Promiscuously partisan bureaucracies

The late Peter Aucoin's final essay warns against what he dubbed the "new political governance"

Peter Aucoin was a professor emeritus of political science and public administration at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. When he died in July 2011, it wasn't only Canadian government, national and provincial, that lost a very distinguished thinker about modern government, public administration and politics.

Aucoin's interests embraced the workings of what is sometimes called representative and responsible government around the world. Australia was among the fortunate countries to whose government he gave especially close attention and which benefited from his several visits in the past two decades. But for the illness to which he finally succumbed, he would have come more often and for longer; it is our loss he was unable to do so.

Professor Jonathan Boston of Victoria University, Wellington, spoke for all in the field, professional and scholar alike, when he wrote that Aucoin was a ''gifted teacher, an assiduous and prodigious researcher, and a wonderful human being''. ''Those who knew him or who work in the fields of political science and public administration will feel his loss very keenly for many years to come.''

An important element in Aucoin's deep understanding of government was the breadth of his approach. For him, comparative government and public administration were vehicles for opening up subjects for research and analysis, not, as is so often the case, limiting and restricting them.

Whilst his interests in Australia and, indeed, New Zealand mainly focused on developments in public administration and the character of the public service in the light of the changes of the past four or five decades, he also had considerable expertise in the functioning of parliaments, electoral systems and administration, and the financing of political parties.

Nor was his influence only felt through conventional academic channels. In the course of his career, he was science adviser to the Science Council of Canada, research coordinator for the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, and research director for the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing. One special feather in his cap was membership of the team that, a little more than a decade ago, conducted the first external review of the Cabinet Office in Whitehall.


As happens with many productive scholars, Aucoin, at the time of his passing, left behind an especially significant paper about the circumstances of contemporary public service and administration. This essay was published in last month's issue of the leading international journal Governance. Insightful and reflective, the essay essentially contemplates the consequences for professional, impartial conduct of government of what he described as the ''new political governance''. It will repay close and thoughtful attention.

In his essay, he shows particular interest in the effect on government and governance of the 24/7 news cycle. The leading features marking new political governance are, first, a mass media, ''aggressive, intrusive, combative'', which produces not only ''vigorous scrutiny of politics and government but also, and increasingly, tabloid journalism that is nasty, vile or worse''.

A second feature is increased transparency and openness. Due to the use of freedom of information and related laws, Aucoin saw ''major risk to [public service] impartiality'' from ''the temptation of public servants to commit less to paper, to fail to keep appropriate records, and to participate in efforts to restrict what is made public''.

Third, proliferation of external audit and review agencies: ''They add to the increasingly turbulent political environment … Media management of the reports of these agencies is the expected response from government. The pressures that apply to the public service as a consequence find their expression in … political efforts to secure public service assistance in managing the media and in countering the negative assessments of audit and review agencies.''

Finally, there is the ''very crowded political arena'' created by the ''explosion of organised interest groups, advocacy groups, lobbyists, and think tanks (partisan and independent, but increasingly the former). Ministers expect public servants to protect ministerial interests in their interactions with these groups and other opinion leaders. Governments expect what they regard as their public servants to promote their agenda in the conduct of their activities, notwithstanding the fact that a government's agenda is necessarily a partisan agenda. It is one thing to impartially outline and explain a government's policy. It is quite another to function as a government's agent in promoting its agenda.''

Drawing on Informant columnist Professor Richard Mulgan's scholarship, Aucoin concluded that ''the communications function of government has become the black hole of public service impartiality''.

It wasn't only the attenuated nature of public service impartiality that concerned Aucoin. Reflecting recent writing in both Britain and Canada, he observed replacement of cabinet government ''by a form of politicised governance that gives priority to partisan interests in all things and [that] is dominated by the prime minister with an informal cabal containing her or his favourite political staff and perhaps a few trusted ministers and public servants''.

Political staff are another source of apprehension, very prominent in Australia and Canada but nevertheless conspicuous in Britain and New Zealand, too. Aucoin feared the ''continuous trashing of traditional public service values and structures in numerous quarters simply reinforces the perceptions of political managers that public servants will invariably stand in the way of a government implementing its agenda unless they can be co-opted as allies''.

His particular concern with respect to departmental secretary appointments was the extent to which ''these appointees consider themselves personal agents of the prime minister with obligations (or at least career incentives) to do whatever needs to be done to protect and promote the interests of the prime minister, which at times are also partisan political interests''.

''When appointments are made by the prime minister, there is the inevitable tendency for some public servants looking for promotions to be 'excessively eager to please', as Michael Keating, a former secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Australia, succinctly put it.''

Aucoin observed further: ''In the environment of [new political governance], moreover, ministers, sometimes explicitly, usually implicitly, expect those public servants who are seen and heard in countless public forums to support government policy; that is, to go beyond mere description and explanation. The expectation is not that they engage in the non-partisan political process, for example, at elections or political rallies. Rather, it is that they be promiscuously or serially partisan …''

He observes that ''impartiality remains the official doctrine … Yet, breaches are commonplace. The typical response to … instances of public servants crossing the line of impartiality in support of the government is to view the matter … as an aberration [Canada], or … simply part of the reality [Britain] … or as belonging to that grey area between what is and what is not acceptable [Australia].''

Since Aucoin initially wrote this essay several years ago, there has been some change. In the context of the global financial crisis, a number of prime ministers and their governments have been less secure. In Australia, the public service legislation now before Parliament marks some welcome and long-overdue rethinking about the wisdom of changes adopted without sufficient thought over the past 30 years.

Jonathan Boston, in his commentary on the essay, also published in Governance, underlines that several features of the new political governance identified by Aucoin are far from recent arrivals. He also suggests that the extent of change is not so great as Aucoin fears, saying ''policy advice is more contestable than previously, but there is little evidence that political advisers have supplanted the core adviser role of the public service, systematically thwarted the access of departmental officials to ministers, or undermined important civil service norms''.

Nor is Boston convinced by Aucoin's views about ''politicisation'', which he counsels, also with reference to Mulgan's writings, ''is not a precise concept; it can take several different forms; these need careful delineation and are not of equal constitutional concern''.

Notwithstanding his general reservations about Aucoin's general arguments about the new political governance, Boston underlines that he is ''very mindful of the often relentless pressure for officials to be 'responsive' to the political needs and preferences of their minister and to demonstrate their commitment - openly and vigorously - to the government's agenda''.

''Equally, it is plain that some ministers place little weight on the tradition of 'free and frank' advice and that some senior officials lack the 'fearlessness' to offer such advice on a consistent basis. But these tendencies should not be confused with active partisanship.''

In my own comments on Aucoin's essay for Governance, I wrote: ''The task of preserving impartiality and non-partisanship in a public service is ever present and has a long history in Westminster government. Each generation has had to affirm and sometimes refashion this quality of public service, which is not, in any case, universally admired.

''A crucial element in ameliorating this constant threat (even if it is periodically in remission) lies in the nature of the independence of a Westminster-style public service - 'independence' attaches not to the institution, which is plainly subordinate though with a measure of autonomy, but to individuals who compose the institution.''

It is also sensible to recall that the new IT environment of government also carries benefits: ''Decision-makers now have an abundance of information that their forerunners two or three generations back could not even dream about. And the speed of communications means that a matter can now receive fairly concentrated attention where previously it would have been handled in an attenuated sequence of iterations over weeks or even months.''

In concluding his provocative essay, Aucoin advocated use of departmental boards to govern management. He has reservations about the capacity of central agencies to hold empowered department heads to account, and warns that the utility of various performance regimes should not be exaggerated.

Space does not permit a full account of Aucoin's argument on this matter. After surveying a range of approaches, he then advanced a model that has been adopted by the Canadian Revenue Agency. He wrote: ''The traditional departmental powers of the minister over policy and programs are undisturbed, and the minister is served by a public service department, headed by a deputy minister [departmental secretary] who remains the minister's public service policy adviser in the traditional mode.''

''But there is also a board of management to govern the management of the department, and this board is almost entirely independent of the departmental executive team . . . The board is a governance board in these respects and not merely an advisory body. One of its functions is to advise the deputy minister, but the board also must approve the management policies and systems of the department.''

Such a model will, in Canberra, be viewed with the greatest suspicion and there are valid questions about the rationale for such an innovation.

Even so, there is a good case for thinking about how, these days, the Australian Public Service builds the efficiency and strength of the organisations that it staffs. There is plenty of rhetoric around (as ever), and some encouraging activity, but there is no reason for acquiescing in the status quo in a comfortable view that, to use a cliche, ''we have the balance right'' (the sure and certain sign of lazy thinking).

Given post-Uhrig report measures, the Canada Revenue Agency model will not win favour here, at least at present. But the proposal does raise issues that could profitably be addressed. Some academic views could provide a stimulating starting point.

J. R. Nethercote is an adjunct professor with the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. He refereed Peter Aucoin's essay for Governance (available here) and, while questioning several of its arguments, recommended its prompt publication.