An element of democracy that people unaccustomed to freedom regard with awe is the peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to the next. Managing that transition is the highest calling of the public service.
On September 22, 2014, the New Brunswick Liberal Party defeated the incumbent Progressive Conservatives. The Clerk of the Executive Council Office (ECO) of the Government of New Brunswick, Marc Léger, and his team seized this special moment in history with leadership, achieving unprecedentedly quick and effective results that facilitated the new government’s ability to hit the ground running.
Léger became Clerk in February 2014 and immediately initiated discussions with ECO colleagues including Deputy Clerk Judy Wagner and Director of Operations Sabrina Noble, who had been collecting best practices since the previous transition. Wagner notes, “We wanted to make transition more of a priority, building on previous efforts in the spirit of continuous improvement.” She had consulted other jurisdictions “for best practices on the caretaker government period and the transition.”
ECO decided on a new approach with products that didn’t yet exist in New Brunswick. Léger had read David Zussman’s transition “Bible,” Off and Running: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Government Transitions in Canada. Nova Scotia Clerk David Darrow, who had recently led the civil service side of their transition, offered invaluable advice on what seemed to Léger a daunting task: “The greatest complexity, the highest stakes and impact, of anything I had ever undertaken.”
The ECO team based their approach on the formal management system, the NB civil service’s way of doing business, with the usual markers (strategy maps, continuous improvement, client service). “The Premier and the ministers are the clients,” says Wagner. “What did they need to get up and running as quickly as possible? In turn, our goal was to give direction back to the departments so they could start work on the mandate ASAP.”
As the juggernaut gathered speed toward election day, September 22, Léger and Wagner worked same-page-different-roles, she the creator of the new products, while he concentrated on engagement and building trust with key stakeholders. In times of uncertainty, trust becomes the coin of the realm. A group that ECO included early on were deputy ministers (DMs). Edith Doucet (DM, Social Development/Healthy and Inclusive Communities): “It was refreshing to see the openness. Marc and Judy sought our input, so there was buy-in for what they were doing.” Robert Rioux (DM, Tourism, Heritage and Culture) agrees: “Communication is key. Keeping deputies apprised and engaged is crucial to success, and they did that.”
Seeing only five DMs who had been through the experience before, ECO completely revised the DM handbooks as roadmaps of how one manages as a deputy. DMs were brought together in meetings and retreats. They were treated and trusted as the key conduits they are in the everyday running of the business called government.
Zussman writes of the lack of high-quality training for elected officials and their teams, so ECO created a ministerial orientation program, plus mandate letters and complementary templates for the DMs’ and the ministers’ handbooks (flexible, but standard across departments).
Jean-Marc Dupuis (DM Finance/Transportation and Infrastructure): “We were able to build a briefing book that would be concise and straightforward, yet also provide multiple learning options based on individual preferences – charts and graphs for visual people, short narratives for those who like more detail. Until a minister comes in you don’t know his or her preferences, therefore you have to be prepared to hit the ground running.” Doucet adds: “The fact that the minister’s book was in the same line as the DM’s permitted us to start on the same page with a new minister.” Rioux agrees: “We were able to begin the conversation on the roles and responsibilities. Being so early in the game, the minister and I needed to chat to figure out how we were going to make this work.”
The Clerk sent out over 25 memos on specific directives, from the logistical (returning vehicles and credit cards) to the critical – retention and disposal of records, disclosure of potential conflicts, the swearing-in ceremony itself.
That some of these items look back when the whole world is looking forward brings one to perhaps the most delicate aspect of a transition. “It is not just about those coming in, it is about respect and efficiency for those who are leaving,” said Léger. “I met the outgoing Chief of Staff almost every day. We did an agenda for a last Cabinet meeting just as we planned for a first.”
Of course, planning was taking place in parallel, pre-election, on the other side of the table; Len Hoyt of McInnes Cooper led the party transition team. On September 23, the day after the election, they met with Léger and the two sides of the coin were brought together. Hoyt noted that: “From the first day there was a very good relationship – and I met with Marc once or twice a day for those two weeks till the swearing-in. ECO had gone into as much detail as Zussman had suggested the federal public service would have done, which is quite impressive. Judy provided an excellent roadmap with 60 or 70 checkpoints for those first two-three weeks – all in four pages! It complemented our own planning and helped focus the discussions.” Léger: “It was a huge plus that the Transition Team came in so well-prepared in their planning.”
In a parallel stream, ECO Strategy Management led a DM session on a change agenda by economic, social, and fiscal theme to arrive at a clear and common understanding of what civil service leadership saw as opportunities to improve the province. Wagner’s team, meanwhile, parsed the platforms of all the parties in a very deep dive, sending work out to departments and coming back with a methodical presentation of how every promise could be turned into action. When the new government came in, all these elements and those created by the political team were brought together. Because of the intensive prep work, the union of the various parts was almost seamless.
Productivity/speed: Rioux – “ECO’s approach to the transition created a productive, cohesive environment, very quickly – and not confrontational.”
Continuity: Rioux – “ECO was very strategic in putting a framework together so people could ensure the continuity of the work that needed to be done, while in preparation for a new government.”
Openness/engagement: Doucet – “How I felt this time because of the Clerk’s approach was more of a participant in the transition than an observer. That was the best thing, the transparency and involving DMs where they could be involved.”
Collaboration: Hoyt – “You’ve got to, to some degree, re-engineer an entire $8 billion enterprise that you have varying levels of knowledge of, within two weeks, and that’s pretty daunting – you could really mess it up. But the civil service were well-prepared to work with us, and with that level of co-operation plus our planning, we met all our objectives for those early weeks. I give Marc and his team full credit.”
Clear direction: Léger – “I have never seen such clarity at such an early stage in terms of direction from government. We had created a civil service mechanism that the government used to very quickly articulate their strategy. Within weeks of the new government, the Premier’s office and deputy ministers discussed a draft one-page strategy map for the mandate.”
Hoyt adds, “That’s the Premier. He wants clarity – concise briefings that boil down to the real issues.”
Léger: “In a collective effort between the civil service and the incoming government, we’ve pulled it off: we have, within weeks, a first-year plan!”
For a review of David Zussman’s book or an interview with him about the themes of the book, see https://canadiangovernmentexecutive.cacomponent/k2/item/1538-off-and-running.html and https://canadiangovernmentexecutive.capublic-servants/item/1537-a-public-servants-guide-to-new-governments.html
Documents and Activities to Prep
• DM peer mentoring
• DM and ministers’ handbooks
• Logistics memos
• Platform analysis
• Challenges/change agenda
• Roadmap (election to swearing-In)
• Mandate letters
• Strategy map template (one page)
• Orientation sessions for ministers
- Document process well for the next person. You might get to do this only once.
- Have a liaison to the Transition Team on your staff.
- Get deputy ministers engaged, early.
- Get staff engaged, early.
- Ensure info to ministers is succinct.
- Consult senior people who have been there.
- Give unbiased advice. Of course you always intend to, but you may have served the same group for 4-8 years; consciously shift your mindset.