Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher?

By Donald J. Savoie

It’s a paradox worth considering that for the last thirty years politicians in the Anglo-American world have inveighed against big government in the name of greater efficiency while government has, all that time, continued to grow and become “thicker” and less efficient. In an attempt to shed some light on what is often deliberately kept an obscure subject, Donald J. Savoie, who has written extensively on these matters and may be taken as an authoritative voice on the subject of public administration in Canada, gives us a timely and informative primer on how the system works, and tries to answer the essential questions of “Who gets what, when, how?”

There is a lot here to digest, but the main points are that Canada’s federal government has become increasingly centered on a small court that surrounds the prime minister, leaving the rest of the public service to simply keep things going without making too much of a fuss; that the introduction of private sector management techniques into the public sector hasn’t worked, as the two sectors are “fundamentally different in all important and unimportant ways”; and that the public service itself has grown into a bloated and demoralized (though relatively well-remunerated) class increasingly resented by the the public they serve.

While clearly written, the discussion does get technical at times and this is a book that will appeal mainly to readers with a wonkish interest in how government works. Also, while it takes care to temper its criticism of the present situation and how we got here, it’s clear that what Savoie describes is a system that is broken. One comes away with an impression of a public service now consisting of some people working very hard doing work that isn’t particularly important (“turning a crank that’s not attached to anything”) and other people doing very little at all. Why do we need expert policy advisors anyway, the thinking in some circles goes, when we have Google?

And what’s even worse, given Savoie’s analysis of the way things got to this point, is that it’s hard to see a road map for change. A quick conclusion with suggestions for reform doesn’t seem very convincing given all that has gone before.

Questions about how our government operates, and the role and accountability of the public service, are, for obvious reasons, being raised more and more both in the media and in parliament itself. Savoie’s book provides an excellent introduction to the terms of the debate, and a useful intellectual framework for understanding many of the complex issues involved.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, March 2013.

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