Royal Commissions and Public-Service Reform: Personal Reflections

By Hodgetts, J. E. | Canadian Public Administration, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Royal Commissions and Public-Service Reform: Personal Reflections


Hodgetts, J. E., Canadian Public Administration


Three score years ago and more, I completed my master of arts thesis, "Royal Commissions in Canada: A Study of Investigative Techniques," for Alexander Brady and Harold Innis. Little did I know that in later years I was to acquire a first-hand acquaintance with these objects of my pioneer research through my involvement in different capacities with three major investigations into the public service of Canada. First came the Royal (Glassco) Commission on Government Organization (1960-63); then the Royal (Lambert) Commission on Financial Management and Accountability (1977-79); and, finally, the (Gomery) Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities (2004-06). (1)

Originally, I expected to pursue academically the subject of official investigations, particularly by parliamentary committees, but was diverted by Leonard D. White, my supervisor at Chicago, who instead introduced me to the wonderland of bureaucracy and the formal study of public administration. Returning to Canada, I made this area of study my main preoccupation, operating pretty well in virgin territory but always concerned to keep the subject firmly attached to the broader field of political science. (This battle has been lost, as the overwhelming shadow of business schools has come to dominate not only the commerce and finance studies of bygone days but also has come close to converting public administration into just another branch of business management.)

In my heyday, however, my MA study of royal commissions serendipitously connected with research into the corridors of bureaucratic power. In a way, that was most typical of Queen's University. I found myself a modest follower in the tracks of Adam Shortt, O.D. Skelton, Clifford Clark, William Mackintosh, John Deutsch, Clifford Curtis, and, my honoured chief, J.A. Corry. Some of these elected to remain permanently in the public service, others returned to their academic ploughshares. Dr. Mackintosh honoured the tradition by establishing the Skelton-Clark Visiting Fellowships, designed to permit the "Doers" to return temporarily to academe from their bureaucratic grind to rub shoulders with the "Thinkers," to the mutual benefit of all.

The first intersection of my academic study of royal commissions and the practical inquiry by them into the mysteries of the public service came with the invitation to become editorial director of the Royal (Glassco) Commission on Government Organization in the fall of 1960. Investigation by commission had long been the practice in promoting reforms to the public service; indeed, the first royal commission appointed when Canada was created in 1867 was to inquire into the civil service of the day. Subsequently, almost once a decade, similar inquiries were conducted that, among other reforms, brought about the merit principle for appointment, objective tests and classification of positions by a non-partisan Civil Service Commission, as well as major reforms contributing to the proper management of the public purse. At the close of World War II, the Royal (Gordon) Commission on Administrative Classifications in the Public Service sought to re-establish the principle of merit and restore central controls after their relaxation during the emergency. (2) But it remained for the Glassco Commission to tackle the reform of what was seen as a system bloated by wartime additions that were obviously to remain permanent in the face of rising expectations of government services.

In the complexity of its structure, this commission had no prior precedent, save perhaps for the famous Royal (Rowell-Sirois) Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations in the late 1930s. (3) The three commissioners were backed by an elaborate staff headed by an executive director, a research director, a secretary and, the position that I held, editorial director. Taking its example from a similar executive inquiry into the American public service under ex-president Herbert Hoover (the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government), twenty-one research task forces were assigned specific topics. …

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