Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom

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Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom

By DONALD J. SAVOIE. IPAC Series in Public Management and Governance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Pp. xiii, 441, bibliographical references, index.

This is an important and provocative book. It is vintage Savoie. As implied by its title, the book paints a disturbing picture of government accountability. The theme--"that the public sector is in urgent need of fundamental reform"--is sketched across a broad canvas, comparing the experiences over the last half century of two Westminster parliamentary governments--the United Kingdom and Canada. The images are bold and vibrant, distilling the deteriorating relationships among politicians, civil servants, and citizens as reflected through their first-hand experiences and perceptions. The brush strokes are strong and deliberate, the paint thickly applied, creating texture, tension and contrast as we are led along the rocky road of public accountability from its origins in the idealized Weberian bureaucracy and its so-called "golden era," through "disenchantment" characterized by "obligation to self," "searching for values and loyalty," and "voices everywhere," and eventually to the central theme of "court government" and the "collapse of accountability." On much of the canvas, the colours are at the cool end of the spectrum, conveying a somber tone and reflecting Savoie's conclusions about the increasing inability to secure effective accountability through institutional processes and the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. As the eye moves further into the painting, one detects a warmer palate, a possible ray of hope under the lights in the studio, with Savoie's recommendation that accountability requirements "be geared to the individual rather than to processes or a doctrine that speaks to collective responsibility and to ministerial responsibility for the activities of civil servants" (pp. 335-36).

There are four clearly discernable under-paintings to the canvas: his three earlier works: Thatcher, Reagan, Mulroney: In Search of a New Bureaucracy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994); Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); Breaking the Bargain: Public Servants, Ministers, and Parliament (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003); and The Gomery Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program (Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2005 and 2006), for which Savoie was director of research.

His newest book takes us on an extensive journey of public accountability that is both diagnostic and prescriptive, although the focus is primarily on the former. Savoie skilfully uses the journey to build his case to explain what he sees as the collapse of accountability and the concept of ministerial responsibility and to underpin his proposed reforms. His case is built around a thorough and comparative examination of the fundamental forces and structural dynamics that shape the critical interactions among politicians, civil servants, and citizens. Through his in-depth diagnosis he probes the vital organs that have sustained and supported our traditional system of public-sector governance. He describes how our political administrative institutions took form through the development of democratic institutions and the birth of the Westminster-Whitehall system and the traditional bureaucratic model. Against this backdrop, he concludes that there was a '"golden era for government' a time when Parliament was able to hold the government to account ... when government was considerably smaller, and when civil servants had no reason to have a distinct persona from the government of the day" (p. 70).

Savoie observes that the public sector began to lose its way in the 1970s in Anglo-American democracies, and he traces the underlying reasons for this--the collapse of Keynesian economics and the inability of governments to deal simultaneously with unemployment, inflation, and debt; the intensity of criticism directed at the bureaucracy; the decline of deference in society; the rise of market capitalism and a shift in focus to the individual and away from community; globalization and the reduced influence of national governments; declining confidence in public institutions; the decline of political parties; and the increasing influence of the media as epitomized in "gotcha" journalism and instantaneous "sound bite" news coverage. …