Book review: Power: Where is it?

August 20, 2010 11:55 AM

Donald Savoie, Canada's public administration authority-in-chief, has once again cracked open a unique aspect of how governments work in his latest book, Power: Where is it.

Savoie examines the intriguing question of who know holds power in western democracies and some of his findings may come as a surprise to even some savvy experts of public administration.

Power, it is argued, has slowly eroded from voters, political parties and even parliament or legislatures and is now being coalesced by the prime minister and a small cadre of elites.

What makes the book an essential read is the author's intricate understanding of how power structures inside business and government, particularly the public service of western democracies, have evolved in the last three decades.

In parts of Power, Savoie, who has written more than 30 books on public policy, seems a tad morose about how public servants have lost much of the power they once held over the formation of public policy to political insiders, pollsters, lobbyists and a tight-knit group that revolves around the prime minister.

The book is particularly relevant to New Brunswick voters as the province prepares for a general election. It is useful to overlay Savoie's findings onto the past government but also to use it as a way to gauge the direction of the incoming government, whichever party may form it.

For instance, Savoie uses a chapter to highlight how independent officers of parliament have usurped new roles and powers for themselves.

"Agents of Parliament such as the auditor general have sought to break out of the traditional boundaries to establish new turf for themselves, but not necessarily at the urging of Parliament. Indeed, they now appear to function as free agents accountable to no one but themselves. ... Agents of Parliament, like other bureaucratic organizations, will wish to explain their sphere of influence. Parliament has not been effective in its dealings with them. Predictably, opposition parties and the media support an expanded role, while those on the government side of the House do not."

Savoie pushes the conflict, which is often simmering below the surface in many parliaments and legislatures, right out into the open over who should have oversight: elected officials or specialists. Independent officers -- such as auditors general, commissioners of official languages, ombudspeople -- all perform important work and their reports have become annual staples for the media and opposition politicians to hold the government to account. Savoie later makes the point that governments have devolved more power to outside commissions or commissioners to advise governments or prime ministers on particular issues instead of relying on the civil service.

New Brunswick Ombudsman Bernard Richard, for example, has written several reports that have criticized the provincial government's treatment of youth at risk, First Nations communities and the decision to eliminate Early French Immersion. In some cases, it has been queried whether Richard has pushed past his office's mandate and given himself new power.

When these officers and commissioners take on more power, the book argues, civil servants lose their policy-making power and that power shifts to unelected individuals who are not accountable to a minister.

Savoie's own actions reinforce the points he made in his book. When Premier Shawn Graham tapped him to write a report on reforming the Right to Information Act, Savoie did not recommend setting up a new commissioner; instead he called on the province to better fund the current ombudsman. The provincial government ignored that advice and has set up a new information commissioner's office. Savoie also refused payment for his report, asking the government invest that money into civil service training.

The proliferation of independent officers may only get worse in New Brunswick. Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward has promised if he's elected that he'll set up a full-time Child and Youth Advocate and make the Human Rights Commission an independent office of the legislature. As Savoie points out, this means more money will be spent and the lines of power will be more diffuse.

Savoie's book also asks a question that will make the people in many newsrooms squirm: does the media have power. According to the professor, many in the civil service believe journalists hold more power than they are willing to admit. This has not had an overall positive impact on how public policy is made, he argues.

"It is hardly possible to overstate the importance of the media in shaping voter perception in an era when loyalty to political parties continues to decline. The media will, however, more often than not focus on two things: party leaders and missteps. This and their capacity to cover 'crisis situations,' real or imagined, have led many to suggest that governments are now in 'perpetual election campaign mode.'"

That permanent election campaign mode has led to the civil service being stuffed with contract professionals and pollsters advising on government policy and experienced with shaping media perception. And now public policy is crafted by these professionals with government re-election in mind, meaning that public servants, who traditionally performed the same task, have lost more power.

Further, he argues top mandarins, many of whom have had experience in central agencies such as the Privy Council Office, are picked by the prime minister because of their ability to sense political storms, stickhandle delicate files through the public policy process, strike deals with other departments and implement government priorities quickly. Those are traditionally tasks that would be the responsibility of cabinet ministers.

Savoie also tackles the question of how the push for more government transparency, primarily by the media, has further blurred the lines of power. The professor is not arguing for less transparency but he paints a very bleak view of the impact that access to information legislation and disclosure laws have had on how public policy is made.

"Being against transparency is akin to being against democracy or in favour of backroom deals and even corruption."

Savoie quotes a former top federal civil servant that claims that the rise of transparency has killed the creativity inside the public service. The book goes into detail explaining the phenomenon that civil servants are no longer committing ideas and recommendations to paper for fear of those views ending up in the hands of journalists.

When Savoie was hired to review New Brunswick's information laws, his stated goal was to recommend a better law but to also create a culture of openness.

Savoie exits the portion of the book dedicated to the media and transparency leaving almost a sense of guilt that information laws and the demand for openness has left the policy process broken with no recommendations for how to fix it.

What makes Power such a fascinating book is Savoie's ability to contextualize very dense subject matter into compelling reading. He also continues to spice up his book with insightful comments from politicians and senior civil servants - some who are named, many who are not - that help to reinforce his commentary.

It also poses many pertinent questions about how policy decisions are made that are relevant to the upcoming New Brunswick election. Readers will be armed with new information to pose informed questions of politicians when they come door-knocking about how they plan to formulate policy and implement campaign promises if they win the election.

The idea of measuring who has power is not an area where there are readily available metrics. So the reader is left with the prospect of whether to take Savoie's word for it. For many people that choice will be fairly easy considering Savoie is one of the foremost experts in public administration in Canada and many western democracies.

Power is not a polemic written to blast one particular side but it is also not a sleepy political science text designed to fit on a university shelf to gather dust. It is a thoughtful and compelling book that explains the shifting power structure of our democracy.

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