Renewal
May 7, 2012

A call for clarity: A strengthened political-civil servant relationship

The public service today has been enduring a barrage of criticism far greater than at any point in recent memory, and it is “taking a toll on the morale, expectations, and career prospects of the men and women who have dedicated their lives to public service,” write authors Thomas Axworthy and Julie Burch in Closing the Implementation Gap, a study by the Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) at Queen’s University that explores some of the peculiar conditions in which federal and Ontario public servants work.

The study is centered on the Canadian Public Service Career Satisfaction Survey of 2009 – a poll by CSD involving alumni of the Queen’s Masters of Public Administration program (MPA) and senior public executives attending the Public Executive Program at Queen’s School of Business.

The notion of a golden age of the political-civil servant relationship may be a myth, Axworthy notes, but there were certainly golden moments from which much can be learned. The following is edited from his introduction to the study.

James Q. Wilson, in his classic Bureaucracy, divides public services into three categories: operations, managers, and executives. All are members of the public service, yet some parts might be in crisis while others are working perfectly well. Senior executives dealing with ministers and legislatures on a daily basis may be malfunctioning when compared to other parts of the machine, like those providing passports or constructing highways. Or a policy framework may be well thought out and articulated at senior levels, such as in Canada’s Public Health Agency H1N1 strategy, but the implementation at the delivery level — vaccinations — might be flawed.

Many use the word “crisis” in describing today’s public service. Donald Savoie, a very astute observer of comparative public administration, for example, quotes a former Canadian senior government official who remarked: “the civil service has simply lost its way.” Politicians directing policy but staying out of administration and civil servants willing to speak “truth to power” have been replaced by “court government” where individual public servants may flourish (if they implement the wishes of the court), but the distinct personality and independent role of the civil service as a whole has withered.

Savoie wonders if there ever really was a “golden age” of the political-civil servant relationship and in any case believes that it is “not possible to turn the clock back to the way things were.” Perhaps he is right. Compared to their predecessors two generations ago, today’s public servant must manage in a world with a 24 hour news cycle, much less indifference to authority, articulate think tank and interest groups of every persuasion, and the pervasive influence of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which has made the judiciary much more of a policy factor.

But if the 1960s were not in fact a “golden age,” there were certainly “golden moments” and we should not forget the achievements of the past in trying to construct a better public service future.

In certain key areas, such as the constant shuffle today of senior public servants compared to the stability and acquired expertise evident in the 1960s era of civil service leaders, there is no doubt that in the past the public service was managed more intelligently. C.E.S Franks reports, for example, that in September 2009 eleven out of the core twenty-two deputy ministers in Canada had been in their office for less than two years, nine less than one year. Yet, the Public Accounts Committee was told by a secretary to the Treasury Board that it took about two years for a deputy minister to become fully effective in a post. As Franks concludes, “to the extent that this is true, most departments in Canada, much if not most of the time, are operating with a less than effective deputy minister.”

Public policymaking
I was fortunate that my first experience in Ottawa policy-making was in the 1960s during the great creative period of the Pearson government. This was also the tail end of the so-called mandarin era. That was also an era when political parties actually debated policy. Vibrant volunteer-based parties, strong-willed Cabinets, and a powerful public service made the 1960s a golden era of public policymaking.

I began work as an assistant to Walter Gordon, president of the Privy Council. In discussing the successes of the post-war Mandarinate and their preference for anonymity, I remember their insight that there was no limit on what one could achieve in Ottawa provided you did not care for public credit. This is an insight that political assistants anxious to get their names in political gossip columns should reflect on carefully.

The data from the CSD survey shows clearly how uneasy many public servants are about the expanding role of political assistants. Political advisors make a real contribution to policymaking and this should not be forgotten when we assess the relationship between ministerial offices and the regular public service.

One of the great contributions of a public service is caution – they must outline the obstacles to ministerial or political goals. Ministers are often frustrated, because the main word that they hear from public officials is “no.” Yet, this is a real service, because officials are trying to protect their minister from trouble. Political advisors, however, have an opposite virtue – they are exceedingly energetic, excessively loyal, and keen to tackle impossible objectives. There is a role for wisdom and memory, but also an equal role for youth and idealism. We need good political advisors, just as we need good public servants. The provision in the Lobbying Act, which prohibits employment in lobbying activities for five years after leaving a ministerial office, is too draconian. By limiting career opportunities for such a length of time, it dissuades many from becoming exempt political staff.

There is one change, however, which should be made to more accurately reflect the function of political advisors. They are assistants, not decision-makers. Today’s designation of chief of staff implies an executive authority that such a position should not possess. In the 1960s senior political advisors were called executive assistants and that is a more accurate description for what they do.

I learned much from Michael Pitfield, Secretary to the Cabinet. Pitfield’s approach to public policymaking was often criticized for being unnecessarily complicated. He was trying to achieve equilibrium between collegial cabinet debates combined with the long-term perspective of the Canadian public service. He was forthright in bringing problems to the Prime Minister — he certainly never had trouble speaking truth to power — and he was a stout defender of the public service against some of the more problematic ideas of the Prime Minister’s Office (many of which I originated).

Subject matter expertise
What were the characteristics of the public servants that I knew in the 1960s and 1970s and how do they contrast with today’s public service?

The first is that the senior public servants in Ottawa had tremendous substantive knowledge of their department’s field. There was nothing about Finance that Simon Riesman did not know. David Golden had himself invented the Department of Defence Production. Bob Adamson of CMHC knew every aspect of housing. Senior deputies stayed in their jobs long enough to gain expert depth in the subject. Advancement depended on the ability to demonstrate substantive competence. Ministers relied on the expertise of their deputies. Senior public servants should stay in their positions for a minimum o

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