Ideology, minority rule, distrust shaped Harper government’s relationship with public service | hilltimes.com

Good piece by Mark Burgess in the Hill Times that echoes some of the themes in Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism, but at a more senior level:

David Zussman, the author of Off and Running: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Government Transitions in Canada who led former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s transition to power in 1993, said the Conservatives came to power in 2006 with a clear agenda and an inexperienced Cabinet, two factors that defined its approach to the public service.

“The more a government is ideological, the more it knows exactly what it wants to do, typically it’s less willing to hear contrary points of view,” Mr. Zussman, the Jarislowsky Chair on Management in the Public Sector at the University of Ottawa, said in an interview.

“This is partly what I think happened in 2006 with the incoming Harper government, is that they had an agenda and they didn’t think it was necessary that they get counter points of view from the public service.”

Elizabeth Roscoe, a member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2006 transition team, said the minority mandate was their biggest concern.

“You don’t know how long you’re planning for, and you don’t know what the opposition trigger points might be, and you don’t know the appetite of the electorate, so all of those things have to factor in,” she said in an interview with The Hill Times.

Minority mandates always make governments “twitchy” as they worry about losing power at any time, Mr. Zussman said, which further complicates the relationship with bureaucrats.

The most experienced voices in the new Cabinet at the time—Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement and John Baird—were ministers from Mike Harris’ Ontario government, which had a very rocky relationship with the public service.

“If you feel that the public service is not going to provide you with analysis that is consistent with your overall policy agenda, then you’re probably not going to pay a lot of attention to it,” Mr. Zussman said.

“There was a lot of resistance to overcome in 2006 and I think it’s been a work in progress,” he said.

In the book, the leader of Mr. Harper’s transition team, Derek Burney, said the government’s tightly-controlled approach would loosen after winning a majority government in 2011 and include the public service more in policy making.

“I don’t want to hear any more crap about minority government and politics every day,” Mr. Burney said in the book.

He called on bureaucrats to stand up and express ideas “because this is a government that is going to be a little more receptive to good policy ideas than it was when it was looking over its shoulder” in the minority days.

Mr. Burney, a senior strategic adviser at the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, said the minority mindset wouldn’t change overnight but that it was up to senior bureaucrats to get over the Conservatives’ focus on politics and make the relationship work.

Mr. Zussman said he also would have predicted the Conservatives would open up to the public service and adjust to majority rule after 2011 but that the shift never occurred.

“I think what’s happened, frankly, is after five years, the government has a particular way of operating and they’re just continuing to operate the same way,” he said. “They would argue that it’s working well for them, I suppose.”

Mr. Burney couldn’t be reached for this article. Ms. Roscoe said it took public servants some time to understand the Conservatives’ philosophy and approach.

“Once they did, then they understood better how to align priorities, how to align the agenda, and how to help both bring forward ideas and to implement them,” she said.

Ideology, minority rule, distrust shaped Harper government’s relationship with public service | hilltimes.com. (pay wall)

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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