One of the most challenging debates today among Westminster experts is the degree to which political advisors (known as exempt staff in Canada and “spads” in the U.K.) have undermined the traditional model where ministers are accountable for activities in their departments and the public service provides “fearless advice and loyal implementation.”
This longstanding model where the political advisor is a facilitator between the minister and the public service is in the process of being radically changed in Westminster countries. The shift to a more activist and expert role has been progressing apace for more than 40 years, as ministers’ offices have grown more professional and proactive in supporting the work of their ministers and the governments that they serve.
Since Stephen Harper was first elected in 2006, there has been much animosity directed to the current crop of political advisors in his government by the media, Members of Parliament, and public management experts. There are a number of reasons that may explain this antipathy. First, many of his staff were deeply suspicions about the loyalty of the public service when they first arrived and were reluctant to accept the validity of a non-partisan federal public service.
Second, fearing that their minority government might be defeated at any point, many exempt staffers were not interested in building a trusting relationship with the public service. Finally, the Federal Accountability Act included post-employment limitations that discouraged some of the potentially most talented from joining the new government.
These factors created a toxic amalgam of inexperienced and hyper-partisan advisors in many ministers’ offices and in the prime minister’s office.
Embattled Senator Mike Duffy captured the sentiment of many Senators and Conservative Members of Parliament towards PMO staffers when in defending himself against allegations, he said, “[the] Senate is about sober second thought, not taking dictation from kids in short pants down the hall.”
John Ivison of the National Post rephrased this theme when he noted: “there is a widespread feeling on the backbenches that they have been taken for granted. A number say they are fed up being told what to do by ‘kids in short pants’ young enough to receive their briefing notes in phonics.”
Even Keith Beardsley, former PMO deputy chief of staff to Stephen Harper, chimed into the conversation in 2012 when he argued that, “many MPs find it impossible to have a dialogue with these individuals, let alone a political discussion, because there is too often a lack of understanding of the political consequences involved.”
Sorting out the appropriate role of exempt staff in Canada clearly needs to be addressed given the general sentiment about their excessive influence over the day-to-day operations of government. However, there are a number of important contextual issues to consider in light of these recent developments. First, political staffs have been important in Canada since the Pearson years. As a general rule, they provide invaluable policy and political advice to their ministers that cannot be provided by the non-partisan and neutral public service.
Second, the prime minister’s office has grown in size and importance since the Trudeau years as the job of PM became more international and complex, requiring a more sophisticated coordination of many different ministries and organizations. Third, increasingly political parties arrive in Ottawa after elections with a fixed policy agenda, meaning that the public service operates more as implementers and less as policy advisors. Finally, our recent five-year history with minority governments demonstrates that they are always thinking about elections and consequently ministers’ offices are likely to be operating in a pre-election mode, with a premium placed on partisanship.
There are no standard job descriptions for ministerial staff. As a result, the actual ranges of assigned responsibilities are largely ad hoc and vary considerably from one ministry to another. Also, there is no way to know if exempt staff are exceeding their authority other than through the intervention of the deputy minister, which is high-risk behaviour for a public servant. Moreover, the HR regime regarding recruitment, responsibilities, performance evaluation and compensation is situational, discretionary and arbitrary.
In anticipation of a federal election in 2015, this might be a good time to give some consideration to addressing the deficiencies in the “boys in short pants” model that characterizes the current situation.
Experiences have shown that a relationship between the public service and exempt staff works best when there is a shared understanding of roles, mutual respect, and trust. As a consequence, there is a need to develop a more systematic way of hiring staff, including a series of protocols that will increase the quality of the interactions between exempt staff and the public service.