Lancing the boil of corruption

Untrammelled by references to the world of private transaction, this renewed vision of civic responsibility, duty, quiet efficiency and loyalty would be grounded in a simple acknowledgement of the public as the political people and nothing more nor less than that.

The Toronto Star
November 3, 2005

Lancing the boil of corruption
Pressure to operate like the private sector has seriously undermined and tempted public servants and bureaucrats
Paul Nesbitt-Larking

It is not about the federal Liberal party. It is not about Jean Chr├ętien or Paul Martin and all the petulant hostilities that have dragged on between their acolytes. It is not about the bureaucratic centre of the federal state and it is not about the heartland of small-town Quebec. It is not even about sponsorship or advertising.

Justice John Gomery 's report is, ultimately, about failure.

The report represents an opportunity to step back and assess our collective failure to learn from the past and our failure to take full ethical responsibility for those actions and inactions that take place in our orbit. Gomery speaks to a deep moral failure that is summarized in his expression "the culture of entitlement."

In the end, it is a failure to adequately socialize the communitarian principles of public service among key decision-makers at the apex of the political process that should concern us most.

The blame and the shame are much broader in scope than any one party, any one order of government or set of institutions.

We have already begun to witness the name-calling and the self-righteous posturing of politicians and partisans on all sides, eager to convert their rhetorical tirades into votes in the next election. They should be ignored.

Three decades of neo-liberal approaches to public management have contributed to the pervasive failures of public bureaucracies. The much-vaunted reforms associated with the public service, downsizing, flatlining, outsourcing, deregulation, and public-private partnerships were heralded as advancements.

The promise of those who "reinvented" government was that citizens would be treated as consumers who could demand "best practices" from public officials retrained in the efficient ways of the private sector. There would be transparency and "shareholder-style" accountability.

Public servants and public bureaucracies have, indeed, adapted to the ways of the private sector. But they have done so in ways that were unanticipated and seriously flawed.

Increasingly tolerant of personal gain and advantage, unconcerned with unprecedented levels of socio-economic inequality, willing to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing, and unwilling to insist that the good of the community must trump private advantage, the culture of entitlement has become more than a marginal subculture among a few bad apples. It is now widespread throughout systems of public bureaucracy.

Despite these current trends in public management, there remain excellent public servants and political leaders of profound personal integrity. Working heroically to sustain an adequate public service, these men and women understand that transparency is no good when key political actors can readily shift the frame through which citizens scrutinize the political system.

They realize that accountability is too often a matter of limited damage control after the fact and that what is really needed is a personal sense of responsibility toward the public.

Transparency and accountability are no good in a system that systematically rewards personal advantage, cost-cutting and superficial models of efficiency.

Nearly a century ago, sociologist Max Weber spelled out the basics of those practical criteria that were necessary to establish a rational and responsive public bureaucracy.

For too many public bureaucracies in Canada, the United States, and beyond, there has been a failure even to apply the basics.

In the spirit of Gomery himself, we can summarize Weber's main arguments regarding the public bureaucracy in plain language:

  • Public servants should only exert their authority over areas specifically assigned to their regulatory reach under the law.
  • There should be clear chains of command and hierarchies of authority, with adequate reporting systems and no opportunity for those lower in the chain of command to act beyond their specified authority.
  • There should be no confusion whatsoever between the public roles of the civil servant and any private roles they might have. There should under no circumstances be any usage of public authority for private gain.
  • Any position or contract with the public bureaucracy should be open to free and equal competition. Appointments, promotions and contracts should be based upon demonstrable merit and qualification.

Looking back from the early 21st century, we need to add some further sense of purpose and drive to Weber's model and speak perhaps of a renewed idealism of public service.

Untrammelled by references to the world of private transaction, this renewed vision of civic responsibility, duty, quiet efficiency and loyalty would be grounded in a simple acknowledgement of the public as the political people and nothing more nor less than that.

Paul Nesbitt-Larking is chair of political science at Huron University College, University of Western Ontario.

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