We Can Get There From Here:  

Eliminating patronage, strengthening the civil service and improving
the quality of governance are vital to successful program review 

by Peter Aucoin, School of Public Administration, Dalhousie University

THE REPORT OF THE Fiscal Management Task Force is wide-ranging in its account of why Nova Scotia finds itself in its current fiscal situation. Several factors are identified, including the political tradition of patronage. Among its numerous recommendations, however, none addresses how we might diminish or eliminate this tradition. This is to be regretted. Nova Scotia has paid a heavy price for its failure to accept that a non-partisan, professional public service is a necessary condition of good governance, including good fiscal management.

While a non-partisan, professional public service cannot guarantee good governance, the prospects for good governance without a commitment to a non-partisan, professional public service are reduced accordingly. Even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – two organizations that few would consider to be mindless advocates of public bureaucracy – have come to accept that the successful pursuit of economic prosperity, let alone of social well-being, requires a framework and practice of good governance, and that good governance requires a non-partisan, professional public service.

At the same time, it is increasingly acknowledged in international circles that government actions to address the fiscal crises of recent decades have not always served to promote the cause of good governance. In particular, there has recently emerged in various governments, including the Canadian, British and New Zealand governments, that years of downsizing, delayering and contracting-out, while necessary for spending reduction, have brought about a situation where the capacity of the public service to make its required contribution to good governance is at risk. Not only public service leaders are concerned; ministers as well as auditors-general have also begun to identify the issue as significant.


IN BRIEF, THE concerns are that insufficient attention has been given to the following cumulative effects of government initiatives to cope with fiscal stress:

Ø      too few staff to perform the core public administrative functions of government (policy research and analysis, coordination of policy formulation  and implementation, performance monitoring and control, audit and evaluation);

Ø      diminished competence due to early retirements and pre-retirement departures of experienced staff;

Ø      diminished capacity in terms of institutional memory due to early retirements and departures and the delayering of middle management;

Ø      diminished attractiveness of public service as career option due to excessive bureaucracy-bashing by self-serving politicians and media.

In Nova Scotia, there is no reason to believe that we should not have the same concerns. In fact, our situation is presumably worse, given that our public service entered the period of restraint in less than ideal shape. The legacy of our past is one where our public service has precious limited capacity as an institution, notwithstanding the presence of capable individuals.

In particular, the longstanding tradition of politicization at the top of our public service (combined, unfortunately, with minimal competence in too many partisan-political appointments) produced an institution with the following shortcomings:

Ø      a weak centre of government to secure strategic policy and management direction and control;

Ø      a weak corporate culture to ensure government-wide attention to whole-of-government issues;

Ø      a weak inter-departmental process to pursue horizontal policies across government departments and agencies and to promote secure coordinated service delivery; and,

Ø      a weak corporate human resource capacity to develop the required executive cadre.

Over the past decade there has been some considerable improvement on several fronts, although, at times, there has been slippage. However, the attempt at reform to strengthen the non-partisan and professional dimensions of the public service came at a difficult time – a time of expenditure restraint and reduction combined with extensive reorganization. Moreover, developing the public service as an institution takes time, especially insofar as the focus is on developing the next generation of public service leaders. Further, as has been the general experience in other Canadian and foreign jurisdictions, external recruitment has not been a completely effective alternative.

But, equally and perhaps more important for the long term, there has not yet been developed an explicit institutional framework for managing the public service as an institution of governance in a non-partisan and professional manner. Given the fragility of a system based entirely on the forbearance of partisan politicians in the exercise of the executive prerogative, coupled with the political traditions and culture of this province, the reforms that have been initiated rest on a shaky foundation.


WHAT NEEDS TO be done? In my view, we need to seriously consider the following possibilities for reform.

First, we should remove the complete discretion of the premier to appoint and dismiss deputy ministers.

We could do this by adopting, or adapting, the New Zealand model for the independent staffing of its “chief executives”, the equivalent of our deputy ministers. Under this model, whenever a new appointment must be made, the cabinet receives a single recommendation for the appointment from the State Services Commissioner, an official who is appointed by the prime minister but for a five year term and who can only be dismissed following a resolution of the House of Representatives. The Commissioner’s recommendation follows an open competition. The cabinet may reject this recommendation and make its own appointment, but when it does so it is required by law to make public its rejection of the recommendation and its decision to appoint someone else.

This process has worked well in New Zealand in securing competent chief executives and, especially relevant for our purposes, has made the New Zealand approach to staffing its senior public service the least partisan of the several jurisdictions that follow the British Westminster system of responsible parliamentary government. Given our track record on this criterion, we should proceed with this reform with all due speed.

Second, we should establish in law the distinction between the “political” and the “public service” organizations that serve the premier and cabinet at the centre of government. 

More so than any other jurisdiction in Canada, we have failed to clearly distinguish between the two kinds of organization, either in their roles or in how they are staffed. We need both kinds of organizations at the centre of government, but we also need clarity and certainty in respect to the partisan character of the former and the public service character of the latter. In particular, what we do not need is partisan staff appointed to what should be public service organizations, as all too often has been the case in the past. The inevitable result has been a weak public service centre and thus a weak institution of public service. And, all other things being equal, the weaker the institution of public service the less the likelihood of good governance.

Third, we should set forth in statute a clearly defined authority as the “head” of the public service with the responsibility to secure and maintain the public service as a non-partisan, professional institution.

This responsibility should be assigned to a public service officer (the premier’s deputy minister or whoever might be assigned the responsibility for recommending the appointment of deputy ministers) with the duty to report annually to the House of Assembly on the state of the public service, including its capacity to perform its core public administrative functions. This need not rule out a minister responsible for the public service. But just as we have learned that independent staffing is necessary to secure a non-partisan public service, we should have learned by now that a measure of independent management of the public service as an institution is necessary to secure a professional public service.


INSTITUTIONAL REFORMS CANNOT in themselves produce good governance. Yet if ever there was an ideal case that demonstrated the imperative of institutional reforms in order to advance the cause of good governance, including good fiscal management, it is Nova Scotia. The public service, including its career public service leadership, deserves better. But, more importantly, the public it seeks to serve deserves better. The Task Force has the opportunity to prod the new political leadership into action on this front. Let us hope that it sees the critical connection between a capable non-partisan, professional public service and good governance.

Peter Aucoin is one of Canada’s most distinguished academic experts on public administration. He has written widely on a number of topics related to local, provincial, antional and comparative public administration, and has played a key role in a number of royal commissions and other inquiries into the quality of public policy and administration in this country.