Say It Loud
Why the public service must speak up
It’s not an easy time for civil servants. The public views them as slow moving and entitled, a breed apart. The private sector views them as second-raters who wouldn’t or couldn’t cut it in a hard-charging world. Elected politicians often view them, in an age of populism and 24/7 media scrutiny, as roadblocks to getting things done.
The public service mantra — fearless advice, loyal implementation — gets short shrift. Politicians and their swelling ranks of aides want less advice and more implementation, and they want it on their terms.
Even the terminology has changed within the last generation: civil servants are now bureaucrats, which is shortened to the four-letter “ ’crat” in some political circles. Cue the curled lip.
Amid this challenging environment, an avalanche of publications aims to set the record straight and underline the importance of a non-partisan public service as a bumper against overweening political power and unchecked free enterprise.
The most influential may be Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, from 2013. The University College London professor pushes back hard against the conventional wisdom of private sector vigour and public sector lethargy by outlining how public research and investment in everything from clean technology to the iPhone made much of the modern economy possible. (Al Gore may not have invented the internet, as he once claimed, but the U.S. government did, through its little-known Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.) However authoritative, Mazzucato’s book appeals mainly to academics.
The latest offerings are more accessible and include Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk. Born out of two 2017 Vanity Fair articles, Lewis’s anecdote-driven text turns self-effacing career officials in the U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture into everyday heroes, unsubtly comparing them with the unscrupulous operators given plum posts by President Trump.
And now into this growing field enters Dennis C. Grube, of the University of Cambridge, with a title guaranteed to raise eyebrows among policy wonks and the electorate alike: Megaphone Bureaucracy. That phrase on its own is self-contradictory, a friend climbing the greasy pole in Ottawa assured me recently.
Bureaucrats are most comfortable in the shadows. They commonly believe that, unlike children, they’re meant to be neither seen nor heard, at least outside government buildings. But Grube thinks this is anachronistic, and to prove it he has delved deeply into the workings of four Westminster democracies — Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada — as well as the United States. The walls that once sealed off government from the governed have fallen, Grube observes, as voters increasingly expect to be consulted and involved in policy making. The bureaucracy hasn’t adapted sufficiently, remaining leery about coming out of its lair. Canada, in particular, has been slow off the mark.
Grube, a former political speechwriter in his native Australia, insists that civil servants should be more open and forceful with their advice, building the case for good government in an apolitical but proactive fashion, or even calling out politically motivated decisions when necessary. Having published Prime Ministers and Rhetorical Governance in 2013, he’s now intent on outlining the mandate for the “rhetorical bureaucrat.”
Civil servants must do more than serve the government of the day with enthusiasm, Megaphone Bureaucracy argues, so long as laws aren’t broken and ethics aren’t breached. They must be guardians of the long term, to use a common civil service expression. Mark Moore, an influential professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, dubbed this approach “creating public value.” Grube suggests it will work only if bureaucrats advocate for it openly — acting not like “Benedictine monks” but with de rigueur public engagement.
Of course, the choice is not binary, and real life within government means finding a sweet spot. Sometimes, you have no choice but to draw a line: Grube points admiringly to the resignation of Munir Sheikh, head of Statistics Canada, in 2010, when the Harper government mischaracterized advice it had received on eliminating the mandatory long-form census. But generally, Grube maintains, civil servants need to do much more with a power few even realize they have: the power to persuade.
If the rules of the game seem unclear, it’s because they are. They’ve changed, too. The power of ministers, who generally think in election cycles, has increased in recent decades compared with that of non-elected officials, who think over longer horizons. Donald J. Savoie, a University of Moncton policy expert whom Grube cites, has written about just this, most pointedly in his 2003 book, Breaking the Bargain: Public Servants, Ministers, and Parliament.
What’s the bargain, then? It goes back to the stirrings of modern government at Westminster more than 150 years ago. Ministers were answerable to Parliament for their own conduct along with the conduct of their departments. Civil servants were answerable to ministers and would be appointed on merit, not through patronage. Their role in “speaking truth to power” was protected from political wrath by security of tenure. Civil servants also had the protection of anonymity, given the public accountability of ministers. Everything started out rather cut and dried.
That historic bargain has been breaking down for decades, leaving uncertainty in its wake. In Ottawa’s post–Second World War heyday, the relationship between ministers and civil servants was intimate, discreet, and all consuming. It was possible for a minister and deputy minister to know everything there was to know about their department — it was an era Savoie calls “life in the village.”
As our government grew, however, this became impossible, making ministers wonder why they should be on the hook, at the risk of resignation, for departmental mistakes of which they may have had no part or even knowledge. Ministers now make a distinction between accountability and responsibility, and they aren’t above calling out their officials when something goes wrong. They calculate that the civil service is unlikely to bite back. Grube thinks it should — and at times must.
The complexity of government has also prompted ministers to build sizable offices, filled with political staff loyal directly to them, to handle daily politics in a social media age and to deal with the growing influence of interest groups. With an increasing number of staffers running interference, the relationship between the civil service and the minister (or prime minister or premier) has weakened. Today’s minister also has many sources of advice, including lobbyists, think tanks, and others who might tell her what she wants to hear.
So bureaucrats’ privileged access, which was key to the bargain, isn’t what it was. Nor is anonymity. Government initiatives now commonly involve public engagement and consultation. Ministers often lead these, but increasingly civil servants are expected to do so too. It’s a tricky balance: representing the government on an issue that may have a political hue, while maintaining the traditional guise of non-partisanship. In addition, freedom of information laws can expose an individual’s work to new scrutiny. And officials increasingly are appearing before legislative committees to testify on government policy (as Ontario deputy ministers did last fall, when the newly elected Progressive Conservatives called them to testify about controversial electricity rates enacted by the defeated Liberals).
Facts can seem secondary in today’s political discourse, but Grube has a solution: civil servants, who are being drawn into the arena almost by stealth, must intentionally fly the flag for evidence-based decision making. They must do so even if that puts them at odds with their ministers. If ministers and deputy ministers can fight behind the scenes over what’s best, Grube suggests, they can do so in public. Indeed, citizens have a right to see how the sausage really is made:
Before the days of the 24/7 news cycle; before the rise of social media; before the age of transparency, freedom of information and ubiquitous accountability — it was still possible to maintain the false distinction between capital‑P political actors and administrative functionaries. . . . All public officials — political and administrative — now dance on the same stage, and so we need to evolve new conventions for how we expect them to function.
As a former deputy minister myself, I think it’s worth pausing to draw some distinctions among the non-elected ranks that Grube risks conflating.
There are already those whose raison d’être is to call out governments for perceived shortcomings, and who use both traditional and social media to get their findings out. They are the parliamentary and legislative officers, such as auditors general, who enjoy legislated independence. The heads of arm’s-length agencies, likewise, are expected to operate as if the irrationality of everyday politics doesn’t apply, although politics has a way of injecting itself when things go wrong.
It’s more radical to expect deputy ministers, who work in the core civil service but don’t have the same security of tenure, to go public. But perhaps it only seems that way from a Canadian perspective. Grube backs up his narrative with evidence: examples of public engagement and advocacy in other Westminster systems, as well as interviews with senior public servants or mandarins (a term he uses but that seems dated, at least in Canada).
Grube finds Canadian civil servants the most reticent to speak up. He tracked mandarins’ media “hits” over four years: New Zealand had 600‑plus, Great Britain 700‑plus, Australia 2,500-plus, but Canada “could barely muster fifty.” The timing of his research may have played a part here, done as it was during the tail end of the Conservative government, when even ministers’ public engagements were choreographed by the Prime Minister’s Office. All of the mandarins Grube interviewed recognize political boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. But the Canadian ones seem particularly uncomfortable, likely because of top-down expectations to remain unseen and unheard: “If you’re a senior public servant, you think like ooh I’m not going to go to your conference and talk about that issue, because the last time I did I got my face ripped off,” one said in 2015.
Grube might uncover different sentiments and results if he were to come back today, with a more accommodating Liberal government in Ottawa. Meanwhile, other Westminster governments have developed a comparatively robust practice of independence and engagement.
Consider the New Zealand Treasury, where a department secretary (the equivalent of deputy minister) operated as a “critical friend” of the government rather than as its right hand, regularly putting forth a “Treasury view” and “stretching the thinking of government in non-partisan ways.” His Australian counterpart went one step further during a recent election and contradicted his own treasurer — a senior ministerial position — on the civil service’s costings of party platforms. The department secretary felt he had no choice because governing party leaders had made false claims. Here there be dragons.
Grube calls his proposed new bargain the “Washminster system,” because it mixes the Westminster structure with the Washington tradition of rigorous debate, public scrutiny, and independence (evident between most White Houses and Congresses). The term may go too far — the U.S. separation of powers is very different from the parliamentary system — but Grube’s premise is clear and his blueprint bracing: Push more forcefully. Don’t be afraid to do it publicly.
“Yes it’s messy,” he concludes, “but it’s also enlightening.” Grube wants bureaucrats to engage on important policy questions, and he wants politicians to cede the space to let them do so — as long as civil servants stay non-partisan. “If more accountability, transparency and creativity are being demanded of public servants, they must be allowed the room in which to embrace those new styles of engagement. They are ‘governing in public’, and conventions governing their behavior need to catch up with that empirical reality.”
We can trace the era of limited government and capitalism triumphant back to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. As Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” But the financial crisis of 2008 should have put paid to that. Books like those of Mazzucato and Lewis provide the necessary corrective to common misconceptions or even demonization — apparent in the Trump administration — of those who work in government. Grube’s contribution is to show how civil servants, in an era of bots and deliberate misinformation, can up the volume for veracity, pushing boundaries while not crossing them. It’s a message we need to hear.