Impossible Conversations: A Review of “Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher”

Monday, May 27, 2013
by Tariq Piracha RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / tariqpiracha

Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher: How Government Decides and Why is Donald Savoie's latest account of the state of affairs in the Canadian public service. He examines how the relationship between government and the public service has changed over the years, particularly the effects of New Public Management the trend toward managing government much like the private sector. 

Our reviewers for this book came out with plenty of commentary and opinion. Generally speaking, we found that Savoie covered a lot of ground but he doesn't come to a lot of useful conclusions. Worse, the book is completely non-referenceable. While Savoie may have been privy to many insiders with interesting and compelling stories and experiences to share about the nature of the changing public service, the examples are mostly anonymous and anecdotal. 

That said, many of the anecdotes provide an interesting snapshot of the public service and the lack of referenceable evidence did not prevent us from having an interesting discussion or from sharing our own anecdotes and observations. Our discussions ranged as widely as the topics in Savoie's book. Here are a few quotations from our discussion that I found interesting: 

“When was the last time you heard public services talked about in anything other than a “waste” lens?”

The public service narrative, well, it doesn't really exist. Or, more accurately, the existence of the narrative is completely driven from the outside. That narrative is often about the apparent wasteful nature of the public service. Is that the whole picture? Clearly not. But how does a seemingly impartial, objective and non-partisan public service find the wiggle room to craft its own narrative? 

“If there’s no policy, I have no power.”  

This is another quote that I found particularly interesting as it provides a point of view that I've never thought explicitly about. It’s no wonder that public servants crave rules, best practices and guidelines from the centre. A policy affords power to those who need to act. A license to serve, if you will.

Of course, if I stick with only providing anonymous quotes, then I leave you with no more depth than Savoie did. For this book, we’ll let the reviewers speak for themselves. Buckle up, there’s a lot in here: 

Kent Aitken “I was hoping for a more academic, evidence-based take.”
Kent Aitken
For starters, I was expecting more. Much of Savoie's book resonated with me, and/or seemed to click with anecdotal evidence I've seen. But it was generally presented as problems with neither proof nor solutions. I can't see Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher greatly changing out national dialogue on the public service. No shocking statistics, and dissenters would need only to haul out their own counterpoint anecdotes to provide the same force of argument.

As Savoie is a public admin professor, I was hoping for a more academic, evidence-based take. Or comparative analyses with other nation's bureaucracies. 

However, I should also grant that I think Savoie got much right. I do suspect we’re past the point where additional oversight and reporting creates more marginal cost than benefit. The relationships between the various stakeholders in Canadian civil society are not as healthy as they should be. And the question of adopting business practices in government is a valid one. To me, it's not as clear as "government should be like the private sector" or "government should not be like the private sector." It's just that we need to be cautious about those practices that we adopt, and those that we do not. 

On balance, Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher is a worthwhile (albeit unnecessarily long) read for people interested in public administration. But it is hardly a compass pointing towards the future. 

Nicholas Charney “[I’m] more concerned with with where the public service is going, rather than where its been..." 
Nick Charney

If nothing else the book gives you a good, at times highly repetitive account of the growth of central agencies (and reporting) at the expense of front line services on the back of New Public Management (NPM). That said, the book offers little by means of a viable forward looking solution, opting instead for a return to the fundamentals. As someone who is more concerned with where the public service is going, rather than where its been, I couldn't help but be left with the sense that Savoie's book is guilty of the same charge he levies against the public service; that large swaths of it is left to turn a crank attached to nothing.  

Chris MacQuarrie "...as an explanation of how the government of Canada works, or perhaps doesn't work, it can serve as a valuable primer..."
Chris MacQuarrie

I liked this book for two reasons. First, I identified with the idea of the disappearing music teacher as it resonates with my particular experience in the public service. In my work I see more and more centralization of resources and personnel in regions and sectors that seem to have less and less with the mandate of my department, and more with the generation of performance audits and program appraisals. This centralization is explained to us as being more efficient but the extra resources that should materialize don’t ever seem to arrive.

The second reason I liked this book is that it explained to me how Ottawa (‘the centre’, or perhaps ‘The Centre’) works. For that reason alone I’d recommend this book to regional public servants. I’d agree with the point raised in the discussion that some of Savoie’s prescriptions for how management could be reformed are unlikely to ever be implemented. However, as an explanation of how the government of Canada works, or perhaps doesn't work, it can serve as a valuable primer. Those who work in Ottawa may ‘osmose’ these things by virtue of their proximity to the centre. Those in the regions have less opportunity to observe the moving parts within the machine as we are often too far away to see the individual pieces. 

I was intrigued to learn that no DM (at the writing of the book) had ever worked in a regional office. If there is indeed a crisis in management in the public service, I’d argue that this is part of the problem. Is it a significant part? Maybe, it seems a reasonable hypothesis that a manager without personal experience executing the primary function of their organization has no experience to draw on when making decisions about how that function will be implemented. That’s a polite way of asking if you don’t know how the job is supposed to be done, then how can manage the people doing it? 

John Kenney Going back to more rules and rigid hierarchies may not square with the need for the public service to be responsive and nimble in this day and age.” 
John Kenney

Savoie makes a compelling argument that the private sector management practices implemented within the public sector over the past 30 years, collectively labeled "New Public Management" (NPM), are ill-suited for public organizations unmotivated by profit and "the bottom line". 

Despite the intentions of the Glassco commission to advance public sector reforms that aimed to "let managers manage", it’s clear that there have been a number of unintended consequences of NPM at the federal level. As the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) promoted NPM management practices (e.g. results-based management (RBM), client-focused services, risk-taking, etc) and delegated more authority to departments to manage staffing and finances, it also introduced a stack of required management frameworks and reporting requirements in the name of oversight and accountability. For example, the Management Accountability Framework (MAF) "summarizes the vision behind various management reforms into 10 high-level management expectations of deputy heads." 

MAF is a conglomerate of multiple management frameworks. Within each element of MAF (e.g. risk management, results and performance, people, stewardship, etc) there are more management frameworks and requirements that departments must implement and report against. Furthermore, there has been a proliferation of officers of Parliament (e.g. Office of the Auditor General, Parliament Budget Office), Savoie calls them "blame generators", who perpetuate the need for more oversight and reporting in response to their findings and recommendations. 

Savoie argues convincingly that the result of all this management oversight has been a significant reporting burden on departments, which has had a direct impact on the front-line public servants who deliver programs and services directly to Canadians (aka the "music teachers"). He claims that human and financial resources are being allocated to meet management oversight and reporting requirements thus leaving less resources for on-the-ground services; a situation that has become more pronounced within the context of budget restraint and strategic operating reviews. 

At the same time, from a policy perspective, Savoie writes that the public service is providing less evidence-based policy advice and recommendations due to the centralization of the policy-making process in Canada. He argues that the Prime Minster and his "court" (an inner circle of Ministers and advisors) are the primary drivers of new policy initiatives, involving departments on an as needed basis only, thus leaving the public service to manage ongoing legislated responsibilities and feed information requests from the Centre. Again, despite the decline of evidence-based analysis in what Savoie calls this post-positivist era, he maintains that resources have been allocated away from the music teachers towards positions that "feed the beast".

In response, Savoie calls for a neo-Weberian state, one that emphasizes procedural controls and rules, similar, it seems, to the good old days of public administration. He feels outcomes-based management approaches have "muddied the accountability waters" to the point that he recommends returning to line budgeting and oversight of expenditures. 

I’m left wondering if he's romanticizing days gone by. Were there any issues with the old public service model that governments all over the world were trying to address? Is a more traditional model of public service desirable or even possible in today's context?
A more balanced argument from Savoie would have made his case stronger. Have there been any benefits to NPM and/or other related management reforms? Are any private sector management practices applicable to the public sector?

In my mind, there are limitations to thinking about the public sector as utterly unique and isolated when considering calls for renewal, performance improvement, and innovation. There are opportunities for the public sector to learn from creative and unconventional workplaces and organizational practices occurring within the private sector that may spur innovation, collaboration and learning...and even vice versa. We’re left to guess if Savoie would agree, perhaps he would...as long as it occurred within the context of clear rules and lines of accountability. 

His call for more Parliamentary scrutiny of departmental planned expenditures is well taken, but a return to the old way of doing things (i.e. line budgeting) is out of step with the direction the federal Government is going, and possibly, the expectations of Canadians. There has been progress in establishing an architecture for embedding and fostering a more performance-oriented culture and aligning resources to results. Wishful thinking? The Canadian taxpayer expects results and value for money. More and more, governments at all levels are required to demonstrate performance. 

Performance reporting is nowhere near perfect as Savioe shows by shedding light on self-serving program evaluations and Departmental Performance Reports (DPRs) that typically contain only the good news. RBM in the public sector has had its share of critics and challenges, but as Schacter countered back in 2006, let's not throw out the baby (RBM) with the bath water (flawed implementation). The recommendations of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates on the "Strengthening Parliamentary Scrutiny of Estimates and Supply" attempt to enable Parliamentary scrutiny while keeping a focus on programs and outcomes (i.e. performance). In the United States, the federal government is aiming to foster public sector performance and a recent report has found that "the culture of performance improvement is more important than the compliance with many procedural requirements."  

Savoie makes a strong case that compliance reporting has become burdensome and officers of Parliament should be working within their mandates, but does dealing with those issues require reforming the core public service in the manner he suggests? The rules of engagement for the public service must be clear to enable performance and effective risk management, and to minimize the breaches of the values and ethics code that Savoie cites in his book. Burying of public servants under a mountain of reporting templates or perpetuating a culture of risk aversion will not get us there.  

If accurate, Savoie's point on the decline of the public service's role in providing evidence-based analysis to inform policy discussions and decision-making is sobering given the emerging era of open government and calls for more transparency. However, it also exposes a gap in his argument. He fails to recognize how times have changed. He makes no attempt to situate his analysis and recommendations within today's web 2.0, open government, big data, and "the long tail of public policy" context (see Nick Charney's piece on Big Data, Social Media and the Long Tail of Public Policy and David Eaves' piece on Open Data: An Example of the Long Tail of Public Policy at Work). Going back to more rules and rigid hierarchies may not square with the need for the public service to be responsive and nimble in this day and age.  

How governments respond to calls for more and more openness and transparency will be an important factor in determining the future role(s) of the public sector, music teachers included. Will open government lead to more effective program delivery and evidence-based policy-making? Not necessarily, but Savoie didn't go there at all.  

I'd buy an argument that the future for the public service is now and it must adapt and innovate. What Savoie is selling is that the future is 30 years ago. 

Scott McNaughton “The needs of the citizen 2.0 need to become the priority focus of the government.”  
Scott McNaughton

With the rise of New Public Management (NPM), the public service sought to re-shape itself in the image of the private sector. The public sector was urged to start operating like a business. The theory goes that the inefficiencies of the public service could be solved if we thought of the public sector in private sector terms and adopted private sector practices. Hence, the public sector, with the backing of politicians, began a overhaul of the public sector called NPM. Donald Savoie argues in "Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher" that these management reforms are largely a failure pushing evidence based decision making to the side and creating a group of public servants and consultants who are "turning cranks connected to nothing". He argues that the move to NPM has shifted policy making authority to the politicians, in particular to the Prime Minister and his closest advisors. These changes are not without consequences as Savoie recites countless examples of the inefficiencies or "turning cranks connected to nothing" that take up much of the public service's time and resources.  

Working in the public service myself, especially with part of my career training being in a function of "turning a crank connected to nothing", I felt an immediate scepticism and caution around Savoie's argument. Savoie lays out a convincing, and compelling argument to verify the changes brought about by NPM and makes particularly insightful observations about the current power and politics system within Ottawa. His primary analogy of the "music teacher" who can not be employed because of budget cuts despite an ever increasing oversight/administrative budget resonates strongly with my own experiences in the system. 

However, this is where I stop agreeing with Savoie. His answer is to go back to traditional public administration with strong, non-flexible centrally prescribed rules (through Treasury Board Secretariat), and, as a result, allow senior managers to focus on policy making. He argues that we need to scrap NPM and return to the days of traditional public administration. I disagree with this solution. Too many systematic problems are in the way that are beyond the power of governments or the public service to modify. For example, policy issues are far too complex often involving multiple jurisdictions and forces beyond the control of the public sector or politicians, the "gotcha" journalism of the 24/7 news cycle which is looking for the next scandal or administrative miscue and the constant partisanship in Canadian politics which is seeking the next opportunity to attack and discredit make it difficult to move away from the reforms of NPM without much difficulty. While the activities of program evaluation, the webs of accountability and other performance measurement activities (DPR, RPP etc) may seem excessive, complicated and "documents that no one reads", they are processes tied to legislation and perhaps most importantly they provide the government of the day a leg to stand on when it comes to the rallying cry of the everyday Joe, accountability for every single cent of taxpayer money.

The argument can be made that existing accountability measures are not the most user friendly, the most useful or the most effective at meeting the spirit of accountability. As highlighted by a recent report by Samara, Canadians are increasingly feeling excluded from the political system. One can not help but think that complicated and largely meaningless evaluation reports, DPRs and other accountability processes are making this problem worse. When an institution becomes as large as the Canadian government, it is going to be tricky to track every dollar spent, every action by every employee and increasingly in an interconnected inter dependent world how the actions of one player make an impact in a societal problem. For example, recent advancements in program evaluation have started to focus on impact based evaluation recognising the sometimes extremely small role institutions play in solving a social problem (i.e. the United Way can not solve childhood poverty by itself). For the federal government, this means recognising the limitations of accountability processes in a large organization, recognising the consequences of their actions (i.e. They are but one player in solving social problems) and determining what information would be useful to Canadians.

On that last point,  I'd like to put emphasis. Government has lost touch with the people it serves. In an organization as large as government, boatloads of information will be created, assembled and presented in various formats with most of the created products being read by hardly anyone. Producing information/data for the purpose of producing information/data serves no one. Instead, government needs to recognise what citizens desire and for what purpose citizens require data for. This means that government must understand the needs of its diverse client base and produce information and data that meet those needs while balancing mandatory/legislative requirements.  

A fundamental re-thinking of how citizens interact with their government and what it means to do your civic duty goes hand in hand with this process. Moving beyond accountability and creating a "citizen 2.0", we must recognise that citizens want to keep track of how their money is spent and what impact that money has in different policy areas. Therefore, the government should recognise the citizen is their client and generate user friendly data sets and other tools to support a citizen in this quest.  For example, if my passion is the Environment, I would require the government to create a user friendly easy to read document with visual aids (graphs, charts etc) on spending in the area of the environment. However, I'd like to see the spending split by policy area (i.e. Climate change reduction, environmental assessment, study of tectonic plate theory etc) rather than by what is often meaningless program areas. This represents just one area where government can improve and move into the 21st century.

Governments can no longer control what information or data is relevant. The needs of the citizen 2.0, as I've dubbed it, need to become the priority focus of the government. By meeting the needs of clients, we will also eliminate many of the problems Savoie has identified. No matter how we change the system, corruption will occur. Corruption can occur in all organizations. Opening up government to all citizens and meeting the needs of clients will de-mystify government operations and produce products that have meaning. While it will not protect the government from gotcha journalism, it will perhaps begin a dialogue with citizens about balancing accountability with flexibility while seeking to eliminate corruption, demonstrating accountability and perhaps most importantly by providing useful information to citizens encouraging increased participation and civic participation.  

Nelly Leonidis “...probably best considered a “conversation starter...” 
Nelly Leonidis

In general, I agree with the sentiment expressed during the discussion: the book had a really good promise of anecdotes, background and ideas to move forward, but failed to deliver on the last part. It’s probably best considered a “conversation starter” - if I’m being generous. It’s essentially a portion of someone’s memoir on networking with a few senior bureaucrats and stating common bureaucratic hurdles.  

I felt that the book presented some senior figures as self-serving entities who dare reflect on the issues long after their influence or degree of change-affecting has passed. That was my impression, and perhaps due to the selection of quotes that are meant to be both revealing and alarming at the same time. I’m not sure. 

I didn’t feel like there was a genuine attempt at talking about and through the issues. A lot of the arguments were talking about problematic issues and re-adjusting these processes. I would have liked to see more exploration of scrapping entire programs and processes and replacing them with current to future-looking practices and process/programs. As in, the cranks that aren't attached to anything. In my mind, we should stop talking about cranks and talk about an entirely different mechanical arrangement that shifts our focus to where we should be going as a governing body of 35 million (and growing). Even the reporting and planning section was essentially “how do we fix process x”, when the question should be, “given economy, technology and changing socioeconomic landscape of society, what are the programs/process and services we need to deliver as a whole-of-government”. 

There’s a lot of talk about the global economy in the book. It seemed to me that some major forces behind how governments are working were treated as externalities. That is, the budget decides what gets cut fair. But, there are many different factors that are essentially changing how governments are viewed as key service providers. The flattening of the arguments contributed to my thinking that this is just one big story based on one personal opinion.  

The conversation about wage compensation and benefits didn't branch out as much as I’d hoped it would. He - again - flattened the argument and didn't break down a few ideas to make the market comparison comparable. This is where I actually wanted to see some ideas and answers on how the numbers make sense and how to look for ways to realistically attract and retain talent. Nothing delivered in the book.  

The lack of demographic breakdown in the numbers to talk about retention and benefit packages was also annoying - because it discounts the more cultural discussions behind Public Service 2.0.  

He made a good argument on justifying the “overpaying” of public servants because their intrinsic values come to question often in the public arena. Again, I dislike the pooling-together of all public servant types and professions, but at least the base argument he’s making in this instance is interesting.  

I will note what I believe is a false assumption: public servants work in a non-competitive field. I feel the collective agreements and lack of adequate feedback (this is a different conversation about HR practices) make us more competitive as a reality. We want to move jobs and grow in higher positions because we’re unsure of how we stack up against our immediate colleagues and need external validation to see it.  

I also liked that, in numerous places, Savoie ties the arguments with the idea of individual vs. collective, self-serving or duty-focused. I think this makes for interesting debates given our allegedly-transparent government practices.  

En fin: I felt like there was a degree of reminiscing that wasn't helping the book make any progress in providing advice or insight on how to move forward.    

Tariq Piracha “I find it unfortunate that Savoie frames the issue as a matter of kind, as opposed to degree...”
When reading (or thinking) about New Public Management and the public service, I find it unfortunate that Savoie frames the issue as a matter of kind, as opposed to degree. If the problem is that the Government of Canada doesn't work well when New Public Management is applied across the board, that doesn't mean that it can’t work at all. I'm thinking of Kent Aitken’s last post where he talks about the level of deep understanding that is so often missing from our analysis. 

Where is the nuance? Where is the degree? Public Private Partnerships, for example, work great in some cases, not so great in others. You can find plenty of examples on both sides of that coin. New Public Management, I think, is no different. It can be applied effectively in some situations; for some types of public administration. But in other cases, it could be ineffective, and/or inappropriate. 

So, I was a bit disappointed that the book simplified the choice to reversing our course and recapturing some old-glory public service. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so-to-speak. 

We are capable of nuance. Let’s look deeper, make better analysis, and as Kent put it: “Some problems are simply too complex for one-size-fits-all solutions”.  (Hey, look at that: I quoted Kent more than Savoie.)

Next up: Jeffrey Simpson's Chronic Condition: Why Canada's Health-Care System Needs to be Dragged into the 21st Century. Interested in taking part? Send us an email, leave a comment, send us a tweet. You know the drill.