A public servant’s guide to new governments – Canadian Government Executive

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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.

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