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Elected officials and the civil service
The civil service provides continuity, but sometimes we need to make changes quickly
Joseph Heath observes in The Machinery of Government that the permanent civil service is responsible for a lot of what happens in government. At the federal and provincial levels, the deputy ministers run the departments. At the municipal level, they’re called department heads.
The permanent civil service, from the deputy minister on down to someone working on the front line, are required to be non-partisan and non-political. (“Ambitious civil servants almost uniformly adopt a veneer of political inscrutability.”) Only the elected officials, and the political staffers who assist them, are partisan.
As Heath puts it, politicians these days tend to govern in a hands-off way. Modern elections are very competitive, and so elected officials are continuously preparing to fight the next election. Nature abhors a vacuum: the role of the civil service in decision-making becomes more important. (It’s like a horse and a rider: if the rider is distracted, the horse is going to go in the direction it wants.)
This works reasonably well when what we need is continuity (“keeping the show on the road”). But when you need to make a change in direction, you need elected officials to provide direction and even pressure. Civil servants aren’t going to make controversial policy changes on their own.
This is especially important when there’s a sudden shock to the system and you need a rapid response. In the case of housing, when Covid hit there were suddenly a lot more people working from home and needing more space. We’re going to need a massive 10-year buildout of residential space, along the lines of the proposed National Housing Accord.
The Machinery of Government: Public Administration and the Liberal State. Joseph Heath, 2020. Won the Donner Prize for best Canadian public policy book.
A number of chapters from The Machinery of Government (in earlier form) are available online. Preface. A General Framework for the Ethics of Public Administration. Three Normative Models of the Welfare State. Cost-Benefit Analysis as an Expression of Liberal Neutrality. A Defense of Administrative Discretion.
Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better. Jennifer Pahlka, 2023. Another perspective: describes how mid-level managers struggle to implement digital services within the US federal government. Includes some eye-opening war stories. Interview with Ezra Klein.