Here's Andrew Coyne's lauding of New Zealand's system of public administration, in contrast to Canada's.
Many of the worst political scandals of recent years, from sponsorships to the G8 mess, have stemmed in one way or another from ministers meddling in their departments’ affairs, whether to the benefit of their party, their constituents, their friends or themselves. That ministers will meddle may be thought of as a given. But ministers would be a lot less tempted to meddle if they did not actually have the power to do so: if they were removed from any role in the day-to-day management of departments, by means of a statutory separation of the two.
If that sounds like an unpardonable limit on the discretion of elected officials, recall that we already do this in many areas of government. It’s why the courts are insulated from political influence, at least after the judges have been appointed. It’s also why we set up Crown corporations, at arm’s length from their departments. So why don’t we apply the arm’s length model more broadly—making departments less the plaything of their ministers, and more organizations devoted to delivering the best service for the lowest cost?
I’m hardly the first to suggest this: in fact, I’m pretty much describing the system already in effect in New Zealand. As part of a program of reforms in the 1980s, New Zealand turned every government department into something resembling a Crown corporation. Deputy ministers became CEOs, hired on fixed five-year terms. Instead of simply issuing directives to his deputy minister, the responsible minister negotiates an annual contract with the department CEO, setting out broad policy objectives, together with benchmarks for measuring progress. Then the CEO is left to get on with the job, with broad powers to hire and fire and otherwise manage the department as he sees fit.
In effect, the minister becomes the purchaser of services on the public’s behalf, rather than the provider. He is still accountable for the mandate the department is given, and for seeing that it is met: indeed, since the terms of the contracts are public, the effect is to greatly clarify expectations and responsibilities. But he no longer has any role in how they’re delivered. So the minister of transport still sets the broad outlines of transport policy: he just doesn’t get to decide which roads go through whose ridings. Conscientious ministers ought to find this quite liberating. It frees them to focus on their proper role: setting policy for the country, rather than skulking around in their departments’ backrooms, deciding where to place gazebos and the like.