Civil Service Accountability

Commentary, Government, Gerry Bowler

It is a fact well known to deeply-learned historians and viewers of the BBC comedy series Yes Minister that the true power in government lies not in the hands of politicians – poor transient creatures of little lasting importance, here one election and gone the next – but with the deputy ministers and their permanent advisory staff. 

Such figures are well-rooted in the culture of their departments, know where all the bodies are buried, and are impossible to dislodge. Let some hideous boondoggle occur – say, for example, billions are spent on an accounting program that is incapable of accurately keeping records of civil servants’ pay, or a fisheries plan that eradicates all living codfish – and there will be awkward questions in the House, finger-waving editorials, and ministerial heads rolling on the scaffold.

But the civil servants who recommended these policies will be untroubled. Thousands shall fall at their side, two thousand at their right hand, but it shall not come nigh them and their diamond-encrusted, cost-of-living-adjusted pensions.

Earlier civilizations had better ideas on how to deal with inefficient counsellors and administrators. 

Slothful officials in imperial China could be flogged or sentenced to convict labour, while in the almost eighty years of the Mongol rule over Iran, only one vizier ever died of natural causes. It is said that advisors to the Ottoman emperor Selim the Grim always tucked their last will and testaments into their tunics when summoned to the imperial presence.

One particularly droll sultan would give civil servants with whom he was displeased a final chance to redeem themselves – if they could make the run from the palace to the dockyard before their executioner arrived, their lives would be spared. When the Turkish army failed in its siege of Vienna in 1683, the fate of the commander, the Grand Vizier Mustafa Pasha, was to be strangled with a silken scarf. 

Now that is accountability.

How may we induce in today’s government workers the same dread of failure that motivated viziers, pashas, and satraps of more enlightened centuries? 

I believe I have the answer. It may require some tinkering with collective agreements, but, if adopted, my plan will make Canada’s bureaucratic efficiency the envy of a world sadly reluctant any more to execute unworthy employees of the state.

Henceforth, all new regulations or laws will come with a sunset clause, an expiry date at which point the statute will lapse, unless after due consideration of its success or failure, it is renewed. Five years seems a reasonable period for the results of a new rule to be evaluated. In addition, the names of all the officials who crafted the legislation or regulation will be made available to the public, with a proportion of responsibility assigned to each of them. The mastermind who first came up with the idea shall be assigned, let us say, 50% of the credit/shame; the deputy minister who finally signed off on it will get 25%; various underlings who fine-tuned it will be allocated the rest.

If the new legislation is deemed a success, those responsible for it will be rewarded by a grateful public: gold shall fill their purses, promotions shall be handed out, and nomination forms for the Order of Canada shall be filed.

Should the new ordinances result in failure, should the new Arctic icebreakers sink, or should a new law legalizing prostitution produce yet more human trafficking, then the authors of such innovations will suffer the consequences: docked pay, public shame, and demotion to minor posts in the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority; and serves them right.

But, I hear you cry, “Dr. Bowler, won’t this paralyze the civil service? Won’t our bureaucrats be so fearful of the consequences of failure that they will be reluctant to propose any new ideas?” Of course, the answer is a joyful “Yes”. Where some might see such paralysis as a bug, I see it as a positive feature. 

When was the last time a government ever had a really good idea? An idea that would enrich Canadian lives instead of burdening and impoverishing them? When did government have an idea that would put more money in your pocket instead of lightening your wallet? 

A terrified civil servant is a cautious civil servant, suddenly grown wary of the consequences of ill-advised action and thus more likely to spare the citizenry the foolishness of adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or crafting a bill that would eviscerate the western economy in order to avoid endangering the habitat of a species of wood-louse.

Ancient Greek cities had a wonderful rule: anyone who wished to propose a change in a law had to come to the marketplace wearing a hangman’s noose around his neck. If his fellow citizens voted against the change, the rash fellow would be strung up on the spot; if his neighbours approved the plan, he was allowed to go home in peace.

A person can learn a lot from history.