One of the most important developments in public administration and governance over the past 30 years has been the ascendancy of political advisors, referred to as exempt staff, to positions of influence in the decision-making apparatus of government. The changing role of advisors is attributable to the relationship that prime ministers want to establish with the public service after an election.
For example, in 1984, Brian Mulroney created the position of chief of staff to increase the influence of ministerial staff to provide a counterweight to the public service. In 1993, Jean Chretien eliminated the chief of staff positions, appointed experienced administrators into ministers’ offices, dramatically downsized ministerial offices and directed his own staff and the exempt staff in ministers’ offices to work collaboratively with the public service in order to provide for two streams of advice.
The roles of exempt staff changed again in 2006 after the arrival of the newly merged Conservative party, which suspected that the public service harboured liberal values. As a consequence, they committed to rebalancing the influence of the public service, particularly in policymaking, by demanding that it be more responsive to the government’s needs.
While the profile of exempt staff clearly changes as a function of the government’s desires, there is clear evidence that the role of political advisors has dramatically increased in OECD countries as governments have become more ideological. The similarities of this development suggest that a more fundamental change in the governance structure of many countries is occurring under the umbrella of an increase in emphasis on government service and performance.
In Canada’s Westminster system of government, the addition of political advisors to the decision-making process signals a fundamental restructuring of how government works. Under the emerging regime responsibilities are shifting away from the public service that once held a monopoly over policy advice and program delivery. To add a further layer of complexity, the policy arena has also broadened and is now populated by think tanks and other independent organizations whose attention is now directed at political advisors who are becoming the nexus of policy debates and decisions.
According to a recently published OECD report on political advisors, this trend is taking place in most OECD member countries in order to facilitate the implementation of a government’s policy agenda and to increase the responsiveness of the public service. Given the growing importance of political advisors in the decision-making process, the OECD and others are beginning to raise serious questions given that advisors are usually exempted from any formal competitive processes when they are hired and their selection is contingent on a partisan attachment to the government in power.
In Canada, there is a clear division between exempt staff and public servants. All public servants support their ministers through the deputy ministers in a well established and understood reporting regime. The exempt staff are hired by ministers and report directly to them, although there is frequent interaction between the public service and exempt staff. Exempt staff can ask the public service for information and are expected to inform the public service of decisions taken by the minister whenever appropriate, but exempt staff cannot direct the public service. These working “rules” are supposed to be monitored by ministers and deputy ministers and, when problems arise, they are expected to resolve them.
Despite these conventions there are a number of problems that undermine the confidence citizens can have in this arrangement. First, there is no control on the quality of exempt staff since job candidates do not go through a competitive selection process. Second, exempt staff are not formally accountable for their actions since they are not recognized within any formal reporting system in government. And, third, there is no framework or written rules about their roles and responsibilities, especially in terms of their relations with their minister, deputy minister and the public service at large.
Given that the current role of exempt staff is likely to be a permanent one, there are two issues that the centre of government should address. First, there needs to be a publicly available description of the political jobs, with the standard description of roles, responsibilities, reporting arrangements, job criteria and compensation. Second, the government also needs to make the accountability framework explicit and public so that the boundaries of political advisor roles are known to all those who interact with them.
In this way, Canadians can be reassured that there will be better alignment in terms of the responsibilities and accountabilities of all decision makers.
David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management and is director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa (firstname.lastname@example.org).