A Democratic or Technocratic Civil Service?

by Philippe Lagassé

Forum: DND and Academic Policy Advice.
In this forum, CIPS blog contributors respond to a report written by Douglas Bland and Richard Shimooka of Queen’s University, who argue that the Department of National Defense pays little attention to the views of academic experts. To view the other contributions to this forum, please click here.

What is the proper role of Canada’s civil service? This question lies at the heart of a provocative study, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: The Influence of External Studies and Reports on National Defence Policy – 2000 to 2006, by Douglas L. Bland and Richard Shimooka.

On the surface, this study purports to examine whether or not reports on Canada’s military readiness prepared by academics, parliamentary committees, and defence advocacy groups influenced successive Canadian governments. As the authors themselves admit, however, there is no question that these reports influenced governments. They attracted the attention of Prime Minister Paul Martin and likely helped convince him to invest $12 billion in Canada’s armed forces (pp. 6-7, 47, 102). As well, the reports contributed to the Conservative Party’s defence policies, before and after they formed the government in 2006 (p. 103). Indeed, observers of Canada’s military affairs since 2000 will doubtless be aware of the noteworthy impact these reports had on the country’s defence debate and policies.

Influence, then, is not what truly preoccupies the authors. What the study actually addresses is whether defence department bureaucrats used the findings of external reports to make defence ministers aware of the problems facing the Canadian Forces, and more controversially, whether officials drew on these reports to compel ministers to reconsider their defence policies and priorities.

Documents obtained by the authors suggest that defence officials tended to have three reactions to the external reports included in the study. Above all, the authors discovered that reports would attract attention only if they received significant media coverage and could potentially embarrass the government –in which case civil servants would draft ‘talking points’ to shield the defence minister from scrutiny. Second, they noticed that officials were wont to dismiss reports that lacked balance or context, relied on hyperbole to embellish their findings, ran counter to the government’s budgetary and defence priorities and policies, and/or echoed problems that were well already known within defence department (and presumably by the minister, though the authors appear to assume otherwise). Finally, the authors note that officials did not draw on the external reports to question the government’s priorities or exert pressure on defence ministers to consider policy changes.

In light of these findings, Bland and Shimooka conclude that defence officials were more preoccupied with protecting their minister than heeding the advice of independent experts and parliamentary committees. In addition, these officials failed in their duty to speak truth to ministerial power. As they note, “one might have expected a confident senior public service to provide the leadership and expertise necessary to shape the government’s understanding of its fundamental responsibilities to provide for the nation’s defence and international commitments.” (pp. 104-5) Instead, they argue that defence officials inappropriately promoted the partisan policies of the government.

Bland and Shimooka may very well be right that civil servants have no business drafting ‘talking points’ to shield their minister from embarrassment. A case could be made that this activity should be delegated to a minister’s political staff. In addition, the authors might be correct that officials were too quick to dismiss the originality of the reports or to label them as impractical. But insofar as the quality of the reports is taken as a given by the authors, it is difficult to tell.

Their main critique, however, relies on an overly technocratic understanding of the civil service’s roles and obligations. Technocratically-minded bureaucrats might believe that their role is to bring the government into line, and that they have a responsibility to pressure ministers to pursue policies that accord with the experts’ understanding of the national interest. In Canada’s Westminster-style democracy, however, the civil service does not independently determine the executive’s policies or priorities, nor are they meant to ally with academics, special interest groups, or legislative committees to act as a check or corrective on their ministers.

As the executive’s permanent advisors and employees, officials help ministers formulate and implement policies based on the priorities and objectives set by Cabinet, the political executive that enjoys the expressed confidence of the democratically-elected House of Commons. While the civil service must offer independent advice, the purpose of this advice is to inform ministers of the best ways to implement their policy preferences, and what the possible consequences of these preferences might be (the veritable ‘speaking truth to power’ function). Once ministers make their decisions, however, civil servants must abide by them and work to meet Cabinet’s objectives. Thus, it is entirely normal that officials would not use the findings of external reports to question government priorities or argue for changes to Cabinet policy. This is simply not their function as it is currently conceived.

The fact that Cabinet’s objectives are ‘partisan’, moreover, in no way detracts from this reality. Canada’s contemporary, party-centric electoral system asks voters to choose between differing partisan platforms when electing Members of Parliament. As a result, MPs who are able to form a government are granted the right to enact their partisan preferences. And with that right comes the legitimate expectation that the civil service will help them transform their partisan preferences and priorities into practical policies.

Indeed, as noted above, this same democratic principle allowed many of the recommendations found in the external reports to eventually become government policy after 2005. Paul Martin and the Conservative Party embraced key findings of the reports and asked the civil service to craft policies around them once they came to power. The same department that had discounted these external reports because they were incompatible with the previous government’s priorities then went about implementing some of their recommendations under a new government.

Stating that the policies of government were ‘partisan’ and unworthy of bureaucratic support, then, is a canard that clouds how the civil service operates in our Westminster democracy.

In the end, this study is best read as a critique of the civil service’s existing relationship with Cabinet, rather than an evaluation of the policy influence of non-governmental reports. The authors’ arguments could have been more compelling and useful if they had made this issue the explicit focus of their study.

Related Articles








The CIPS Blog is written only by subject-matter experts. 


CIPS blogs are protected by the Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



Load More...