When Brian Mulroney first ran for prime minister, his sales pitch was that he would run government like a business. Mike Harris liked to refer to himself as Ontario's CEO. George W. Bush's calling card was that he possessed a Harvard MBA. All three were successful politicians but lousy mangers.
Donald Savoie writes that the notion that government should be run like a business is wrongheaded:
The notion that public administration could be made to look like private-sector management has been ill-conceived, misguided and costly to taxpayers. Management in the private sector has everything to do with the bottom line and market share. Administration in the public sector is a matter of opinion, debate and blame avoidance in a politically charged environment. It doesn’t much matter in the private sector if you get it wrong 40 per cent of the time so long as you turn a handsome profit and increase market share. It doesn’t much matter in the public sector if you get it right 99 per cent of the time if the 1 per cent you get wrong becomes a heated issue in Question Period and the media.
Most strikingly, the business model has not relied on evidence to produce policy. The second president Bush touted the fact that he relied on his gut to make decisions. Even though public servants now produce "all manner of reports . . . they remain unread unless one of them has information to embarrass the government."
The old notion of public service -- despite its shortcomings -- worked. Our politician CEO's have gone to war against government bureaucracy and produced more bureaucracy:
Traditional public administration values have been tossed out the window, including the commitment to a parsimonious culture. Public servants have lost their way, uncertain how they should assess management performance, how they should generate policy advice, and how they should speak truth to political power and even to their own institution. If anything, recent management reforms in government have made public servants feel worse about their institution than they need to.
The result is that the public service has been knocked off its traditional moorings. Simply saying that government managers should operate like their private-sector counterparts without changing how political and administrative institutions function remains a sure recipe for failure. It entails a steep rise in the overhead cost of government that can’t be attributed to programs and services to the public.
The idea that government can be run according to the principles of McKinsey and Company is a lie. Those who peddle that idea are selling snake oil.