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The Aucoin Objection: Is Public Scrutiny Bad for the Civil Service?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Just in case you were tempted to think that the revolution in public scrutiny that more and more governments have to face these days can only be a good thing, Peter Aucoin pops up to say maybe this is problematic in ways we have not been focusing on. In an article in the April 2012 edition of Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions, titled ‘New Political Governance in Westminster Systems: Impartial Public Administration and Management Performance at Risk’ Aucoin examines the impact on the tradition of the impartial civil service in Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand, among others:

  • Masses of media
  • Transparency and openness
  • Competition in the political marketplace

What is striking is that in all these developments that people like me celebrate he sees danger. You ask: what’s there not to like about these things? Plenty, he seems to reply.

First, regarding the new 24/7, intense, multiplatform media environment, he says: ‘…the public service is under pressure to engage in media management, including government advertising, in ways that support the government and thus, at a minimum, put their impartiality, including the public perception of their impartiality, at serious risk’. [p. 181]

Second, freedom of information laws are spreading, open government is increasingly the order of the day. Well, says Aucoin, that can be problematic as well. He says:

‘The major risk to impartiality from these group of pressures is the temptation of public servants to commit less to paper, to fail to keep appropriate records, and to participate in efforts to restrict what is made public. Experience confirms that a diminished adherence to formal procedures constitutes the space for unrecorded political interference, primarily by political staff, in what should be impartial processes of public policy implementation.’ [p. 182]

Third, more countries now have greater competition in the political marketplace. Not only is multiparty democracy spreading all manner of groups and think tanks are organizing and invading the political arena to pursue their own objectives.  Aucoin is worried about this development as well. He says:

‘The political pressures on the public service are increased as ministers expect public servants to protect ministerial interests in their interactions with these groups and other opinion leaders, especially when conducted in open consultative forums. Governments expect what they regard as their public servants to promote their agenda in the conduct of their activities, notwithstanding the fact that a government’s agenda is necessarily a partisan agenda.’ [p. 182]

According to the editors of Governance, Peter Aucoin was a distinguished professor of public administration at Dalhousie University before he passed away in July 2011. He was, therefore, unable to complete revisions to this paper. The editors published the paper nonetheless to honor him. As a result, one has to be gentle. It is not clear what he would still have affirmed in the final draft. I must confess, nonetheless, to a certain bafflement as I read the article. I have three main comments.

1. Principles and values are often in conflict, and you have to choose and balance. The impartiality of the civil service – to the extent possible – is valued greatly in many systems of government partly because it is good for the state to be an impartial arbiter on some things; and partly because it helps the effectiveness of government. But government also needs to be inclusive, responsive and accountable to citizens. And that means the civil service cannot exist in a rarified realm, protected entirely from the directness and the rough and tumble of democratic politics.

2. It is all too easy to grossly oversell the impartiality of the civil service in Westminster/parliamentary systems. As someone who served in the British civil service for several years, I can testify that Senior Civil Servants are not green house plants when it comes to politics. On the contrary, they are astute political players, they have interests and they protect those interests with ruthless guile.  They have also adapted well to the emerging public sphere that Aucoin is so exercised by. They now receive Civil Service College training in media relations, public engagement, and civil society relations and so on. Above all, the government communication network to which I belonged has in it highly trained specialists who support senior officials and ministers and help them to navigate the world created by the accountability revolution.

3. Finally, what Aucoin worries about are all mechanisms of direct accountability or democratic control. And that is a fundamental of constitutional thought. Those who govern us – political leaders and the public servants who support them – must be accountable to us as citizens. Yes, internal checks and balances have their place, but the surest guarantor of liberty is citizen vigilance. The ideal of an impartial civil service still has its place…but only in the context of growing democratic control.


Photo Credit: UK Parliament

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