Why is government so big when it costs so much and accomplishes so little—one should ask?



        Do not think about, write about or deal with  human behavior without determining the effects of incentives. It’s not their money, of course they’ll waste it.

    Wherein we see the great increase in the scope and size of government. No one who’s been paying attention needs to be told this, but the reasons and results are always illuminating.

    I nominate the school system as part of the problem. My hypothesis is that the educational system is relentless in increasing government for two reasons. First of all, all the instructors are dependent on taxpayer money and can only imagine government “solutions”. The second is that the Elite must have a reason for existence. People must be controlled by the Elite, otherwise, what would the Elite’s purpose be?

National Post – (Latest Edition)
Donald J. Savoie is Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton and author of What Is Government Good At? A Canadian Answer.

If government could win the Second World War and keep the economy strong, the thinking went, then it could take on whatever new challenges we throw at it


     In a war, there must be winners and losers. Simply because the Allies won does not mean they were superior. The Canadian Army went into battle with a rifle good for fighting natives, a submachine gun which was more deadly to its user than to its target and a main battle tank which was inferior in every way.

There are things that government must do whether it is good at it or not. Government will never give up its monopoly on controlling violence in society, nor should it. Governments must control their borders, manage immigration and monetary policy. Foreign affairs and negotiating trade agreements are government responsibilities. No government will ever want to fully renounce its role in establishing a regulatory regime.

Since the 1940s, however, governments have expanded beyond their core responsibilities and added one activity on top of another without asking what it is that government is good at. By the end of the Second World War, the public’s belief in the ability of government was high. Not only had the Allies won the war, but governments had planned the war effort and run the economy very well indeed. Unemployment had essentially fallen to zero and yet prices had been held down, at least when the goods were available. If government could do this, then it could take on whatever new challenges Canadians and their politicians would throw at it.

It became widely accepted that governments in Canada could carve out new roles in every sector of the economy.

Governments responded and introduced new programs in health care, social services, industrial development, the environment, postsecondary education, economic development, arts and culture, agriculture, fishery, regional economic development and the list goes on and on.


     The list went on and on. Government was good at everything. Those experts just knew so much.

Adding departments, new units and programs to the machinery of government was viewed as the easy part. Little, if any, thought was given o-n possible new organizational models or whether government was well suited to take on new responsibilities in all economic and social sectors.

No one asked what government was good at because most felt that it had already established a track record to be good at whatever it tried.

The less gifted, or the ones perceived as less gifted, would look after administrative matters and the details of the day, a pattern that continues to this day. The challenge for ambitious public servants was and remains tied to policy, to coming forward with whiz bang ideas and policy prescriptions and identifying measures to meet the expectations of the prime minister, his close advisers and the more senior ministers. The thinking was and re mains: come up with the ideas and the machinery of government will do as told. The courts, rather than acting as a constraint on government, have also become an instrument to expand the scope of government. They, too, strike decisions, thinking that the machinery of government will do as told.

The courts have the luxury of making decisions to expand the role of government without having to find the funds or figure out how their decisions should be implemented.

Those are always somebody else’s problem. The Supreme Court, it will be recalled, ruled in a unanimous decision that governments and school boards could not turn to budget constraints or other arguments to avoid programs to help students with special needs to get an adequately tailored education. In other instances, the Supreme Court was not content to issue a decision.

It instructed the government to report back on how well it was doing in implementing the decision.

We have overloaded the machinery of government with new responsibilities, new departments, new agencies and new crown corporations. The result is that we now have a fault line in government. The prime minister, his immediate advisers, senior ministers and senior public servants operate above the fault line. This is where whiz bang ideas are generated, the blame game is managed and efforts are made to keep bouncing ministers — or senators — out of trouble.

Below the fault line is where government is coming up short, often be cause the ones operating above it have no appreciation of how the machinery operates. It is also where the great majority of Canadians deal with their government. The view among politicians and the courts is that government is about 90 per cent ideas and 10 per cent implementation. Making a policy or program announcement, defining the right media line and keeping an eye on the blame game as it is played out in Parliament and the media are what truly matters. They expect that program managers below the fault line should simply run on their tracks and avoid providing fodder for the blame game.

The view among the majority of Canadians and front-line government workers, however, is that government should be 90 per cent delivering ser vices efficiently and 10 per cent ideas. Canadians are too often left waiting, for an hour or so, to talk to someone after calling a 1-800 number, days to get a phone call returned or weeks to get an answer to what they regard as a straightforward question.

Not only have we overloaded the machinery, we have also misdiagnosed the patient. The thinking that we could somehow make the public sector as efficient as the private sector was mis guided, costly and counterproductive.

The thinking conveniently over looks the fact that the public and private sectors are different in both important and unimportant ways. Consider the following: 76 per cent of public-sector employees belong to a union versus 16 per cent for the private sector. The blame game plays very differently in both sectors and the private sector has an unrelenting bottom line, while the public sector has none, or rather has a top line called the prime minister, Parliament and the media. In the private sector, good managers learn to delegate down. In the public sector, good managers learn to delegate up.

In the search for a bottom line, governments have created an abundance of oversight bodies, management constraint measures and vapid performance and evaluation reports.

It has only made the machinery of government thicker, more risk-averse and created a veritable army of public servants kept busy turning a crank not attached to anything. It has also given rise to a serious morale problem in the public service.


     If the crank is seen turning, that’s all that matters.

This is not an indictment on what government tried to do or on the role of government in modern society but rather how the government tried to do it. Thinking that you can simply pile on responsibilities to the existing machinery and somehow emulate private-sector management practices while retaining the command and control approach to operation is where things went off the rails.


    The only way to stop them wasting money is to make sure they have less of it.

Government Job or Respect–Which’ll It Be?
Cheerio and ttfn,
Grant Coulson, Ph.D.
Author, “Days of Songs and Mirrors: A Jacobite in the ‘45.
Cui Bono–Cherchez les Contingencies


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