[D]emocratic government in modern industrial society must be able to
command . . . the services of a well-trained bureaucracy of good
standing and tradition, endowed with a strong sense of duty and a no
less strong esprit de corps. Such a bureaucracy is the main
answer to the argument about government by amateurs. . . . It must also
be strong enough to guide and, if need be, instruct the politicians who
head the ministries. In order to be able to do this it must be in a
position to evolve principles of its own and be sufficiently
independent to assert them. It must be a power in its own right.1
Joseph Schumpeter, 1942
The creation of the Civil Service Commission in September 1908 represents a milestone in the history of the public service and the development of democratic government in Canada.2 The establishment of a commission independent from the government with exclusive statutory authority for appointing individuals to the public service, apart from the most senior executives, marked the birth of a non-partisan bureaucracy. By putting in place a system that would appoint and promote public servants on the basis of an independent assessment of their merit, the Government of Canada ended widespread political patronage and made possible the development of a professional public service that would be better able to ensure the effective delivery of public services and advise the government of the day on policy decisions.
In addition to increasing the competence of the public service, the application of the merit principle gave public servants a measure of independence from their political masters. While it was recognized that public servants could never be completely insulated from political pressures, the independent system of appointment and promotion allowed them to remain politically impartial and offer candid advice to ministers guided solely by the public interest and without fear of repercussions on their career prospects. The merit system also gave public servants enough independence and security to resist unscrupulous politicians who might try to pressure them into circumventing laws or disregarding standards of conduct in order to further partisan aims. In sum, in September 1908, the Canadian Parliament took a crucial step toward building a professional public service that could be used by the government as an effective instrument in the pursuit of the public interest, and it also planted the seed of a new national institution destined to become a power in its own right in the governance of Canada.
On the surface, the creation of a staffing agency and the adoption of rules for appointing civil servants hardly seem crucial matters of state. But a decision to build a professional and impartial bureaucracy is of fundamental importance in the development of a modern democracy. As Professor Ezra Suleiman reminds us, democratic governments require legitimacy, which, in no small measure, is derived from their effectiveness in delivering important public goods and from citizens’ ability to trust that they will be treated with fairness and impartiality by the state bureaucracy.3 Despite some of the potential dangers associated with professional bureaucracies, notably the lack of responsiveness to duly elected governments that can come from too much independence and from the asymmetry of information and expertise that necessarily exists between elected officials and bureaucrats, it remains a fact that the creation of an effective and impartial public service is an indispensable component of democratic government.
1 Joseph A. Schumpeter (1942), Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, New York, Harper and Row, 293.
2 The name of the Civil Service Commission was changed to the Public Service Commission in 1967. In this book, we will use Civil Service Commission (CSC) when discussing the period from 1908 to 1967 and Public Service Commission (PSC) when discussing the post-1967 period or when referring to the Commission generally across historical periods.
3 Ezra Suleiman (2003), Dismantling Democratic States, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2.