Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Political Transitions: Opportunities to Renegotiate the Public Service Bargain

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Political Transitions: Opportunities to Renegotiate the Public Service Bargain

Article excerpt

Considerable debate has emerged about the evolving "bargain" between politicians and public servants, a relationship under stress. What are the yields and research implications of connecting this debate with literature on government transitions?

Un debat considerable a vu le jour au sujet de l'evolution des accords entre les responsables politiques et les fonctionnaires, ce qui cree une relation tendue. Quels sont les rendements et les repercussions pour la recherche lorsque l'on rattache ce debat a la documentation sur les transitions gouvernementales?

Political transitions (1) in Westminster systems demand that senior public servants strike a balance between providing frank and fearless advice while being responsive to the new government's agenda. The political side of this equation has received some attention (e.g., Cameron and White 2000) but the public service story has yet to be told. This research note argues that political transitions not only increase existing tensions between politicians and the public service, but also provide opportunities to forge new public service bargains (PSBs) to defuse these tensions.

In the past the public service played a pivotal role in transitions as a primary repository of knowledge and ideas concerning government processes and public policy issues. However wary they may have been of government officials, politicians relied on the public service to facilitate their movement from opposition benches to the executive rooms of power. Today, the transition relationship tilts more heavily in favour of the political sphere as politicians have access to alternative policy advice and sophisticated political machines, and possess an electoral mandate that they argue trumps any public service contribution to public interest. Modern transitions require that public service leadership demonstrate its unique worth.

This research note connects literature on the political-public service interface with transitions to identify propitious opportunities to negotiate PSBs more openly and to use those opportunities more adroitly. It considers administrative challenges flowing from transitions and highlights actual and potential public service strategies for managing them. It proposes that public service institutions widen their scope to move beyond individually negotiated responses to transitions towards corporately driven PSB negotiations across the political-public service interface on a rolling basis. Transitions may represent procedural mechanisms of stability but they also provide substantive opportunities to enhance democratic governance. We offer this proposition as an invitation to others to take up our perspective and develop research to probe these ideas further.

Relations between politicians and public servants

The literature on the political-public service interface examines whether administrators are "neutral executors of the will" of elected officials or "self-directed" (Mouritzen and Svara 2002: 3). Canadian royal commissions have considered such questions as whether emphasis on impartiality and professionalism makes the public service insensitive to the mandate and policy priorities of government (Canada, Royal Commission on Government Organization 1962) and whether the convention of ministerial responsibility shields the public service from accountability (Canada, Royal Commission on Financial Management and Accountability 1979). In addition, government reforms in both Canada and Australia have paid significant attention to the nature, structure and relationship of the public service and politicians (March and Olson 1983).

In the past several decades, New Public Management (NPM) reforms greatly affected Westminster-type countries (Mascarenhas 1993; Aucoin 1995; Peters and Savoie 1995; Kettl 1997; Pollitt and Bouckaert 2000). The most direct implication for Australian top public servants was the change in their working conditions from permanent appointments to time-limited contracts (Boston et al. …

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