Over the past forty years, ministers have grown remarkably more media-sensitive and government affairs more complex (World War II was actually far more complicated, but we’re not dealing with the same thing; you know what I mean). At the same time, they have come to rely on personal assistants (call them political aides or, as they say in Ottawa, exempt staff). At first, it was a matter of a few people, perhaps a press aide and then maybe someone to help digest the thinking around policy. Since the 1980s, however, some ministerial offices have been staffed with the equivalent of hockey teams.
It’s been an issue. Public servants found it hard sometimes to cope with the sometimes incessant demands of people who were much younger and often far less trained than they were. Political staff responded likewise: the resented what sometimes seemed like willful short-circuiting of ministerial initiatives by a stubborn bureaucracy. Even politicians themselves complained that unelected staffers seemed to wield more power than they did. Complaints aside, the system worked well most of the time.
This was typical of Westminster systems around the world. Similar controversies around the presumed authority of staffers erupted in the United Kingdom and in Australia, and in Canadian provinces. Within two weeks of the Phase II report of the Gomery Commission in February 2006, I organized an event in Toronto that brought together former Deputy Ministers and ministerial staff to talk about the relationship. Justice Gomery had recommended that political staff be denied any opportunity to be hired in the public service, that a code of conduct be created and that political staff be required to undergo some sort of training program.
The roundtable rejected the first idea, but considered the code for ministerial aides that was adopted in the United Kingdom in 2003 and saw it as something worth importing to Canada, however, modified it would have to be in order to fit our political culture. Following Justice Gomery, the new government did indeed pass legislation that denied political staff the opportunity to join the public service until they had parted company with ministerial offices for at least three years. The other recommendations were ignored.
I think the British code of conduct is still a worthy document. The Code of Conduct for Special Advisers was again updated last October (it is easily found on the www.gov.uk website) and it lays out in a few pages what exactly the roles of advisers are. It prescribes what these aids can do, and what they cannot do. It describes boundaries, and defines status and behaviours regarding the bureaucracy and media. It emphasizes transparency. It lays out rules for leaving the civil service, and reminds political advisers of their duties to keep confidential things…confidential.
Ottawa and the provincial capitals have been lucky in attracting high quality, dedicated men and women to work the impossible hours required in serving premiers, prime ministers and ministers. In this issue, Jonathan Craft describes the role of the policy advisers and his analysis demands that the status of ministerial aides be again reexamined.
I think he’s right, and I’d go further: I think we need to give these people a fair shake. At that roundtable of a decade ago, a former ministerial assistant invoked a striking metaphor to illustrate the different visions of the political and the administrative. The politicians, he said, see themselves in the cappuccino business, while the bureaucracy sees itself in the coffee business. The difference is in the froth (as a politic-added value) and many in the bureaucracy don’t understand the importance of the added ingredient. Very often, it is the political aides who’ve done the fancy steaming. They need to be appreciated for what they contribute.
Here’s the deal I propose: give them a code to live up to, and if they do, then let them join the bureaucracy if they want and if they are able. If the boundaries of what they can and cannot do are clearly laid out so that we can all see when people step out-of-bounds, there will be no question of their aptitude. Good quality people—people who have merit, not just a convenient label—should be allowed to continue to make a contribution.
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