An ambiguous role – Canadian Government Executive

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May 16, 2014

An ambiguous role

The recent controversy about the actions of some staff members in the office of the Ontario premier has once again sparked discussion about the appropriate behaviour of political assistants in our Westminster system of government.

The role of political advisors, assistants, or exempt staff, as they are referred to in the federal government, has been the subject of considerable controversy in recent years in Ottawa, Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia. At its core the issue revolves around two related themes: first, the roles and responsibilities of political advisors and, second, the relationship between political advisors and the public service.

It is now well acknowledged that political advisors occupy influential positions within our parliamentary system and have the potential to destabilize the relationship between ministers and officials if there is some ambiguity and misunderstanding about their roles. The Library of Parliament concluded in a report published in 2006 that “ministerial staff have become a significant part of the Canadian political system.” In the U.K., ministerial and prime ministerial staff are also acknowledged to have a significant influence on the development and administration of public policy, giving rise to growing concerns about their accountability and, on occasion, ethical conduct.

The federal government has tried on a number of occasions over the past 15 years to describe the role of ministers and their staff. In a 2011 published document, Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State, the government explicitly states that exempt staff are appointed because they “share the political commitment of their masters and are there to complement the professional, expert and nonpartisan advice and support of the public service.” Given this political selection process, they provide a particular expertise or point of view that the public service cannot provide.

The Guide states that political staff do not have any authority to “give direction to departmental officials on the discharge of their responsibilities.” Building on this principle, the Public Service Commission, in its 2011 annual report, concluded that some of the most significant risks to the non-partisanship of the public service stem from uncomfortably tense relations between the public service and political spheres with regard to appropriate roles and responsibilities.

In the U.K., this tension led the drafters of a code of conduct for political advisors to provide a clear distinction between the work provided by the public servants and political advisors. In fact, the UK code includes the provision that advisors “establish relationships of confidence and trust with the civil service.” The code also specifies what public servants should do in the case of concerns about requests coming from special advisors.

Despite the availability of a code, the roles and responsibilities issue has preoccupied U.K. parliamentarians in recent years. In 2013, the Public Administration Select Committee of the House of Commons issued a report, Special Advisors in the Thick of It, that revisited the roles and responsibilities of political staff when it explored the implications of the coalition government on all aspects of government operations.

After months of enquiry, the Committee concluded that there was still too much ambiguity around the proper role for political advisors even though at the time of the enquiry there were seven separate directives and protocols governing the behaviour of political staff. Consequently, the Committee recommended that “the government ensure that all special advisors receive induction training covering: the structuring of the work of the relevant department; the scope and meaning of the various codes of conduct to which special advisors are subject; implications of their status as temporary civil servants; the nature of their accountability to ministers and ministers’ own accountability to Parliament; the role of permanent secretaries; and where to seek advice and support on propriety issues.”

The report also contained strong language about the need for “permanent secretaries (deputy ministers) to remain vigilant and proactive guardians of propriety within their departments.” To do so, permanent secretaries “must ensure that they are fully aware of what departmental special advisors are doing in the name of the minister and the department.”

The U.K. experience illustrates that it will always be difficult to explicitly define the roles and responsibilities of political advisors in contemporary governments. However, the recent spate of reported misdeeds in a number of provincial capitals as well as in Ottawa suggests that there is much more work to do in regularizing the work of political staff. At a minimum, the House of Commons or the Senate could devote some of its parliamentary time to considering ways to improve the current situation by requiring mandatory training for political staff and job descriptions for key jobs in the PMO and ministers’ offices.

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