Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Between the Horns

Posted by JJ in Hats Off, Gentlemen, Golden Tacks, Brass Tacks (Tuesday January 30, 2007 at 11:21 pm)

The dismissal of Mme Gélinas, environment commissioner, by Sheila Fraser, Canada’s auditor-general, was unquestionably the right decision. An office dedicated to neutral investigations cannot afford to become known for advocating or denouncing policies. Its task is to evaluate them.

But the dismissal, and Mme Gélinas’s outburst of support for environmental policies reveals a problem which neither modern democracies nor those who manage them have yet been able to solve.

Information is the lifeblood of democratic systems. If the public is not well-informed, it cannot make good decisions on policy. It may, however, be in a government’s interest to conceal information which would discredit them.

What to do, then, as a civil servant privy to information which suggests that urgent action be taken? What happens if the government refuses to act on or release it?

The Public Service’s oath requires silence; and with good reason. The public servant owes a duty, firstly, to the Minister whom he serves. Otherwise, he would be justified in releasing information whenever he disagreed with the Minister’s decisions.

Ministers are elected to make those decisions. Letting civil servants make them elevates the opinion of unelected civil servants over indirectly elected Cabinet members. The latter is somewhat more in keeping with democratic principles. After all, Ministers can be rejected at the ballot box. How does the public remove an obstructive civil servant?

Most dangerous, perhaps, is the legacy problem. One government might bind the hands of its successors by appointing civil servants likely to agree with its policies. If they were able to speak out when they disagreed with government policy, civil servants could then undermine the political enemies of their former masters.

None of which is much consolation to the official who passionately believes that the public must know something. Mme Gélinas’s outburst wasn’t a condemnation of government policies. Her report measured those by their own expectations. It was a cry for more, and one which was too general to constitute either critique or praise for government policy.

But how to leave the choice to speak in the hands of civil servants without inviting abuse isn’t yet clear. So the public service is left on the horns of a dilemna; and it is unfortunately those ahead who best see what’s coming next.

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