New generation of DMs top-notch managers, but lack policy development expertise: Mitchell | hilltimes.com

Interesting debate between David Mitchell, President of the Public Policy Forum, and Donald Savoie, of Université de Moncton, on the policy skills of the current crop of deputies, and whether the emphasis is on policy development or management skills.

I think context matters. While deputies generally have a rounded skill and competency set, there is less appetite for longer-term policy development under the current government than previous governments, as the Conservative government has its own strong policy agenda and the public service has focused more on short-term program policy in implementing that agenda.

It is the more open-ended and longer-term policy development that has been weakened, and my understanding is that policy capacity  in a number of departments has been cut back through successive rounds of expenditure reductions. Not to say there was not capacity to be trimmed, or that this does not reflect legitimate political and bureaucratic decisions. We need to start by acknowledging the changes and likely longer-term impact of the capacity of the public service.

Savoie’s comments strike me as ignoring the current context. Just as he has argued against parliamentary officers at a time when Parliament is not performing its job of scrutinizing government spending (Do we need a PBO?), he does not acknowledge the degree to which policy advice and direction comes more from the political level. In addition, he does not acknowledge the degree to which official-level advice has been discounted or ignored, or limited to program policy and implementation issues.

Given the paywall, full text below:

The newer generation of federal deputy ministers have top-notch management skills, but lack sufficient expertise in policy development which could prove to be detrimental for the current and future governments in dealing with unforeseen crises situations such as terrorism, climate change, or military conflicts, says David Mitchell, president of the Public Policy Forum, one of the country’s leading think tanks, but other experts disagree.

“The newer deputy ministers who are emerging or senior public servants who are emerging have very, very solid managerial skills and expertise, but probably less experience in terms of policy development because there hasn’t been such a great demand for it in recent years,” said Mr. Mitchell in an interview with The Hill Times, adding that that the outgoing deputy ministers have more policy development experience than the ones replacing them.

“Most of the work of the public service has been around service delivery, management [and] accountability because that’s been the order of the day, but there’s been less of a demand on the public service for policy development and policy skills and many of the senior public servants who are moving into retirement are taking those skills with them and the newer generation of leaders likely has not had as much experience with that. That could be a challenge in the future when a government may require policy options and policy development skills, especially if they are not there in abundance in the future.”

Mr. Mitchell, a political historian who also served as MLA in the British Columbia legislature from 1991-1996, said that the process of shifting of focus away from policy development to effective management, service delivery, and accountability in the federal public service has been in progress over the last generation and now most of the policy development takes place in thinks tanks, industry associations and universities. This, he said, has made the top bureaucrats unprepared to deal with crisis situations.

“An aging population, increasing responses to natural disasters, international dimensions to public policy in terms of terrorism, climate change, or military conflicts, or unanticipated areas that we really don’t know about. If the public service isn’t actively thinking through scenarios and coming up with potential policy options for future governments, we could be in a position where we could be less prepared as a country to deal with emerging realities that the Canadian public can’t easily anticipate now. But it used to be the job of the public service to be thinking about this and to be prepared to not only advise the government of the day, but also to present policy options in order to deal with unanticipated circumstances. Today, that capacity has atrophied within government,” said Mr. Mitchell who in the past served as vice-president of Queen’s University, the University of Ottawa, and Simon Fraser University.

Mr. Mitchell said that with the departure of outgoing deputy ministers, the federal public service not only is losing individuals with significant policy development experience but also the institutional memory.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) shuffled the senior ranks of the public service in late July. In the shuffle, George Da Pont, who was then president of Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), was appointed as the deputy minister of Health; Bruce Archibald, then president of the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario was named president of the CFIA; Karen Ellis, former associate deputy minister of Natural Resources was named the president of Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario; Anita Biguzs, former associate deputy minister of Citizenship and Immigration was promoted to the position of deputy minister in the same department; Wilma Vreeswijk, former deputy secretary to the Cabinet (Business Transformation and Renewal) was named associate deputy minister of Citizenship and Immigration; Colleen Volk, former deputy secretary to the Cabinet (senior personnel), Privy Council Office, was named deputy secretary to Cabinet (senior personnel, Business Transformation and Renewal) Privy Council Office; and Helena Borges, former assistant deputy minister, programs group at Transport Canada was named associate deputy minister of Transport. At the time of the shuffle, Prime Minister Harper also announced the retirement plans of Glenda Yeates, former deputy minister of health, and Neil Yeates, former deputy minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

Meanwhile, Donald Savoie, who holds a Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the Universitè de Moncton, N.B., and is also a leading expert on the machinery of government, disagreed with Mr. Mitchell’s opinion that senior federal public servants have insufficient experience in policy development.

“I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think deputy ministers today have to have a number of skills. One is policy, second is political skills, not partisan, I want to make that important distinction. They have to have political antennas, not partisan antennas, a big difference. They have to have policy skills, they have to know how to work with other departments because policy now transcends departments and they do hopefully know how to manage and it’s a very difficult environment,” said Mr. Savoie, who is the author of numerous books and articles on public administration and public policy, in an interview with The Hill Times.

“There’s a series of skills that someone who makes into a deputy minister rank has had to prove in the past and policy skills happens to be one of them,” Mr. Savoie said. “The deputies who are recently appointed over the past several years, a lot of them come from central agencies: the bulk of deputies from the PCO, Finance, Treasury Board and so on. That’s not where you hone your management skills, that’s where you hone your policy and political skills.”

Mr. Savoie, who also has extensive experience in both government and academia, said that the process of policy development has changed over the years with more players offering their input but the senior civil servants are still the ones that are the decision makers in the formation of policies.

“There’s different forces that come into play, different contributions. But, ultimately, at the end of the day, people who present policy packages are those who are in government. Deputy minister is the final funnel before policies arrive on a minister’s desk, or the Prime Minister’s desk, or the Privy Council Clerk’s desk. Various forces shape it, but deputy minister is the guy or the gal who has the gate to the policy process. The policy process gate is still inside government. It hasn’t moved outside. Different people try to make it to the gate, but deputies still control that gate,” said Mr. Savoie.

Mr. Savoie said that the loss of institutional memory is not something new in the public service as it has been going on dating back to 1867. He, however, suggested that the government should come up with some arrangement by which the institutional memory could be preserved.

“You can’t [pull] the hand of a deputy minister to stay in government till the age of 75 to protect institutional memory. It is part of the process. Should there be a process to capture better institutional memory and to value it inside government, yes. There’s all kinds of things you could do: There’s a need for more case studies on policy management [and] development inside federal government. I don’t see many case studies that have been produced. They are relatively simple to produce. And exit interviews, inviting the [outgoing] deputy to a series of round tables, there’s a way to capture that institutional memory and I think government should work on it a bit more.”

Mike Joyce, former assistant secretary at the Treasury Board Secretariat who retired about five years ago, in an interview with The Hill Times, also disagreed with Mr. Mitchell that the new crop of top civil servants have insufficient policy development expertise.

“The previous criticism of deputy ministers has, of course, been the reverse that they’re good at policy and they are rotated so quickly that they are not very good at management. If you are looking at the current crop of senior appointments as being good at management, I would say that’s a good thing if that’s true, but I wouldn’t suggest that they are any weaker on policy,” said Mr. Joyce who is now an adjunct professor at Queen’s University School of Policy Studies.

New generation of DMs top-notch managers, but lack policy development expertise: Mitchell | hilltimes.com.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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