, social and physical capital that already exists. These roles are there embedded in the nature of Canadian federalism yet they need to be cultivated and drawn out like a good wine out of grape juice.

More than anything the realities of modern life have destroyed the possibility, although not the belief, that “someone is in charge”. Savoie should know that in an organization like the federal government nobody’s really in charge -- not the PM, not the ministers, not the DMs. The belief that some is in charge is an illusion that is in constant need of buttressing. ‘Nobody in charge’ means that no one has the ability to ensure that a decision at one end will entirely determine the outcome at the other end. Most issues cut across several departments, so that in addition to aligning politicians and DMs, different departments must agree to cooperate as well as the different staffs in the different departments. And, if the issue is sufficiently complex, as most federal issues are, it must be coordinated with 10 provinces, three territories, 100s of municipal and county organizations, and probably private, not-for-profit and international organizations as well. If the government takes a stand, for instance, on the protection of Canada’s critical infrastructure it requires the willing buy-in of all these players to deliver on it. Yet sometimes some or anyone of them can say “no”. In fact Natural Resources Canada did just this recently in saying “no” to a cross sector forum on the protection of critical infrastructure for “budgetary” reasons, embarrassing the Minister of Public Safety (another department) and the Government. So while it is true that there has been increased centralization towards the PMO, that centralization has been more than offset by a distribution of governance that is probably orders of magnitude greater.

What Savoie seems to offer as a remedy for this discomfiture within Canada’s federal institutions is a series of patches in an attempt to restore those institutions to their historical balance. Forget the fact they were designed for another time. He believes it is possible to just shoe today’s reality into those old worn, comfortable shoes. His ideas of using unelected ‘external experts’ to watch over the public servants and politicians represents just such a patch. I wonder which ‘saints’ he was thinking about using? Maybe it was those senior public servants who Savoie himself suggests have become so politicized for over a generation; or maybe he was thinking of retired or out of office politicians to provide oversight of the current crop; or maybe he was thinking of a group of politically correct academics? At least elected politicians are elected.

What Savoie and others like him should be thinking about is creating a new pair of shoes. What we need is more democracy not less of it. We need new avenues for those more educated and better informed citizens to become engaged and take more ownership and responsibility for themselves and their communities. In doing so, we need new structures to foster more self-reliance, partnership and collaboration not more dependency. We need better mechanisms to share information and encourage more transparency not less. We need to find ways to have more conversations and dialogue with more people at all levels of Canadian society not just those farcical consultations where both governments and citizens pretend to listen.

More democracy not only means less centralization but it also means both citizens and public servants have to let go their addiction to the paternalistic idea that ‘someone is in charge’. Citizens need to give up their adherence to the ‘nanny state’ and that government is there to look after their every need as an entitlement of citizenship. If no one is in charge then everyone is in charge. This means that citizens need to think less like children and more like adults, adults who accept both the freedom to choose and risk of doing so as the twin companions of adulthood. They also need to recognize their obligation to each other to build better communities. On the other hand, public servants, from the lowest ranks on upwards, need to embrace the true idea of service – the idea that their primary responsibility is to serve the citizen and not their boss or their boss’s boss. Their boss’s role should be to help them to serve citizens better!

In this context politicians actually have an opportunity to enhance their currently low levels of legitimacy and public esteem by becoming the pre-eminent facilitators, networkers, champions, educators and stewards of Canadian society. Theirs is not to steal responsibility for the lives of their citizens but to provide opportunities for each citizen to take ownership of their life, making the most (or least) of it as they choose. As every parent comes to learn eventually, children make better choices by making choices. Politicians need to learn the same lesson.

Savoie doesn’t get this and he wants to wrap the current nanny state within another blanket of paternalism. Although well intentioned, his proposals are nonetheless futile ones that will inevitably create only more of the same. The only established antidote for kings and tyrants is democracy. Strange, how Savoie seemed to forget that history lesson?