Book Review by John Hollins, CACOR Board Chair
What Is Government Good At? A Canadian Answer
Donald J. Savoie ,
McGill-Queens University Press, 2015
The answer to the questions, What is government good at? and What is government not good at? should be a solid part of the foundation for good public policy and public administration. Members of the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome (CACOR) are engaged in analysis, argument, and advocacy related to the mantra of the Club of Rome: — Limits to Growth — with a view to contributing to public policy. This book provides a salutary view of this domain; members of CACOR would benefit from its insights.
In What is government good at? Donald Savoie argues that politicians and public servants are good at generating and avoiding blame, playing to a segment of the population to win the next election, embracing and defending the status quo, adding management layers and staff, keeping ministers out of trouble, responding to demands from the prime minister and his office, and managing a complex organization that, for the past few decades, sees its primary job as catering to an all-powerful prime minister. Conversely, they are not as good at defining the broader public interest, providing and recognizing evidence-based policy advice, managing human and financial resources with efficiency and frugality, innovating and reforming itself, being accountable to Parliament and to citizens, dealing with non-performers, paying sufficient attention to service delivery, and implementing and evaluating the impact of policies and programs.
With wide implications for representative democracy, What is government good at? is a persuasive analysis of an approach to government that has opened the door to those with resources to influence policy and decision-making while leaving the average citizen on the outside looking in.
To provide just a flavour, here are quotes from the last few pages of the book:
Notwithstanding a litany of management reforms, the machinery of government has not been adapted to the complexity of society and the requirements of the modern economy. (p. 270)
Everyone above the fault line  has an interest in program managers and their staff running on their tracks. Politicians on the government side prefer it that way, because it enables them to avoid fuelling the blame game. … senior politicians insist that small mistakes are the problem in politics, not large complex policy issues. Senior public servants also prefer it because it enables them to focus on policy and the prime minister’s priorities. But this comes at a price: it makes the implementation side of government the poor cousin. (p. 273)
… if government cannot learn to row better, it will not have the credibility to steer. (p.280)
 Donald J. Savoie holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton.
 Donald Savoie writes (p. 15) that there is a fault line in government that separates those responsible for generating new policies and managing the blame game from those responsible for implementation. This explains, at least in part, why government is not as good as it once was in delivering programs and services.
(And I think that Professor Savoie wrote this before the spectacular and ongoing failure of the Phoenix Pay System. Phoenix, of course, is also an example of the blame game: the current government blames its predecessor for starting it and the former government, now in opposition, blames the current government for failing to fix it.)