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Editorial: Are Canadian officials afraid to speak truth to power?

One way to ensure that the best advice to bosses and politicians gets heard is to make it public. Let the basic work of bureaucrats be accessible to all, and not whispered in secret.

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Everyone knows it can be difficult to speak candidly to the boss, especially if the information or advice you’re offering isn’t what that person wants to hear.

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Yet we expect public servants to do so without flinching – to be neutral and non-partisan in their dealings with those at the top and the political leaders to whom they report. Indeed, we depend on bureaucratic professionalism to ensure a healthy democracy.

So a new report from the Institute on Governance and the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University is cause for both concern and hopefully public debate. Their “Top of Mind” study of senior public sector officials at all levels of government, first reported by Kathryn May at Policy Options, indicates that many senior officials fear speaking truth to power.

“We are in a time where decision-making is so overly politicized that the role of the professional civil servant has diminished (compared to) what it should be,” said one participant. “I find it disheartening to see things becoming more political than expert-related,” another added.

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Sometimes honest and expert bureaucratic advice is indeed welcome. At the start of the pandemic, most levels of government listened carefully to their health experts. But far too often, officials cannot or do not pass information on to higher levels before decisions are made. Whether it’s the top-down structure of, say, the Prime Minister’s Office, or the demands of a controlling local mayor, senior officials can feel their role is politically compromised. According to the report: “…the strong undercurrent is that the civil service has ‘lost’ an element of independence and is now expected to deliver on platform commitments rather than to offer objective political advice…”

This struggle is taking place against a broader backdrop of misinformation, toxic social media, excessive bureaucracy and jurisdictional confusion. No wonder it’s hard for public servants to make their voices heard clearly.

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Now add another problem, not fully developed in the report: the paranoid level of secrecy that so easily stifles the good work of government employees. One way to ensure that the best advice to bosses and politicians gets heard is to make it public. Let the basic work of bureaucrats be accessible to all. Don’t force the media to rush to report information that all Canadians have a right to know.

“Whether real or perceived, the belief that senior public sector leaders are not supported to provide ‘bold’ advice presents a problem for good governance,” the report concludes. Much of this problem could be solved if governments simply opened the windows.

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