The US has had the same President for nearly eight years. What has he achieved that any other run-of-the-mill President might just as well have achieved? What difference has he made?
Canada has just elected a flamboyant new Prime Minister. What are the odds that Canada will be significantly different at the end of his time in office?
What both countries have in common is the fact that everything their politicians want to achieve must be implemented by, and indeed filtered through, entrenched bureaucracies. Bureaucracies have their own imperatives, their own agendas, and they possess a massive inertia which makes it difficult for any politician to alter their course.
Bureaucracies are best thought of as living organisms. Like any other organism, they exist for their own sake, and their driving imperatives are self-preservation and growth.
Civil service bureaucracies rarely attract entrepreneurial types, but rather people for whom security is a primary consideration. Some years ago, I had a young man working for me in the private sector who left for a lower-paid civil service job because, as he said, they offered a better pension scheme. This, at age 25. The thought of the diminishment or dissolution of their department, resulting in them having to find another means of earning a living, fills them with a numb horror. They know of no other life, cannot conceive of working for another organization. The thought of striking out on their own would occur to very few of them. A threat to their jobs is an existential threat.
Rising through the levels of a civil service bureaucracy to a senior rank will not provide a path to wealth, except in very corrupt societies, but merely a comfortable life followed by a guaranteed pension. What it will provide, however, is power, or at least the illusion of power. Yours is the hand that crafts the regulations that every citizen must follow or face sanctions, yours is the hand that disposes of large swaths of the taxpayers’ money, yours is the voice that whispers in the shadows to politicians. Unfortunately, the power goes with the job, and is not owned by you personally. Being a senior civil servant is rather like being a Catholic priest. You can tell everyone how to organize their sex lives, you just can’t have one yourself.
Bureaucracies as entities which seem to exist for no particular reason are nothing new. Charles Dickens parodied (or perhaps only slightly exaggerated) them with his Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, first published in 1855. While its function was never quite made clear to the reader, the Circumlocution Office was intended to represent the British Treasury Department in real life, which even at that time was a byword for poor organization. At one point in the book, the Minister responsible for the Circumlocution Office justifies its activities to Parliament in terms of the number of memoranda it produced in the previous year, rather than any actions it might have taken for the benefit of the nation.
The 1980’s BBC series Yes Minister offered a humorous but probably all-too-true picture of how a political leader can be subverted by a bureaucracy anxious to maintain the status quo. In one particularly telling scene, senior bureaucrats in the (fictitious) Department of Administrative Affairs are discussing the role of their Minister. It is forcibly impressed on the more junior and idealistic members of the Department that, in the eyes of the senior bureaucrats, the Minister’s role has nothing to do with policy or indeed guiding the Department in any way. His role is seen simply as their breadwinner at the Cabinet table, ensuring as large an appropriation as possible for the coming financial year.
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Getting things done in a dictatorship is not usually a problem. The Dictator gives orders, and if those orders are not carried out promptly, someone gets shot. The rest of the underlings very quickly get the message and start falling over themselves to carry out the boss’s orders. In democracies, however, things are a little different. Any decisions made by a President or Prime Minister rely on a civil service bureaucracy to implement them, and if the bureaucracy doesn’t like those decisions, it has a whole range of ways to subvert them, from foot-dragging to creative misunderstanding. It takes a very forceful and persistent leader to get things done in such circumstances.
In the US, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) was implemented with all the savoir-faire and élan of a hippopotamus trying to roller-skate. Surely in this day and age it could have been done better. One has to wonder whether it was deliberately sabotaged by a bureaucracy that liked things just as they were and had no wish for change.
Canada has recently seen this happen. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was thrown out in the recent election, and one of the contributory factors was that the civil service bureaucracy feared and loathed him. Harper tried hard to get the bureaucracy to do things his way, and the bureaucracy rebelled.
In place of Stephen Harper, Canada has elected Justin Trudeau, who is a public relations dream. He is charismatic and photogenic. He is largely adored by the younger generation because he has the same priorities as they do, such as legalizing marijuana. He is highly visible, never missing a photo opportunity.
So when does he find time to deal with the mundane details of running the country?
The short answer is that he probably doesn’t. Unlike the previous incumbent, Stephen Harper, who actually tried to run the country, and consequently incurred the whole-hearted enmity of the civil service, Trudeau floats on a cloud of charisma and leaves such uninteresting details as trade policy and tax reform to the bureaucracy, which is just how they like things to be.
Bureaucracies, by and large, prefer the status quo. Their ideal for the future is that it should not be a great deal different from the present. On this basis we can expect that Canada will remain in an administrative time-warp for the remainder of Trudeau’s term of office. Although no doubt various bold new measures will be proposed by the Trudeau government, you can expect to see them stifled, smothered and generally emasculated as they filter through the bureaucracy. I predict that not much of any significance will be achieved by Trudeau’s government.