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Impossible Conversations: a Review of What is Government Good At?

Wednesday, January 6, 2016
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

This is the latest in a series of book reviews, which we usually write en masse as a book club. Given that we discussed this book leading up to Christmas, I'll just jot down some notes myself. I’ll try to return to the group format for the next book as I think we’ll have a lot to discuss (it’s How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy).



Here’s the short story for this one, starting with a caveat: I really like Donald Savoie’s book Breaking the Bargain, and consider it a must-read explainer of a long-term shift in the political-public service relationship. I liked Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher?, his book about why the focus has fallen off front-line public services, though I would have liked more solutions for the problems he diagnosed. But I’d recommend Breaking the Bargain over his latest, What is Government Good At?.

It’s because of something we might call “the Last Chapter Problem,” which is what I'm actually going to talk about for this review. (For Savoie’s take on the Canadian public service, you can still read our reflections on Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher?.) 


The Last Chapter Problem


Over the last couple years, we’ve gone through an interesting list of books on governance in Canada. A common theme running throughout is a comprehensive, 300-page analysis of what’s wrong, followed by a “So what do we do about it?” chapter that falls flat.

Joseph Heath (Enlightenment 2.0) broke down why we can’t have nuanced, rational discourse about complex public policy issues, but couldn’t really muster a convincing solution. Likewise for Susan Delacourt (Shopping for Votes), who tackled a similar thread as Heath - a drift away from weighty, intellectual discourse - but focused on elections and campaigns. Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan (Tragedy in the Commons) went straight to the source - former members of parliament - for their assessment of the status quo, and could only end their book with the explicit recognition that some of the problems described were seemingly intractable. They included the following quote in their last chapter:

"People often ask: how can we reform politics? And the answer is: we can’t. There are very few institutional changes that would do any good, and whatever would has no chance of being enacted." 
- Andrew Coyne

Jeffrey Simpson (Chronic Condition) came to a similar conclusion as Coyne, but about health care reform in Canada.

The same idea struck me for What is Government Good At?. Savoie notes in the opening that the book developed from a conversation with another academic, and I feel as though he set out with best intentions to answer the title question. but after laying out his extensive experience with the public service had accidentally answered the converse: “What is government not good at?”.


Good at What?


“In brief, government is good at looking to the long term, dealing with wicked problems, and making visionary investments*… This makes the point once again the government should do things that no one else is doing, wishes to do, or is able to do. In short, governments are better at establishing circumstances for success than at managing success.” 

That note appears in the chapter Good at What?, which is still mostly about what government is not good at. His (actual) last chapter returns specifically to why governments can come up short, focusing on the gap between direction from the top and implementation on the ground. Or as Savoie puts it, the public service above the "fault line” and the public service below it (see: Nick or Kent on the clay layer). And this is not a slight on the book, just an example of the Last Chapter Problem. The sole real prescription is calling for a national debate on how to improve ailing institutions.

Which is fair. These problems are hefty and we should be suspicious about easy answers. But at some point we really need a good Last Chapter, a “So what do we do about it?” We seem to be, as a country, running somewhat of a deficit on answers.

All of which makes me excited to discuss the next book, which is all about implementation in government.




*Mariana Mazzucato book’s (The Entrepreneurial State), for what it’s worth, laid out the long-term, visionary investments piece in convincing detail.