Promiscuously Partisan? Public Service Impartiality and Responsiveness in Westminster Systems

17 Jan 2018

Public servants in Westminster countries are being drawn into the limelight bydemands from their political masters that they publicly defend policies. Critics suggestthese conditions undermine the capacity and willingness of senior public servants tomanage the enduring Westminster tension between serving elected governments andremaining nonpartisan. Interviews with senior officials from Australia, Canada, andthe United Kingdom challenge this pessimistic view, showing that officials consistentlystress the importance of not “crossing the line” when dealing with their elected masters.Two exploratory case studies are presented—one of an Australian ministerialdepartment (Treasury) and another of a Canadian quasi-autonomous agency (StatisticsCanada)—in which public servants faced pressure to defend controversial governmentpolicies. These cases show how contemporary public servants actively interpret,establish, and defend the line between appropriate responsiveness and inappropriatepartisanship in Westminster systems.