“Bureaucracy is … a threat to, but also indispensable for, democracy.”
In Westminster-based systems like ours, a professional public service exists that is independent and neutral as well as loyal to the government of the day (i.e., carrying out ‘its’ orders within the laws of the land and Parliament). This is part of the formal way that citizens, who have placed trust in elected and un-elected public office holders, control the exercise of power of these officials. Primacy though always belongs to democracy. The ‘direct’ tug of war takes place at the political-bureaucratic interface, where friction between the government of the day and the senior bureaucracy exists, in effect, by design. This means that for the senior bureaucracy, disloyalty to the government of the day constitutes a fundamental breach of trust with Canadians.
There has always been friction at that interface, together with varying degrees of suspicion and mistrust. The relative strength of the two key players in this tug of war (the government of the day and the senior bureaucracy) has shifted over time in response to the complex interaction of internal and external pressures. Internal pressures have varied depending upon things like the scope of the senior bureaucracy’s terrain of action; the general alignment of the two player’s beliefs about the role of the government and of the federal government within it; and the degree of mutual respect and trust that exists between them. And external pressures have been based, among other things, on beliefs about the role of elites in society, as well as the degree of moral relativism and civility in common use (and their expression inside).
Increasing signs of difficulty
By the end of 1990, these external pressures had finally begun to really ‘bite’ in the federal government.
Worldwide changes increased pressure on the political-bureaucratic interface. The wide dispersion of knowledge, power and resources around the world forced adjustments in the role of the state, and the blurring of sectoral boundaries led inexorably to shifting relations, resulting in what we see today as networks “rather than a smaller number of actors with better defined, more stable and predictable roles which exist within government” (Thomas 2008: 22).
Recently, Paul Thomas has described things this way: “Government has become increasingly centralized, vertical and personalized through the focus on the person and the office of the prime minister. The governing process is also increasingly technocratic and manipulative through the use of political technologies like polls, focus groups and sophisticated communications strategies used to define problems, shape public perceptions and manage agendas.” (Ibid). The decades up to the present day have also seen the rise of moral relativism as well as a sharp decline in civility.