One of the most important powers at the disposal of Canadian prime ministers is their ability to appoint individuals to public organizations or advisory committees. While most people know about the role prime ministers play in appointing their cabinet or senators, it is not generally known that prime ministers, often in concert with the relevant ministers also play a significant role in recommending an array of people to a wide range of organizations. As a consequence, over the course of a four-year mandate, a prime minister could potentially be involved in more than 3,000 full and part-time appointments.
This prerogative includes the appointment of CEOs and members of boards of directors to large public organizations such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or Export Development Canada as well as part-time appointments for small advisory groups. In addition, the prime minister proposes the appointment of all Supreme and Federal Court judges, all ambassadors and heads of missions abroad, and all deputy ministers.
Canada has rightfully earned an international reputation for good public management and robust accountability systems but one area where we have lagged behind other comparator countries is the way in which the federal government appoints public office holders.
Since being sworn in as Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau has aggressively followed up on many of his election promises, including his commitment to modernize the current appointment process. The issue was given particular prominence during the election when it was discovered that, in the last months of the Conservative government, Prime Minister Harper had appointed 33 people whose terms would extend well beyond the mandate of his government.
In the mandate letter that the Prime Minister sent to his newly elected Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, her “overarching goal will be to strengthen the openness and fairness of Canada’s public institutions.” She was also directed to play a major role in fulfilling the government’s commitment to transparent, merit-based appointments.
In February the new government gave further indications where they are heading with their reform package when they issued a statement that reemphasized how the new appointment system, in contrast to earlier ones, would be based on ‘an open, transparent and merit-based selection process’, meet gender and diversity guidelines, and introduce a rigorous selection process that compares applicants’ skills to the requirements of the job.
This is a very encouraging start and, given that Canada is more than 20 years behind comparator nations, this gives policy makers the opportunity to give full consideration to their best practices. For example, the British government created a Centre for Public Appointments in 1995 after many concerns were raised in Parliament and the media about the conduct and standards of those in public life. As a result, sweeping changes were introduced that were anchored around this new Centre which promotes public appointments, identifies potential public office holders and manages a selection process that gives Ministers or the prime minister an opportunity to meet the most qualified candidates prior to making a final decision.
In Australia, the federal government created a similar body. AusGovBoard has a more limited function than its British counterpart in the sense that it is primarily concerned with public agencies. Nonetheless, AusGovBoard is an online information source for more than 400 government boards that provides information to potential appointees on board descriptions, current vacancies, appointment terms and expiry dates.
In Canada, the government of Ontario has created the Public Appointments Secretariat where ‘all Ontarians have an up-to-date and accurate picture of the vacancies and the timetable for filling them. As in the case of the UK and Australia, the Secretariat is also designed ‘to ensure that these agencies are made up of members who are qualified to do the job’ and who are representative of all segments of Ontario society.
Currently the federal government is looking at options to make the system more transparent and representative of Canada’s diversity, and allow for more meritorious appointments. Since early March, as an interim measure, the PCO has mounted a website (www.appointments-nominations.gc.ca) for potential board members to register their interest in serving on a commission, board, Crown corporation, agency or tribunal. In order to give full effect to their efforts, the prime minister has also pledged to limit appointments to those that are essential and, in those circumstances, only for a one-year mandate to ensure that appointments will fall under the new regime.
The opportunity to align Canada’s governance structure with its principles is at hand. The government has already addressed some of the issues around Senate and electoral reform and its refashioning of the appointment process will be another building block in strengthening of Canada’s democratic institutions.
The federal government should be congratulated for making the reform of the appointment process a priority among a long list of many other worthy and competing ones. However, this opportunity must not be squandered in its haste to check off another election promise before moving on to the next one. Instead, now is the time to pause long enough to learn from those countries that have recently reformed their appointment processes in order to take advantage of best practices.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org