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Promiscuously partisan public servants? Publicly defending and promoting the government’s reputation to the detriment of bureaucratic impartiality and truthfulness

Christopher A. Cooper (School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada)

International Journal of Public Leadership

ISSN: 2056-4929

Article publication date: 28 March 2023

Issue publication date: 24 May 2023

60

Abstract

Purpose

For many, the claim that a new approach to bureaucracy—new political governance (NPG)—is underway reads as if it was written by Stephen King: Frightening fiction. While the thought of promiscuously partisan senior public servants publicly defending and promoting the government’s reputation to the demise of impartiality is disturbing, the evidentiary record has led most to dismiss the idea as empirically false. This article questions, and empirically investigates, whether dismissing the idea of promiscuous partisanship has been premature.

Design/methodology/approach

A case study of the loyalty displayed by Canada’s most senior public servant during a highly publicized parliamentary committee is analysed with a novel theoretical and empirical approach in three steps. First, the Clerk of the Privy Council (Clerk)’s committee testimony is analysed against analytical constructs of impartial and promiscuous partisan loyalty that focuses on the testimony’s direction and substance. Second, the objectivity and truthfulness of the testimony is analysed by comparing what was publicly claimed to have occurred against evidence submitted to the committee that provids an independent record of events. Third, the perception the Clerk’s testimony had on some committee members, political journalists and members of the public is analysed through print media and committee Hansard.

Findings

While the Clerk’s testimony displays an awareness of upholding impartiality, it also comprises promiscuous partisanship. Throughout his testimony, the Clerk redirects from the line of questioning to defend and promote the sitting government’s reputation. Moreover, to defend and promote the government’s reputation the Clerk’s testimony moved away from objectivity and engaged in truth-obfuscating tactics. Finally, the nature of the Clerk’s testimony was perceived by some committee members and the public—including former senior public servants—as having abandoned impartiality to have become a public “cheerleader” of the government.

Research limitations/implications

Employing an in-depth case study limits the extent to which the findings concerning the presence of promiscuously partisan loyalty can be generalized beyond the present case to the larger cadre of senior public servants.

Originality/value

Empirically, while most research has dismissed claims of promiscuous partisanship as empirically unfounded, this article provides what is possibly the strongest empirical case to date of a public incident of promiscuous partisanship at the apex of the bureaucracy. As such, scholars can no longer dismiss NPG as an interesting idea without much empirical leverage. Theoretically, this article adds further caution to Aucoin’s original narrative of NPG by suggesting that promiscuous partisanship might not only involve senior public servants defending and promoting the government, but that doing so may push them to engage in truth-obfuscating tactics, and therein, weaken the public’s confidence in political institutions. The novel theoretical and empirical approach to studying senior public servants’ parliamentary testimony can be used by scholars in other settings to expand the empirical study of bureaucratic loyalty.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank the helpful comments from Jean Chartrand, Denis Saint-Martin, Maxime Boucher and the three anonymous reviewers.

Citation

Cooper, C.A. (2023), "Promiscuously partisan public servants? Publicly defending and promoting the government’s reputation to the detriment of bureaucratic impartiality and truthfulness", International Journal of Public Leadership, Vol. 19 No. 2, pp. 116-141. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJPL-10-2022-0054

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2023, Emerald Publishing Limited

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