A public servant's guide to new governments - Canadian Government Executive
Public SectorThe Interview
April 21, 2014

A public servant’s guide to new governments

CGE columnist David Zussman, Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, has published a new book, Off and Running: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Government Transitions in Canada. Editor-in-Chief Toby Fyfe asked him why it is that newly-elected governments are rarely ready for the demands of decisions in a post-election period.

I think the short answer to this is simply that they’ve spent the last many months preparing for an election campaign, and they’ve put almost all of their efforts into persuading Canadians to vote for them. Unless the leader of the party – the new Prime Minister – has had some experience in governing, it may take them quite a long time to move from the campaigning mode to governing. The public service can play a huge role in that.

You outlined four stages in a transition: pre-election, election, post-election, and consolidation. Let’s work through each one. In the pre-election phase, what issues does the public service need to consider?

On the public service side, this is marshalling the sorts of ideas that you might want to put forward to a newly-elected government, or onto a re-elected government, as to how the portfolio and the mandate of the department of the people that are working in it might be looked at.

During the election period…

What I’m really suggesting is that the public service spend a whole lot of time paying attention to what the politicians are promising to do should they get elected. Because the political people will quickly turn to the public service and say, “Well, we’ve been campaigning on this for months, what have you got for me?” And to say, “Oh, we haven’t been following very closely because we’re not political,” is not really a very acceptable answer.

Do you have examples of when that has happened badly?

I think one of the best examples is with the Harper government in 2006. Not that the public service of Canada was not listening to Harper and his team; they didn’t quite appreciate the vocabulary, and what the party was actually communicating it was interested in doing. So while they were well-versed on the five points of the Harper campaign, they didn’t appreciate that this was going to represent a cultural and philosophical shift in thinking, and they, the public service that served the Liberal government for 10 years, would have to change their orientation and the way they thought about public policy issues.

What about the post-election period?

That’s those moments, those rushed moments between the election and the swearing-in ceremony, when the public service is now actually getting the briefing books and the transition materials ready for an incoming government. I find the public service typically over-prepares materials for an incoming government. How they really expect a newly-elected government, or a new minister, to read 600-800 pages in three or four days is not fully appreciating the difficulty of the job of some of these new ministers.

But at the same time, the public service, in this post-election field, has got to understand the type of people they’re going to be working with. And that represents a serious opportunity for the public service to think about what it represents when a new government gets elected.

It can be difficult because of that tension between a new government and this notion of public service neutrality.

That’s right. The public service can always assume that the incoming, especially a newly-elected incoming, government will be rather suspicious of the public service. There, I think, the public service has to emerge from this conversation leaving the political people with the impression they are neutral, in terms of political preferences, and will serve any elected government in Canada.

Finally, you describe the consolidation phase.

In this phase you have to turn it around and say, “What is it that I have to discuss with my incoming minister, knowing where the new government wants to go and where this particular minister may have already expressed some preferences by way of policy outcomes?” That’s often been a difficult thing for many deputy ministers to do.

I also see training for the political staff, and training for ministers, to ensure that they can appreciate what their new role is, because, as I suggested earlier, one of the great challenges is to move away from hyper-partisanship and speaking on behalf of the party to see themselves in a new role where they’re going to work in the broad public interest, and they’re going to work for people who didn’t vote for them. This, sometimes, for politicians, is very difficult to do.

The public servant who has the most critical job is the Clerk of the Privy Council.

That’s a very difficult job, and I’ve interviewed a number of them. In some instances the incoming government may have never met this person, possibly has no idea what a Clerk does, or a Secretary to Cabinet, for that matter, and that first meeting between the incoming Prime Minister and the Clerk is critical. They almost always go well, even though we typically know that the Clerks don’t usually last very long with the new government. But we get in a long-standing tradition, convention in Canada, that the incumbent Clerk will see a government through the swearing-in ceremony, and usually into the consolidation phase before any changes are made. And this is important to me, because it recognizes the impartiality of the public service, and it has served us well over the years.

There’s a view that this convention of neutrality is not working well. Do you think we’ve reached a tipping point on this issue?

This was a huge public debate that took place in Australia about three or four years ago, when the Secretary to Cabinet and the former head of the public service commission got into a very public debate about serving the public and responsiveness to the government. And I think that’s the sort of conversation that’s well worth having in Canada as well.

How can the public service demonstrate it provides value by being neutral?

Presumably, the public servant has no interest in an outcome. Of course, that’s not entirely true, and we have to be very careful to explain that the public service has a view, has its own view. It’s a view that’s based on its own experiences and its own particular biases in terms of options, and the role of a good deputy minister is to ensure that whatever advice is coming up reflects as much as possible a neutral approach to problem-solving. That’s all good.

You say that transitions do not include policy development. Can you explain that?

Policy development is typically done by the political people. This has changed dramatically. In earlier eras – the Pearson era, for example – policy originated in the public service. We now have a different approach where our political leaders insist on having an agenda, a manifesto, a platform, that says, “If elected, these are the five things I’m going to do, the 25 things I’m going to do.” And the public service has to be mindful of that, and presumably, will work on a game plan that will ensure that these items will be implemented.

What we often find, however, is that since the political parties are not particularly strong in Canada and don’t have huge resources, the proposals are sometimes very naïve, sometimes unworkable, and even sometimes illegal. And that’s the public service’s job, to sort all that out.

I would assume the same challenges are playing out at the provincial level?

Absolutely. I think this story is exactly applicable. During the last election, in Ontario, the public service did a superb job of preparing for a new government, and the returning old government with a new premier. In British Columbia, I was very much aware of some of the transition work done by some of the opposition parties that were anticipating to win the election; they did superb planning.

For more on Off and Running, read Harvey Schachter’s review here.

About this author

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Public Sector
 
Welcome to the fall edition of CGE. Since our last issue,...
 
The Northern Federal Council (NFC) is a collaborative network of over...
 
Usually, the summer period is a relatively slow time for public...
 
As a new professional working in government, I hear a lot...
 
Most people go into public service because they want to improve...
 
Canadian Government Executive media (CGE) announced today that Lori Turnbull has...
 
Recently, CGE Editor-in-Chief George Ross sat down with Patrick Borbey, President...
 
The UK Department for Education (DfE) doesn’t have an easy mandate:...
 
We all ask why governments fail, often spectacularly, to carry out...
 
Innovation labs and units have become so fashionable in the public...
 
We would like to introduce a new section on Canadian Government...
 
In this episode, J. Richard Jones, publisher of Canadian Government Executive...
 
The January/February 2018 issue of Canadian Government Executive is on the...
 
You could hear the oxygen leave the room after I asked...
 
‘Elephant in the room’ is a metaphorical idiom for an obvious...
 
Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day – an annual initiative that...
 
Canadian Government Executive is honoured to have Michael Wernick, Clerk of...
 
It’s that time of year when some of us think reluctantly...
 
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This quote from management specialist Peter...
 
Professional development is tremendously important to members of Canada’s public sector....
 
Public servants are responsible for providing advice and support to the...
 
The International Civil Service Effectiveness (InCiSE) Index project, a collaboration between...
 
Today, the challenges facing governments are increasingly shifting away from traditional,...
 
Rankings of public sector entities has been big trend for quite...
 
Have you ever met a virtual human being? By common definition,...
 
In today’s workplace, individuals increasingly face dynamic and difficult challenges that...
 
In a rather unusual, quiet manner this past summer, a new...
 
We are happy to share with you the September 2017 issue...
 
We are pleased to provide you with an opportunity to help...
 
Innovation is vital in every sector; public service is no exception....
 
In this episode of CGE Radio, George Ross, Editor-in-Chief of CGE...
 
For over 20 years, Canadian Government Executive (CGE) has been a...
 
In this episode, Editor-in-Chief of CGE, George Ross talks with Sir...
 
How does a mandate for innovation challenge evaluation? Increasingly, the public...
 
The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA Alliance) is Canada’s One Voice...
 
Currently, there are ten organizations at the federal level that function...
 
Risk is always present in any undertaking, no matter the size...
 
In 2015, the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED)...
 
The critical challenge facing the public service is changing its culture....
 
What we do in life echoes in eternity (GLADIATOR (2000) An...
 
In this issue of Canadian Government Executive, our lead story is...
 
For all its subtleties and mysteries, the Westminster system of government...
 
Several factors are driving an increased interest in horizontal assurance in...
 
The bootleg fentanyl overdose crisis that is sweeping across Western provinces...
 
Terrorism operates with deadly regularity. In June 2016, a gunman who...
 
It’s a common notion that young workers born in the mid-1990s...
 
According to the latest Viewpoint report issued by the Montreal Economic Institute, Quebec’s...
 
The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) has released new research...
 
The association representing more than 42,000 physicians and medical students in...
 
Yesterday, arbitrator Michel G. Picher accepted Canada Post’s proposal during final...
 
Contrary to the stereotype of eagerness and politesse, the second Bold...
 
Between the streetcars, buses and subways that interconnect across the city...
 
After writing the book “Megatrends: The Impact of Infrastructure on Ontario’s...
 
Over the past forty years, ministers have grown remarkably more media-sensitive...
 
Though many of Canada’s immigrants have above-average education, they often find...
 
Governments around the world are seeking to tap technologies such as...
 
The fact that Shared Services Canada (SSC) has struggled mightily under...
 
The union representing Canadian postal workers has rejected a proposal from...
 
The possibility of mail delivery disruption on Friday this week loomed...
 
The Senate committee looking into Canada’s Syrian refugee program wants the...
 
Computer software company Adobe, has migrated more than 11 million pages...
 
As a consultant, I work primarily with private sector organizations including...
 
The recent retirement of seven federal deputy ministers (DMs) reminds us...
 
On June 7, over 40 senior executives from within the public...
 
All’s fair in love and war JOHN LILY (1578): EUPHUES: THE...
 
Whether it is convincing companies to build R&D centres, factories, or...
 
The fact that Shared Services Canada (SSC) has struggled mightily under...
 
As much a 20 per cent of grade seven students in...
 
The actions and decisions of public servants have consequences for the...
 
Public sector design thinking has evolved from obscurity to something of...
 
The procurement group within the Government of Canada is undergoing a...
 
People caught a glimpse of the work of partisan advisers in...
 
Veterans Affairs Canada is not adequately managing the drug component of...
 
The Trudeau government is now six months into its mandate and...
 
Some public servants will have to request their departments for emergency...
 
It almost goes without saying that good governance requires fair and...
 
One of the most important powers at the disposal of Canadian...
 
Two years ago, Bixi, a not-for-profit, para-municipal bicycle-share firm of the...
 
Following the various mandate letters from the Trudeau Administration, the Minister...
 
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC) yesterday heard from several...
 
Years and years ago when I was unemployed, being able to...
 
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) today begins a public...
 
In dealing with the impact on the sharing economy on transportation,...
 
Professors are obliged to set regular weekly office hours, something most...
 
Things just get curiouser and curiouser. Lewis Carroll (1865): ’s Adventures...
 
As Toronto’s city staff prepares top release proposed regulations for taxis...
 
The Prime Minister is now well into the consolidation phase of...
 
It is no secret that evaluation reports in the federal public...
 
  The pressure is always on to make government services to...
 
The Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Lab is...
 
Eight years ago, the always prolific University of Chicago Law School...
 
Canadians expect their public services to be delivered in a way...
 
The Liberal government is expected to announce on Tuesday a new...
 
The Trudeau Liberal platform of instituting “delivery” capabilities has garnered considerable...
 
Shared Services Canada appears to be in trouble again – this...
 
Growing public expectations on the speed at which they can received...
 
Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health is poised to hold a news...
 
A while back there have been numerous media reports about the...
 
Monday was the final day for Canadians to donate money to...
 
Prime Minister Trudeau is off on one of the most intense...
 
A number of studies of Canadian federal and provincial government policy...
 
That the new Liberal Government has embraced ‘open government’ is hardly...
 
Meet Bob Heart.  He is an outstanding employee who works hard...
 
There is no shortage of examples of businesses that effectively used...
 
This year is the “International Year of Evaluation”, an area that...
 
By Craig Killough In March of this year, the Prime Minister’s Advisory...
 
Written By Jason McNaught The Public Service Alliance of Canada was...
 
Written by Jason McNaught Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page doesn’t...
 
Public servants deliver the government’s agenda and serve Canadians in policy,...
 
As with any other industry, technology plays a vital role within...
 
In 1990, the Institute of Public Administration of Canada published The...
 
Our jobs can define us, and this can be dangerous. I...
 
The Veterans Ombudsman’s office is accepting nominations for the Veterans Ombudsman’s...
 
“I wasn’t really nervous until he hooked up the wires,” said...
 
CGE columnist David Zussman, Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in...
 
The public service is a funny beast. We have so many...
 
The health of our public service executive cadre should matter not...
 
The government of Saskatchewan gave the Premier’s Award for Excellence in...
 
Since the Clerk’s Blueprint 2020 launch in June, departments have been working full...
 
What’s the purpose of jargon? Jargon that is incomprehensible to the...
 
The official travel card suppliers for federal employees of the government...
 
Anxiety, fatigue, and exhaustion in a leader can burnout the team....
 
Passing on shared knowledge and letting new leaders emerge are ways...
 
When the public face of an organization or a well-known leader...
 
HR has a poor reputation for innovation. After all, risk might...
 
What do you do if you’re a leader in a large...
 
School bullying has been an issue in the news, and it’s...
 
The simple basics of brainstorming are forgotten far too often, and...
 
Motivation can be linked to the following job characteristics: skill variety,...
 
Taken every three years, this is the latest feedback on what...
 
What matters most to managers?High productivity? Efficiency and organization? How about...
 
It remains perennially important to distinguish between what makes a great...
 
A public relations mishap can be turned into positive attention, as...
 
James Kendrick’s January article The Right Leadership got me thinking about...
 
With innovation, the question is not just how, but who? Who...
 
In October, the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service...
 
Last spring, the Mental Health Commission of Canada launched the country’s...
 
The best of the Editor’s Choice articles...
 
In the Nineteenth Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the...
 
Air travel can be stressful and harmful. While the destination may...
 
They told us that technology would usher in the ‘era of...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.3 March 2007 I am writing this from my...
 
Whether it’s travel, improving your golf swing or finally tackling the...
 
Quote of the week “Unless a public sector executive knows a...
 
Is retirement on your horizon? Do you plan to finish with...
 
Mental health matters. No one knows this better than Sylvie Giasson....
Welcome to the fall edition of CGE. Since our last issue,...