The Machinery of Government: Public Administration and the Liberal State. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

By Joseph Heath

Review by David Siegel, Emeritus Professor of Political Science Brock University

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I was pleasantly surprised to see that a book about public administration had won the 2020 Donner Prize, which is awarded annually “to recognize and reward the best public policy thinking, writing and research by a Canadian, and the role it plays in determining the well-being of Canadians and the success of Canada as a whole.”

Those of us who study public administration are more familiar with it being seen as a pedestrian discipline focussed on the nuts-and-bolts of governance, so it is nice to be centre stage for a change. Then, when I discovered that the book had been written by a political philosopher, my curiosity was really piqued because we in public administration are accustomed to being considered atheoretical with no overarching theory of the discipline. Frankly, I picked up the book with a combination of great interest and some scepticism.

Joseph Heath certainly has the right credentials to combine philosophy and public administration. He is a respected political philosopher who studied with Charles Taylor and Jürgen Habermas and he has complemented this grounding by teaching in the University of Toronto’s Master of Public Policy program. His previous writing has combined these interests with a positive result.

His goal in this book is to use the tools of the political philosopher to address the traditional public administration issues that many of us have approached with much blunter instruments. He sees a particular need for this approach now because the rise of the liberal welfare state has increased the discretion and power of administrators at the same time that the theory continues to glorify the idea of “fearless advice, loyal implementation.” He makes it clear that his goal is not to somehow upend the current discipline of public administration, but rather to make “explicit what is otherwise only implicit in our practices,” and therefore give us a better way of understanding what we have always accepted as the received wisdom.

He begins his meticulously-constructed journey with the argument that administrative discretion should only be recognized somewhat grudgingly and then only if structured with the appropriate constraints. He sees administrative discretion as a positive force providing “a moderating influence, lending greater stability and rationality to state decision-making.”

Having recognized the positive nature of administrative discretion, the next step is to locate to whom public servants should be accountable in exercising that discretion. He uses the incisive reasoning of a philosopher to suggest that the traditional ideas of hierarchical accountability to political masters and popular accountability to the public will are both deficient in some way. He settles on the idea of vocational accountability or what some would see as professional accountability. This complements the previous approach to administrative discretion to provide the civil service with a certain amount of autonomy.

The next step in the logic trail is to determine how these somewhat-autonomous public servants should be motivated to act in the public interest. This is where the trip becomes really interesting because Heath takes us on a historical tour through classical liberalism based on security, property, and contract to Rawls and modern liberalism based on efficiency, equality, and liberty, but then explains how the greatest of these is efficiency. He recognizes that leftists would prefer an emphasis on equality, and right wingers would prefer liberty. However, he returns to an idea that he developed in an earlier book, The Efficient Society, to settle on the importance of efficiency. He makes it clear that this is not the narrow efficiency of the ‘bottom line’ preferred by the accountant or economist; instead his idea of efficiency is based on Pareto-efficiency meaning that policies are undertaken when they benefit some, but leave no one worse off. The emphasis on efficiency is a middle way between left and right that focusses on ways of resolving differences. It also introduces a value-neutrality into the approach of the public servant which would be lacking if the emphasis were on equality or liberty.

I cannot do justice to the full scope of his deep and closely-argued points in a short review, but I hope that I have whetted your appetite. Heath has been successful in his quest to make explicit what was previously implicit. He said that he did not set out to transform any of the basic tenets of public administration, although his defence of vocational accountability over hierarchical or popular accountability certainly elevates an idea that should be given more thought. The depth of his approach has provided a new and deeper way of thinking about the tenets we have generally accepted as given. This is a very important book in the field of public administration. It is incredibly valuable as a way of thinking more deeply about the truths that we have always accepted easily.

However, there is a caution. This is not an easy, breezy read, because it is written in the careful, detailed style of a political philosopher. This is leavened considerably by Heath’s clear and engaging approach to the topic. He treats Aristotle, Plato, Hobbes, Habermas, and more in ways that make their relevant points clear to the casual reader without over-simplifying.

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