Skip to content

From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Paquet’s Labyrinth

A provocative thinker frustrates as much as he illuminates

Patrice Dutil

Crippling Epistemologies and Governance Failures: A Plea for Experimentalism

Gilles Paquet

University of Ottawa Press

277 pages, softcover

Gilles Paquet: Homo hereticus

Edited by Caroline Andrew, Ruth Hubbard, and Jeffrey Roy

University of Ottawa Press

383 pages, softcover

Early this spring, the City of Toronto’s Public Health Department released a report that estimated that about 450,000 Torontonians become sick each year as a result of ingesting tainted food. The causes for the illnesses were found to be as numerous as they were avoidable: most were caused by sick and often unsanitary food handlers. The news item was not unusual. It was filed with other happenings pointing to recurring problems that had long been anticipated but that had not received an intelligent response from government: the closing of local pools, the closing of the Chalk River atomic plant, the closing of much of General Motors.

It would seem as though a lot of things go wrong in government as public officials—politicians and public servants—simply muddle through problems that have been allowed to linger for too long. Furious with this state of affairs, Gilles Paquet has come to a clear and sobering conclusion: governments are not responding well because they are not equipped to do so. They have lost the ability to think with clear purpose (as opposed to reacting to events). Moreover, their structures are not adapted to anticipate trends and events, and they have isolated themselves to a point where they pursue their own agendas instead of dealing with the real problems that slow society’s progress. Paquet despairs over the endless media focus on the prime minister’s opinions and policies because, he concludes, they are likely to be wrong, short-sighted and probably not in the interest of either the state or the people it is supposed to serve and protect.

In Crippling Epistemologies and Governance Failures: A Plea for Experimentalism, Paquet examines the reasons why the state is unable to deal with the important public policy problems he considers “wicked.” His argument is that societies face issues that defy past approaches and techniques. Governments ignore real problems and focus on symptoms because their understandings (their “epistemologies”) are deficient. Those epistemologies, in turn, have crippled society’s ability to govern itself and to instruct the state on how to pursue solutions. Impatient with the politicians, the technocrats, the interveners and the media, Paquet declares that the lot of them has got to change, or at the very least that the “system” that has yielded such a mediocre result is in urgent need of rewiring.

Caroline Andrew, Ruth Hubbard and Jeffrey Roy, the editors of Gilles Paquet: Homo hereticus, would hardly be surprised by the tone of this volume. Paquet has been a prolific academic for more than 40 years, and he should be widely known to Canadians. He is one of Canada’s most visible scholars (a frequent commentator and host on TV and radio) and intellectual do-it-alls (publications of all kinds too numerous to count). Born in Quebec City in 1936, he studied at Laval University and earned a PhD in economics from Queen’s University in 1962. He started teaching at Carleton University a year later, and stayed there until 1981, when he moved to the University of Ottawa to assume the position of dean of the Faculty of Administration. As the 32 admiring contributors to this Festschrift consistently point out, he has been an indefatigable communicator, reader and writer, and even entrepreneur (he revived the Optimum journal through the internet as Optimum Online: The Journal of Public Sector Management). He has been a model citizen of the university: productive, collaborative, stimulating and unfailingly collegial. In a word, Paquet is a professor’s professor. He ended his academic career in 2002, but has scarcely slowed down.

Instead, retirement has had the effect of a tonic, making him even more contentious and impatient. He was named president of the Royal Society of Canada in 2003 and has remained a fixture on campus as professor emeritus at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa. He also assumed the direction of the University of Ottawa Press, the publisher of five of the ten books he has written in the last four years (as well as the Festschrift under review). Paquet, incidentally, produces with the same verve in French. He recently published Pathologies de gouvernance and Gouvernance : mode d’emploi, which rehearse many of the ideas of Crippling Epistemologies. Oublier la Révolution tranquille is a crusty denunciation of the widely held view that Quebec history started roughly in 1960 and that prior to that it was nothing but a dark, priest-ridden backwater. All were published by Liber (based in Montreal) over the past ten years.

Rabelais has nothing on this man’s intellectual appetite. Although he ranges far and wide, his complicated writing style has frustrated even his admirers. He speculates, looking ahead for what might be (sometimes whipping out his telescope to see further), but at the same time he keeps his eyes on his boots, wondering self-consciously about the ground his feet tread. Every now and then, he reflects on his own writing, as if walking backward: he is curious about what has been, and where he has been. Reading Paquet is part journey, part gymnastics. It is a dizzying experience at times, but Paquet has to be read in the manner he writes: grounded in the French tradition of mixing polemic and erudition.

And if he is walking fast, he is always talking. He invokes economics, management, history, philosophy, psychology and politics and blends them into governance: how decisions are made about how decisions will be made, how those discussions will be shaped and what will ultimately be done in implementing what has been agreed. Paquet is a Swiss army knife that has found its carving material in the study of public administration—that intersection where state obligations, public good, democratic imperatives, techniques and technologies, and law converge into government action (or inaction).

Paquet starts Crippling Epistemologies with a salty denunciation of the academic work performed over the last half-century. He argues that the social sciences shifted, in the 1950s, from asking basic questions about what is the issue to what he calls a “fixation mainly on the exclusive of a conceptual toolbox supposedly able to offer incomparable help in handling these issues.” He blames the influence of Marxism, structuralism and post-modernism for instilling approaches that, far from the ideals of intellectual freedom, have instead proven to be “rigid, reductive, constraining and obscurantist.” This section echoes his eloquent Deep Cultural Diversity: A Governance Challenge, which sharply denounced the apostles of “multiculturalism” and “diversity” as caught in a mental prison that actually undermined the ideals of cosmopolitanism and an ideal he called transnationalism that would promote a true exchange among cultures with the ambition of creating something new and better. Paquet is unsparing—for him the work of scholars has only shown how “inadequate our intellectual toolbox has been, but also how institutional and organizational design have gone awry as a result of these truncated perspectives, and how efforts at repairs have failed.” But the scholars are not alone to blame. The media are raked over the coals for their weak performance in holding the state, the business community and leaders of civil society accountable. A special kick is reserved for the bureaucracy, which is portrayed as “lethargic, risk-averse and rear-view-mirror-plagued” and “shackled to a centralized mindset, and unable and unwilling to experiment and learn.” 

To fix this, Paquet argues that a different philosophy of the social sciences is needed. Instead of insisting on giving answers to questions nobody is asking, scholars should take the lead in producing different conceptual toolboxes that would frankly explore the complexity of issues. They should lay the groundwork for experiments and encourage social learning by engaging publics that go far beyond academia. Paquet has particular hope for social learning, the idea that society can in fact learn to overcome obstacles—and unlearn its bad habits and wrong thinking—and actually contribute solutions to its governance problems. In his Governance through Social Learning, he explored a number of issues such as trade, energy, environmental and multicultural policy and even examined how public institutions such as the Public Service Commission and the various granting councils of the federal government could adapt their ways to actually help society learn more about its problems and the solutions that might be in the offing.

Those examples go missing in Crippling Epistemologies and Governance Failures. Paquet insists that the accountability regime must be transformed to be more “intelligent” and transparent. The only real solution he brings out in Crippling Epistemologies is creation of a “Council of Social Values in Canada” to guide the state in its much needed “culture strategy,” an idea he admits he first publicized in 1968. The second part of the book explores the consequence of weak intellectual foundation on the problems of society: what Paquet calls the “weak infrastructure” and “inadequate scaffolding” of governance.

He wants to see total reporting on where and how moneys are spent and on how well the objectives of the state are met. He cites numerous methods and theories, but his criticism remains abstract. How one wishes he would dissect the works of the auditor general, for instance, to illustrate where the accountability system fails. Instead, he focuses on why the organizational design of public institutions has been neglected. He argues that they have remained static, unmoved by modernization in technology and culture. He is no doubt correct on that point—organizations in both the private and public sector fail routinely (think of the Toronto Maple Leafs)—but it is frankly easy to point out that there is a failure of the imagination. Paquet refuses to bear down on solid examples of misguided and misaligned institutions.

By this point in the book, Paquet forces the reader to experience the frustration of his explorations and we begin to sense a problem with his approach. This is not an invitation to a long journey but more the investigation of a labyrinth where the reader is led down numerous paths. Paquet knows that he seeks a certain place in the labyrinth where wisdom will be found: you follow along as he discusses the walls, the robbed sunlight, the path itself with its curves and possibilities. Then, suddenly, a dead end declares itself. You retrace your steps and start again on another opening. The prose is muscular and peppered with exotic locutions and phrases. Paquet is a prizefighter in splendid form: the muscles are chiselled, the uppercuts are smooth and the jabs are endless. The problem is that he does not land many punches: he remains in the philosophical realm and avoids concrete examples discussed in their true political, economic and historical contexts. He offers recipes with no ingredients.

Paquet argues that the state—in particular its public servants—must be more creative in breaking out of mental prisons. It must be entrepreneurial in opening to collaborative exploration and courageous experimentation to find solutions to intractable problems. Canada, as he put it clearly in The New Geo-Governance, must embrace its complexity to survive the 21st century and this can only be done by creating new forms of collaboration and by enhancing citizen engagement. In practice, this means “unlearning” some of the past habits of mind and practice, encouraging more pilot projects, accepting more exceptions to the rule, favouring more innovation.

Paquet tries in the third part of his book to examine how some of these ideas could be applied to recent governance failures by pointing to the science and technology policies of the 1970s and ’80s (chapter 8) and foreign policy (chapter 9) as case studies. As he sees it, Canada’s science policy was grounded in a false sense of possibility and destiny. He traces the official thinking on this policy area, invoking royal commissions (Paquet sees these vehicles as prime opportunities to learn and unlearn and finds that most of them do not meet expectations—see Gomery’s Blinders and Canadian Federalism). In this case he condemns the fact that various groups were able to sideline efforts to bring cohesion and governance to the promising endeavour of science policy. The Networks of Centres of Excellence, the Canadian Space Agency and the Kaonfactory are summoned in one line as examples of how science policy lost focus and was “dispersed.” He concludes that Canada’s science policy failed miserably and that, as a result, our competitiveness and prosperity have been impaired.

He then turns to the country’s foreign policy. His concerns are, if anything, less clear here. After condemning the work of the scholars in the field, he argues that the Canadian people (not necessarily government, but clearly the government of Canada has to play a role) must fashion its foreign policy in a “Mobius-web” environment. He takes this concept from James Rosenau, who played on the idea that governance was simultaneously multipolar, multidimensional, formal and informal. Paquet’s point is that Canada’s foreign policy should be like a Mobius strip where there is no inside or outside, and both surfaces can be examined even though it tricks the eye into thinking it has only one. The web adds even more openness and accountability potential. So should it be with the state. Paquet wants to see Canada’s foreign policy opened up with more consultation and participatory execution. He ignores the experiments of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade with e-consultations and public discussions and limits his conclusion to the idea that governments should turn to the “smart mob” for ideas.

Paquet is in agreement with a lot of thinkers (and, no doubt, readers of the LRC) who have maintained that the marketplace of ideas is far richer and more imaginative than what governments are willing to consider. Conservative thinkers will recoil and condemn such a bazaar. But where others see chaos, Paquet sees beauty. In The New Geo-Governance, Paquet called it “baroque.” It boils down to an acceptance of a governance where different structures and styles co-habit, but instead of contradicting or undermining each other, they somehow create a beauty that has integrity and purpose.

There are provocative ideas in these pages, as in all of Paquet’s work. But the frustration often outweighs the inspiration. Paquet does not explore where new epistemologies, social learning and experiments have yielded golden fruit and what can realistically be drawn from the experience. As bad as the illness rate may be in Toronto as a result of food handling, it is a fraction of what it was in 2001, when the Toronto Star’s coverage of the issue sparked outrage and mobilized public opinion, politicians and public servants. The city transformed its practices for monitoring and reporting and Toronto is today one of the safest places to eat on the globe. There are countless other examples of social learning leading to improved governance. It goes without saying, however, that humankind’s and Canadians’ inability to learn from mistakes—and to unlearn prejudice and laziness—is enraging. On that point, Paquet’s vigorous plea that mediocrity need not be accepted must be read and acted upon.

Patrice Dutil is a professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Toronto Metropolitan University. He founded the Literary Review of Canada in 1991.