Preston Manning: Competence and ability, not ideology, should be the core criteria for hiring civil servants

David LeisI recently had the pleasure of speaking with the Honourable Preston Manning about the ever-growing size of Canada’s federal bureaucracy. Manning, a seasoned politician with an impressive legacy of public service, recently wrote a compelling column urging the next government to rein in the federal bureaucracy.

Our conversation highlighted the need for a strategic approach to managing the state’s size and ensuring efficient and effective government operations and democratic accountability. This issue is relevant to Canadians as the size of government in Canada continues to increase at historic levels and acts as a major impediment to our nation’s productivity, standard of living and quality of life.

The size of the state has also led to a change in our culture. Some assume that the government will do everything, which, of course, has never worked.

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Listen to my conversation with Preston Manning

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During our conversation, Manning highlighted the dramatic growth of the federal civil service, which has nearly doubled during the Trudeau years. This expansion, he said, poses a significant challenge for any new government trying to control this vast machinery by elected representatives. His central argument was clear: a new government must be prepared with a solid plan to manage and, where necessary, reduce the federal bureaucracy’s size to ensure its effectiveness and that it serves the needs of Canadians.

One of his primary suggestions was a return to merit-based hiring. The current emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion, he pointed out, sometimes comes at the expense of efficiency and effectiveness. While acknowledging the importance of a diverse workforce, Manning stressed that competence and capability, not ideology, should be the core criteria for hiring civil servants. This approach, he said, would ensure that the government is staffed by professionals who can deliver high-quality public services.

Privatization also came up as a key theme in our conversation. Manning pointed out that certain government functions could be better managed by the private sector. He said that by contracting out services that the private sector can deliver more cost-effectively, the government can reduce its size and focus on its core responsibilities. This shift would not only decrease public expenditure but also enhance the efficiency of service delivery to the public.

We also discussed the issue of federal encroachment into provincial jurisdictions and the need for it to focus on its own responsibilities, many of which are underperforming. The Trudeau government has been overstepping its constitutional boundaries in areas like healthcare, natural resources, and municipal governance. By respecting provincial jurisdictions, the federal government could reduce its role and the size of its bureaucracy while empowering those levels of government closer to the people. This decentralization would enable the provincial governments to manage their affairs more effectively, leading to a more balanced and efficient federation.

Building public support for reducing the size of the government was another crucial point in our conversation as Canadians struggle with high taxation and affordability. Survey after survey suggests a low level of trust in government as they witness high levels of deficits and debt as their standard of living continues to fall. Manning pointed out that, during the formation of the Reform Party, there was initially little public support for balancing the budget. However, through persistent efforts, public awareness and support for fiscal responsibility significantly increased. Similar efforts are needed today, he said, to educate the public about the importance of controlling government size and spending to serve Canadians better.

Our conversation also delved into the rule of law and the need for greater transparency to the public to ensure stronger accountability. Canada has one of the most secretive approaches to handling government documents in the Western world. Many documents are held indefinitely when they should be released publicly. Ironically, this secrecy has created a challenge for historians who seek to research past government decisions and can find few original documents because they are not public.

Manning also recommended periodically reviewing programs and either renewing or discontinuing them based on their effectiveness. This approach, he said, would enhance accountability and prevent the perpetuation of ineffective programs that no longer serve any purpose.

A particularly striking part of our discussion was the concept of a vertical political culture, where an elite class wields significant power, often at the expense of ordinary citizens. Manning argued that this description of elites and power is more relevant today than the traditional left-right political spectrum. The public must elect representatives committed to empowering citizens rather than perpetuating elite control, particularly within a massive, complex state bureaucracy.

Manning urged voters to ask candidates specific questions about how they plan to reduce the size of the federal civil service and manage public spending. By holding elected officials accountable, citizens can ensure that their concerns are addressed and that the government remains responsive to their needs, he said.

My discussion with Preston Manning highlighted the urgent need for strategic planning and public engagement in managing the size of Canada’s federal bureaucracy to ensure democratic control. His call for a return to merit-based hiring, increased privatization, respect for provincial jurisdictions, and greater transparency offers a roadmap for a more efficient and effective government.

As Canada faces increasing fiscal challenges and public dissatisfaction, his insights provide a timely reminder of the importance of prudent governance and active citizenship.

David Leis is the Frontier Centre for Public Policy’s vice president for development and engagement and host of the Leaders on the Frontier podcast.

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