Off and Running - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
April 21, 2014

Off and Running

Off and Running
David Zussman
IPAC/University of Toronto Press, 299 pages, $29.95

 

Elections can bring a change of government. They certainly bring a change in the face of government, as some ministers lose their re-election bid and others are shuffled by the returning prime minister. The scent of an election in which the governing party fears defeat can also trigger a leadership race, with a new prime minister and retooled cabinet to appeal to disgruntled voters.

In all three cases, the political parties involved and senior government executives must be prepared for the transition in power. Governing is complicated and many, if not most, politicians are not adequately trained for overseeing the administration; without preparation, it can go terribly wrong. “Transitions need to be well planned and coordinated in the political and public service side in order to set the stage for the successful launch of a newly elected government,” David Zussman, a professor of public sector management at the University of Ottawa and columnist for this magazine, who guided the transitions for Jean Chretien, writes in Off and Running.

The most dramatic transition occurs when an election throws out one party and opens the doors to power to an opposition party. But Zussman says in some respects the transition following the re-election of a party is the more difficult transition. “A new prime minister can build the government from scratch – a blank slate can be intimidating, but the opportunities are endless. However, the re-election victory endorses the performance of the government of the day, which makes it difficult to justify making significant changes,” he notes.

Usually the government has campaigned on a “stay the course” approach. The voters have assented. The prime minister might feel his hands tied, and is undoubtedly exhausted from the campaign craving a break, but Zussman believes this is arguably the best time to make key changes in personnel and portfolios at one time. “After an election, the caucus, the media and the public expect changes, so it is a missed opportunity to stand pat with the current line-up of ministers without having prepared for this opportunity,” he warns.

That being said, he found transitions of power within a party have been the most complex to lead. The party is usually bitterly divided, with emotions – and fears – high. Diligent ministers can find themselves on the backbenches overnight. And the new prime minister has to make a break from the past while maintaining a sense of continuity if he or she is to retain power, as Paul Martin and Kim Campbell learned firsthand.

For Campbell, the public service proved invaluable as she tried to distinguish herself from Brian Mulroney. The leader of her transition team, Jodi White, told the author: “We were looking for some thoughts on things a new prime minister can do that aren’t a total denial of the last government and what it was doing. I’m pretty sure it was the public service using the DeCotret Report that came forward with proposals that contained many good machinery changes. Reorganization of the machinery of government is a place to go that doesn’t repudiate the past policies during an intraparty transition, while still demonstrating a commitment to doing politics differently.” (Not that Campbell won the next election, of course.)

Zussman identifies four phases in the transition process. In the first, a varying number of months before an election, the party leader establishes a transition team to plan for what may lie ahead. This preparatory phase is matched in the public service when the secretary of cabinet, assessing the leadership situation in the various parties, also will decide to begin transition thinking. “The secretary, as a neutral player, has a responsibility and loyalty to the government of the day, but also must prepare for a transition, should a change of leadership or re-election occur. The clerk, at this point, will retain responsibility for transition planning almost at a personal level. The duty to serve the government of the day remains paramount, and the involvement of other public servants in the preparatory phase is generally limited to a few senior leaders who support and advise the clerk,” he notes.

That planning phase can begin as early as a year before the election and carries on until the writ is dropped. The second phase covers the period until Election Day. If the political party’s transition team had done its work, not much more will happen during this period. “The transition team, distinct from the campaign team, remains behind the scenes, closely monitors changing realities, and continues to move through the necessary activities that will ensure a smooth transition of power,” he says.

Meanwhile, the public service is moving into high gear with its own transition preparations while the politicians are out of Ottawa on the hustings. A team is appointed to head the effort, appointed by the clerk, and each deputy minister oversees a transition exercise in his or her jurisdiction. Government executives prepare for all eventualities, not just the pundits’ expected scenario. Election platforms and promises are monitored and the implication for existing operations considered since the public service will have to deal with those ideas post-election.

After the vote, a new minister might be appointed to head the ministry, with an unknown amount of experience. Sometimes it’s very little. Indeed, former clerk Kevin Lynch told Zussman “the transition process is now more complex than in previous years since there are currently fewer experienced politicians being elected.”

Sometime during the end of the planning phase or the beginning of this election phase the clerk, with the permission of the prime minister, will meet with the transition teams of the opposition parties that in the clerk’s estimation could form a government. “Should an opposition party eventually win the election, this single meeting can set the tone for the entire transition exercise and the first months of operations of the government,” Zussman says.

The third, post-election phase covers 10 days to two weeks, that hectic period between the ballot and swearing-in ceremony. The politicians will be exhausted, but they must face up to the task and be seen by voters as up to the task. The prime focus will be constructing the new cabinet, but as well, if power has changed, the office of the prime minister is being patched together and some critical governor-in-council appointments issued. “First meetings are now underway between the clerk, the prime minister-elect, and their respective teams. The deputy minister community is also making last-minute adjustments to briefing books based on the outcomes of the election and are eagerly awaiting the announcement of ministerial portfolios,” he writes.

The final phase begins after the swearing-in ceremony and first cabinet meeting. Over the early days of the new administration the government will be consolidating its hold on power. That involves monitoring the implementation of the transition plan and adjusting to the realities of governing. “If the newly-elected party has been in opposition for a long time, it knows little about governing and the key players across the political and public service spectrum have had almost no interactions with each other. The learning curve is steep,” he says.

Interestingly, politicians in the early phases are usually coy about their transition planning. They don’t want to be seen as arrogant or taking the voters for granted. The result is a secretive process at their end, matched, or course, by the civil service need to be discreet. But in the event of a change of government (or leadership within a party) there is an all-too-brief time to prepare for governing, and so a vital factor is the thoroughness of transition planning and experience of the new leaders.

Zussman has pierced this secrecy, talking to the major players in the past few decades, and the result is an academic work that will be prized as a practical guide by both politicians and government executives.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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