Montreal, September 15, 2008 • No 259



Martin Masse
is publisher of QL.




by Martin Masse


          The British television series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister are little gems that everyone should really see. Broadcast by the BBC in the early 1980s, this sitcom features a newly elected minister, Jim Hacker (who later goes on to head the government), and his entourage. Most notable among these is Sir Humphrey, his "Permanent Secretary," the equivalent of an undersecretary or deputy minister. (Note the aptness of using the adjective "permanent" to describe an irremovable bureaucrat!) We see Hacker naively attempt to initiate reforms only to be short-circuited almost without exception by his civil servants who control everything, by his need to remain popular, or by the various imbroglios of political life.


          The funniest scenes are those in which high-ranking civil servants—full of themselves and convinced that they represent the true government while politicians are just temporary annoyances—seek to manipulate the minister. As a comedy, there are obviously exaggerations, but you can observe the exact same dynamic (sometimes even the same situations) at the heart of the governments in Ottawa or Quebec City to this day. 

          Few people realize to what extent a minister is dependent on his civil servants for everything. The powers of a minister are far less impressive than many imagine. He has only a small team—his cabinet of a dozen or so, only three or four of whom are political advisors, and most of whom are not specialists in the issues that make up the minister's responsibilities—to help him make many sometimes very technical decisions, or set up extremely complex reforms. On the other hand, thousands of civil servants have been intimately familiar with their files for years, are masters of the legislative machine and bureaucratic procedures, and know exactly how to pull the strings inside an enormous State to obtain or block one thing or another. They generally control the schedule (it's impossible to push anything forward without jumping through the necessary hoops), the "pen" (the writing up of texts required to push any file forward), the expertise (who can you turn to if the civil servants in your legal department tell you it's against the law to do something, even if you think they're wrong?), etc.

          A minister who wants to accomplish anything at all in a direction that does not please the bureaucracy has to get up pretty early in the morning, pull out all the stops, and have a strong team with an extremely well-developed sense of strategy. It's almost like a game of chess. Not that the minister's own civil servants are the only obstacles to overcome: there's the Privy Council Office (the Conseil exécutif in Quebec), the State's central bureaucratic organ; the Prime Minister's Office, which has the ultimate say on everything; the other ministers; the caucus; and well-connected lobbyists.

Just Following Orders?

          But how is it, some will wonder, that civil servants can block anything? Are they not simply subordinates in charge of implementing political decisions? Yes and no. In fact, they have their own power, and they use it, even if it's in a roundabout way. There are some classic tricks that are still constantly being used in our capitals today. In the TV series, Hacker asks his civil servants, for example, to formulate a proposition in a certain manner in a document that is to be presented to cabinet. The document comes back with a formulation that corresponds rather to Sir Humphrey's position. The minister sends the document back, asking for modifications. The document comes back with changes that still do not correspond to the wishes of the minister, who proceeds to send it back through the machine again, until at last, discouraged, he decides to try to write it up himself to his own liking, a task which is obviously more complicated than he had envisioned.

          I would add, from my own personal experience, that this little game can get even more complicated when there is a hard and fast schedule to respect (for example, an important cabinet meeting at which a decision will have to be made if the whole project is not to be delayed by several months). Note that civil servants do not engage in direct insubordination, which they could not do without calling the whole democratic system into question. They never tell the minister directly, "We don't care about your position; you're just an insignificant elected official, and we're the ones with the real power here." But that is nevertheless how they act, albeit in a more subtle manner. The minister cannot simply command his civil servants to do this or that by snapping his fingers. He, too, must play the game and try to "outsmart" those who are opposed to his reform. Conversely, if—as also obviously happens—the department's bureaucracy is rather in favour of the minister's position, then the reform can proceed much more smoothly.

"A minister who wants to accomplish anything at all in a direction that does not please the bureaucracy has to get up pretty early in the morning, pull out all the stops, and have a strong team with an extremely well-developed sense of strategy. It's almost like a game of chess."

(Neither should we believe that all civil servants have uniformly statist views. Political culture varies greatly from one department to another, and even from one branch to another within a large department. I had very interesting discussions with some Industry Canada civil servants who seemed to have a fairly good understanding of the logic of the market and the disadvantages of excessive regulation, even if they were obviously not outright libertarians. In Quebec City, everyone knows that the civil servants at Treasury or Finance, being more "realistic," are often in conflict with those at Health or other big-spending ministries. I have spoken with some who were thrilled at the support they got from a Montreal Economic Institute study in favour of certain reforms or spending cuts. Whichever side you are on, you have to know who your friends are to get anything done within the bureaucratic machine.)

          You will almost never read reports or analyses in the media about this essential aspect of the governmental decision-making process. You can complete a B.A. in political science (as I did) without ever hearing a single word about it. It is one of those truths about which one should remain silent if one wants to avoid making enemies and continue to have access to the corridors of power. The exceptional genius of Yes Minister is precisely that it shows us, through comical situations, how it all really happens, by making painfully clear all of the innuendos that are never made explicit in real life. That's why this TV show has become a classic.

Video Clip on School Reform

          The clip below shows Hacker as Prime Minister, in discussion with a colleague and Sir Humphrey, who has become his "Cabinet Secretary," the highest ranking civil servant in the entire State, the equivalent of the Clerk of the Privy Council in Ottawa or the secrétaire général du Conseil exécutif in Quebec City. This hybrid character, civil service boss, cabinet secretary to the ministers, but at the same time political advisor to the Prime Minister and appointed by him, is probably the person with the most influence on governmental decisions, more than any minister. This is certainly the case in Ottawa. Everything that reaches the cabinet passes through him. And yet, we hardly ever hear anything about him or his function, and most people would be unable to name him (who knows Kevin Lynch or Gérard Bibeau, even among political junkies?). Unless someone has worked in government and observed how it works from the inside, it's as if this position did not exist.

          Our three characters are here debating education reform and parental school choice, in one of those moments when Hacker's libertarian instincts are particularly obvious (this is far from always the case). There are several similar scenes in the series in which we observe a confrontation between the statist tendencies of bureaucrats and the anti-statist reform goals of the politician, a paradigm which fits very well with the overall structure of confrontation between two centres of power that is at the heart of the series. And the best part is that this time, it's Hacker who gets the better of his pretentious Chief Obstructionist!