Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Public Voices from Anonymous Corridors: The Public Face of the Public Service in a Westminster System

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Public Voices from Anonymous Corridors: The Public Face of the Public Service in a Westminster System

Article excerpt

Under the traditions of the Westminster system, public servants are not only non-partisan and frank and fearless--they are also anonymous (Weller 2001). As recently as May 2009, The Globe and Mail newspaper could write of the retiring Clerk of the Privy Council that: "Few Canadians have heard of Kevin Lynch, which is as it should be with a member of Canada's permanent public service" (The Globe and Mail 2009). It is democratically elected ministers who provide the public face of executive government and take responsibility for the failures and successes of the departments for which they are responsible. However, the complexities of governance in the modern communications age have challenged the boundaries of that traditional delineation. Increasingly, public servants are becoming public actors in their own right. From keynote speeches to parliamentary committee appearances and direct media interaction, public servants are emerging from anonymity.

This change offers both challenges and opportunities for ministers and public servants, and demands a reconsideration of current understandings of the workings of Westminster governance. By tradition and convention, leading civil servants pour their frank and fearless advice into a minister's ear, but it is the minister who must then publicly account for whatever actions may result. If the opinions of public servants are being channelled more directly and clearly into the public domain, what problems does this raise for modern governance? Is it feasible to hold ministers to account for the actions of public servants if they have utilised their "public face" in such a way as to circumvent the traditional channels of ministerial responsibility?

Conventionally, democratically elected political actors act as the filter for public service advice and research. Such information makes its way into the public domain only if the government of the day wishes to adopt that advice as a part of its publicly announced policies.1 This not only ensures democratic accountability, but also protects the anonymity of the public servants who prepare advice. Decisions, for better or worse, are made by ministers who have filtered the advice they have received to decide on a course of action. The responsibility is theirs. The "public face" concept exposes the fact that this political filter can be removed when public servants exercise their public face on their own authority (Figure 1).

Public value theory

One of the most important theoretical frameworks put forward in the past two decades for conceiving the role of public servants has been public value theory. Derived from the work of Mark Moore (1995), public value theory suggests that public servants have an active role to play in negotiating and shepherding policy. Rather than mere ciphers operating at the whim of political masters, public servants are to exercise their own intellect to make assessments of where public value resides in any given policy area. It suggests that public servants can have a proactive and positive role in policy making, rather than the more reactive role of providing advice in response to the views of their ministers. Recent research suggests that the public value concept is continuing to evolve as practitioners and scholars seek to test its worth in different settings (Alford and O'Flynn 2009).

Public value theory has given rise to a vigorous and ongoing academic debate about whether it can be usefully applied within the traditions and confines of the Westminster system of government (Rhodes and Wanna 2007; Alford 2008; Davis and West 2009; Gains and Stoker 2009; Rhodes and Wanna 2009; Colebatch 2010). Critics have suggested that proactive public servants who search for good policy solutions and actively or entrepreneurially pursue them open themselves to retribution from political masters (Rhodes and Wanna 2007, 2009). Defenders of the concept's applicability to Westminster settings insist that the level of political risk around an issue is one more thing that an astute public servant will consider when assessing where public value lies (Alford 2008). …

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