Bureaucracies beyond conformity

Many casual observers of the political process probably rolled their eyes upon hearing the news that yet another Member of Parliament had crossed the floor, defecting to another Party.

In this most recent case, it was former Liberal MP, Wajid Khan who made his move, preceded by the expulsion of former Conservative Garth Turner and the other notables, David Emerson and Belinda Stronach.

What is going on? While each case is unique, the pattern is suggestive of a dysfunctional political system where Members show little respect for their constituents (voting at least partially according to Party preference), placing personal ambition ahead of public interest.

The national media does much to reinforce this view, searching the streets for public anger while commissioning simplistic, bipolar polls asking whether you agree or not with the chosen action.

Yet, there may also be reason to be less cynical and more hopeful about such moves. These early signs of political fluidity are consistent with an Internet-laden world where power is less about hierarchy and control and more about trust that is earned through collective engagement. This is not welcome news for bosses of political parties unwilling or unable to adapt to this new reality.

Here is an important lesson for Stephane Dion who has made his first misstep as Liberal leader. Despite being a Liberal, Khan had agreed to serve as special advisor to the prime minister on Afghanistan and the Middle East, a role that he had been executing in the months leading up to Dion’s victory in December. Dion, it would seem, could not live with what he viewed as a bizarre arrangement, thus decreeing to his Member, you are either with us or with them. Alas, Khan went with them…

Consider too the case of Garth Turner, elected last year as a Conservative before being removed from caucus for allegedly leaking confidential Party information via his Web log (blog). Observers were hard pressed to pinpoint the seemingly sensitive revelations, with many suspecting it had more to do with Turner’s public criticism of the government’s rather poor handling of the environmental file (that prompted the recent Cabinet shuffle).

As part of their December exams, I posed the case of Turner’s conduct to my students and almost all viewed his expulsion as an overreaction of the old guard, an example of the concentration of power that Savoie and Simpson and others have documented so well. Although many students were quick to add that they saw Turner as primarily a self-promoter, they also viewed him as a pioneer for a new style of democracy.

This new style may well feature elected members less willing to simply toe the party line. In a world where capitalism and democracy are the predominant orders, it should come as no surprise that the platforms and positions of parties are increasingly fluid and open to adjustment. Even as some core principles diverge, on most policy agendas the parties also share much ground, a prerequisite for some semblance of stability in minority parliament.

Conservative advisors would have none of this, of course, plotting as they are for the political holy grail of majority status. After 12 years of Liberal rule, who can blame them? Yet, whether we are best served by a party-based system that demands loyalty and conformity is a more complex matter.

In a world driven by instant messaging and cell phones, democracy has been slow to keep up. Political parties now manage to leverage portals to raise funds and more directly market their brand, yet their potential target pool is narrowing. For young people today, it is not the public interest ideal that is on the wane, it is partisanship.

There are also important implications for a public service that espouses renewal and demographic change, supposedly ready to shed its bureaucratic culture for a more innovative and participative workplace. The obvious question then: how can the public service change if politicians resist?

The disturbing reality is that if you want to find the most likely candidates for tomorrow’s cabinet, you begin with those elected officials who are least likely to rock the boat today. Exit Garth Turner. At least the political ranks are visible — within the more shielded federal bureaucracy, however, the potential harm of a similar dynamic should not be discounted.

Who stays and who goes will shape the performance of government in the years to come, and it’s a safe bet that conformity and loyalty are not the keys to managerial renewal in today’s public sector.

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