The Trudeau government is now six months into its mandate and has looked very decisive and competent in dealing with many election promises such as refugee resettlement, climate change, Senate reform and doctor-assisted suicide.
One major reason the government has so successfully moved its policy agenda forward is the result of good working relations that have been established between the government and the public service. All new governments learn early in their mandate that their success is to a large degree dependent on the relationship that they develop with the permanent public service—and it is clear the Trudeau government learned a lesson from the failure of the Harper to work with public servants by addressing the issue early in its mandate.
Due to the asymmetrical power relationship along the administrative–political interface there is often some tension between newly appointed political advisors and public servants especially for newly elected governments during their early days in power. Typically, on one side of the interface, the public service anticipates the prospect of working for a newly elected government, while on the other side, the political staff who populate the highly prized jobs in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and Ministers offices are often too inexperienced or too partisan to appreciate the pivotal role they will play in the success of the government’s policy agenda.
The role of the political advisors (known as exempt staff in Canada because they are exempt from the merit based hiring rules that apply to public servants) has received increased attention over the past 20 years as exempt staff have become more important in helping governments implement their policy agenda. The asymmetry in the relationship became most apparent in the last years of the Harper government when the PMO appeared to be directing ministers and public servants. In 2012, this tense state of affairs was best captured by Senator Mike Duffy who referred contemptuously to the exempt staff as “boys in short pants” because he viewed them as inexperienced youngsters who blindly followed the direction of Prime Minister Harper’s PMO.
Since that low point, the Privy Council Office took some measures to regularize the role of exempt staff within the Ministry. As a starting point exempt staff are hired into the Prime Minister’s Office or in one of 30 Ministers offices to support the work of the government of the day. In general, their work is to provide political input on policy decisions, and ‘to facilitate the work of the public servants by conveying their minister’s views to the public service’.
In fact, the continuing importance of exempt staff as key players within the Ministry has led the government to publish updated guidelines about the role of Ministers and their staff. Accordingly, Open and Accountable Government 2015 provides a very detailed explanation of how the Trudeau government views exempt staff within our Cabinet system of government.
Their expectations are very clearly anchored on developing a strong working relationship with public servants. The document explicitly defines the nature of the power relationship between the two groups when it states that ‘exempt staff can ask departmental officials for information, transmit the Minister’s instructions, or be informed of decisions in order to address communications and strategic issues’. However, they explicitly have no role in departmental operations and no legal basis for exercising the delegated authority of Ministers. Most important, it is now very clear that exempt staff cannot give direction to departmental officials on the discharge of their responsibilities, or on any issue related to the management of departmental resources or operational matters.
The Prime Minister further elaborates on this when he reinforces the value of the relationship by stating that “good working relations between the Minister’s office and the department, characterized by mutual respect, cooperation, and the sharing of information … are essential in assisting the Minister and deputy minister in managing departmental work.”
Thus far, one major success factor of the Trudeau government has been its ability to establish trusting and collaborative working relations between Ministers and their staff with the senior mandarins. For this, credit must be given to the prime minister, his senior staff in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), his transition team led by Senator Peter Harder, and the leadership in the Privy Council Office provided by Janice Charette and Michael Wernick.
The Prime Minister has set clear guidelines and the quality of the exempt staff reflects a high degree of commitment to professional and experienced staff. Given the government’s appetite for rethinking the role of its major institutions, such as the Senate and electoral reform, this may be a good time to further professionalize the appointment and accountability of exempt staff by, first, developing a more formal appointment process that clarifies who is actually doing the hiring and for what purpose and, second, by introducing a mandatory training program for exempt staff that would explicitly define their roles.
David Zussman is a Senior Fellow in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and is Research Advisor to the Public Sector Practice of Deloitte.