The recent retirement of seven federal deputy ministers (DMs) reminds us of the pivotal and crucial role that the deputy minister community plays in the success of governments—particularly a newly elected one. Looking beyond the retirement numbers reveals a concerted effort by the current Prime Minister to renew the DM community by making an unprecedented number of deputy minister-level appointments since his swearing in on November 4th. Up until now, he has appointed twenty new deputy ministers which represents a very significant shuffling of the 73 designated DMs who, in Ottawa, also include associate deputy ministers and senior central agency officers in the Privy Council Office and the Treasury Board Secretariat.

The prime minister understood early in his mandate that to implement his ambitious election platform he and his Ministers would need a very energetic and knowledgeable deputy minister cadre supporting their efforts. He resisted calls from some of his advisors to bring in “new blood” from the provinces and the private sector and instead, aside from two instances, he maintained the longstanding federal tradition of appointing from among his current cadre of senior public servants. In each of the nine press releases since the government’s swearing in, the PM has sent a very important signal that he trusts the public service despite its having loyally served another government for almost a decade.

The most unanticipated appointment was that of Michael Wernick who was tapped to replace Janice Charette as Cabinet Secretary (Clerk of of the Privy Council Office). While it was largely expected that the PM would, at some point, follow convention with his own appointment to this crucial position, the timing before the first post-election DM retreat, caught most observers off guard. However, his choice of Michael Wernick to replace Charette was seen as consistent with Canadian tradition since he was an experienced DM. Wernick was serving as Deputy Clerk of the Privy Council and was one of the most central players during the transition from the Harper to Trudeau government.

Deputies are unique public servants in the Canadian system. In the first instance, they are appointed by the prime minister (or premier) to serve the government of the day and to perform assigned duties. As well, they are legally bound to be accountable to Parliament for the actions and activities that take place under their areas of responsibility. Given the nature of this unique working arrangement, they belong to a community that identifies with one another for support and with the government in their willingness to serve. By convention, they are non-partisan, politically sensitive and responsive to their political masters. This is a complex set of expectations and they all struggle, at one time, to find the right balance in establishing a personal relationship with their political masters and at the same time providing “fearless” and independent advice.

Additionally, DMs work in an increasingly complex policy environment due to more transparency and greater globalization of issues where their accountability due to the 2006 Federal Accountability Act (FAA) plays out in parliamentary committees, in the public domain with the increasing array of oversight bodies which are monitoring their behaviour, and in increased scrutiny from public and industry interest groups.

The ten years of Harper government were not easy on the DM community because of many areas of distrust and conflict between the prime minister’s staff and the senior public service. Even though the current government has pledged to return to a more traditional relationship between the government and public servants there is much rebuilding work to be done to overcome the poisoned working environment that existed in many departmental offices within the federal bureaucracy.

The current renewal efforts by the prime minister accompanied by high turnover rates at the deputy minister level, the increased complexity of the DM job and the lingering effects of the disillusioned senior public service offers an opportunity to take a measured look at the evolving role of the DM community. In fact, here has been very little attention paid, in recent years, to ways in which deputies lead and manage their departments aside from the changes in accountability regimes contained in the FAA. Interestingly, the last systematic evaluation of the deputy minister community was done almost 30 years ago, in 1988, when former Cabinet Secretary Gordon Osbaldeston provided a forward looking report on the evolving nature of governance and accountability within the senior public service.

As a starting point, some areas that would benefit from a systematic assessment would be the selection and recruitment process for Deputy Ministers, a repositioning of the accounting officer model, a consideration of core management and policy competencies for “digital” government, and an imaginative rethinking of ways in which deputy ministers will relate to employees in a modern government department.

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.