Public service needs ‘moral contract’ to keep it neutral, study says | Ottawa Citizen

More on the respective roles of the Government and the public service, this time from Ralph Heintzman and Canada 2020. While much of his observations and criticism is valid, it is no accident that no government has accepted an explicit moral contract or charter to govern the relationship. Ambiguity has its advantages for both sides, and the wish for clarity in the essentially messy business of governing is unrealistic.

None of this condones a number of the actions of the Conservative government but as I argued in my book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism, the public services was also responsible for some of the breakdown in the relationship:

Canada 2020, a progressive think-tank, plans to release a paper Wednesday that calls for a “charter of public service” or a “moral contract” to set the boundaries for a bureaucracy whose role and responsibilities have become blurred by a powerful Prime Minister’s Office with an iron grip on communications.

Ralph Heintzman, the University of Ottawa research professor who wrote the paper, said the line between public servants and politicians has been blurring for years, but rapidly changing technology, the 24-hour news cycle and government’s obsession with communications and “spin” have made the problem worse.

“I think behaviours in the public service are not what they should be, but not because they are bad-willed but rather because we don’t have the right systems, rules and mechanisms to direct people how to behave properly,” he said in an interview.

Heintzman proposes a new charter that would be legislated and far-reaching. It would enshrine a value and ethics code to guide behaviour. It would include tougher communications rules; give teeth to the accountability of deputy ministers as accounting officers; and revamp the appointment process for deputy ministers by taking it out of the hands of the Clerk of the Privy Council.

… Heintzman argued the three-way relationship – between public servants, MPs and ministers – is critical to the implementation of any government’s agenda regardless of political stripe, but the need for a charter is more critical today for a public service that has been “neglected,” “devalued” and has seen its neutrality “abused” by the Harper government.

The role of the public service has been in the spotlight because of Privy Council Office Clerk Wayne Wouters’s ongoing Blueprint 2020 exercise to retool the future public service. Wouters’s report, like many previous reform exercises over the past 25 years, dodged the deteriorating relationship.

… The grey zone between politicians and bureaucrats was at the heart of everything that went wrong and led to the sponsorship scandal, concluded Justice John Gomery, who headed the sponsorship inquiry. He also recommended a legislated charter. The Tait report made a similar recommendation a decade earlier.

Heintzman argued the Conservatives’ flagship Federal Accountability Act, meant in part to fix the problem, was badly flawed and increased confusion around deputy minister accountability.

Heintzman concludes a big problem is that the Conservatives don’t value the public service as a national institution for Canada’s democracy and see it as an extension of the government to be used as desired; for example it is expected to adhere to a communications strategy to rebrand the “Government of Canada” as the “Harper government.”

“They make no distinction between the Harper ministry and the government of Canada,” he said. They think it is the same thing, so the public service is just there to achieve their own partisan objectives.”

Public service needs ‘moral contract’ to keep it neutral, study says | Ottawa Citizen.

Subsequent article and interview comments are even more critical:

The study, Renewal of the Public Service: Toward a Charter of Public Service, released by the think-tank Canada 2020, says Privy Council Office Clerk Wayne Wouters became the government’s political spokesman for stonewalling Page and refusing the information Parliament needed to do its job – right down to the language of a letter in which he wrote that “in our view” the government’s reductions are credible.

The new study, written by University of Ottawa Prof. Ralph Heintzman, argues that Wouters could have provided an explanation of the government’s reasoning but should never have publicly justified or defended a “contestable political decision” and made it his own.

“Words such as ‘in our view’ – our! – would be quite natural in the mouth of a prime minister. In the mouth of the head of the public service, they are very difficult to explain, or justify. In using them, the clerk left no space whatever between himself and the current ministry,” writes Heintzman.

“A Privy Council Office that could draft such a letter and a clerk who could sign it are at serious risk of abolishing the distinction between a public service and the political administration it serves. No wonder that under the Harper administration, the PCO has become home to a large communications machine serving the partisan needs of the incumbent government and the prime minister.”

When public servants go partisan: new study seeks solutions

The alternate view by  Maryantonett Flumian and Nick Charney, in Canadian Government Executive, is more nuanced, noting how the public service has to adapt to the government of the day:

As the new Clerk, Wouters could have taken the public service in many directions. He chose to rise to the challenge by recognizing the somewhat strained relationships and by doing what he is best at, thoughtfully and persistently building bridges between those who must work as one in the public interest. With the Prime Minister’s public support, he chose a path of reenergizing the public service and channeling its leadership toward transformation and modernization of the institution supported with the necessary infrastructure and tools to serve Canadians and the government. He has not ducked the challenges, nor has he focused on confrontation.

To everything there is a season, and this is the time when both major players seem to have understood that they depend on each other to fashion a modern, resilient and agile public service that supports a modern nation in achieving its place on the global stage. And so, in Wouters’ time at the PCO, his greatest skill as head of the public service may well turn out to be his capacity to get the Prime Minister on side and work with him on issues having to do with the role of the public service, the size of the workforce, and changing the business model of government. This bridge to the future began when he launched the Administrative Services Review. The review looked for government-wide opportunities to consolidate and standardize government operations and led, among other things, to the creation of Shared Services Canada.

Wouters’ ability to work closely with the Prime Minister has manifested itself in other areas than public service renewal, however important that may be. He used his position as Clerk, working with colleagues such as the deputy minister of Finance, to support the government’s economic goals, ensuring the development of five successive budgets that kept Canada out of recession and brought the government back into surplus. His support and advice was critical to the finalization of a number of bilateral trade agreements, including the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union and the Canada-Korea Free Trade Agreement. ….

Through Blueprint 2020, Wouters is moving the public service into unchartered waters. Responding to criticism that the public service is too focused on the short term, he is using it to promote a longer term view of policy, program development and service delivery. He is staking the future on the belief that the leadership – at all levels of the largest employer and most diverse workforce in the country, operating in very complex domains – is up to the challenge.

The Prime Minister and the Prime Ministers’ Advisory Committee on the Public Service, until recently chaired by David Emerson, are supportive and aligned to the challenge. The call to arms in the Blueprint 2020 exercise has been launched against a backdrop of cynicism, cost reduction, and a drive to operational efficiency. This renewal starts at a time when the same sort of efforts at transformation are being led by public services around the world. Blueprint 2020 fundamentally recognizes that existing policies, tools and processes no longer fit the needs of today.

The issues of engagement, culture, agility and relevance are at the heart of this renewal. There is a profound recognition, which the cynics missed in the early days, that reforming public service is a team sport where every player must be called upon to be a leader, where every step, big and small, will add up to change. With the public service going through a transformation, the need for broad engagement is fundamental. That is the engagement that Wouters, as head of the public service, has unleashed in Blueprint 2020. Over 100,000 public servants from 85 different departments and agencies have participated in this dialogue.

With the release of Destination 2020, the call to action is clear and the momentum continues. Social media, along with the openness of spirit and engagement with which Wouters has launched this dialogue on collaboration, innovation and modernization, is unprecedented in the history of public service reform. The engagement at so many different levels of the organization will ensure that the momentum will not end with the “tabling” of this living, crowd-sourced document.

To come full circle, two unlikely partners – Stephen Harper and Wayne Wouters – picked each other to work together in support of the public interest. Each is working to reshape his own sphere. There is no question that tough conversations occur – as they must – behind closed doors. What will be accomplished is a modern, relevant public service better able to serve Canadians.

I find this to be an overly optimistic take on the government-public service relationship. It avoids the difficult issues of conflicting ideologies, reliance on anecdotes over evidence, and major reductions in core policy and analytical capacity.

However, relationships and trust matter, the Clerk, deputies and other senior managers have to decide the appropriate balance between “fearless advice and loyal implementation,” and where greater cooperation rather than “confrontation” is appropriate. The public service has to adapt to the government more than the other way round.

I worked at Service Canada under Flumian and she was one of the strongest and effective leaders I have encountered. Like Steve Jobs in her ability to inspire and develop a vision, with some of the same human flaws. One of my most rewarding times in government.

To everything there is a season

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.

One Response to Public service needs ‘moral contract’ to keep it neutral, study says | Ottawa Citizen

  1. Pingback: Federal executives lack training, flexibility, Hubbard and Paquet | Multicultural Meanderings

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