How public servants support democracy: a response to latest Canada 2020 study |

More reaction from Maryantonett Flumian to Ralph Heintzman’s Canada 2020 report:

But doesn’t there come a point where a public servant—whose ethical code requires that he or she act “in the public interest”—must say no? Indeed there does. But the threshold is high, and the public servant’s responsibility to act in the public interest does not mean the public service determines the public interest.

For an unelected official, acting in the public interest essentially means three things:

  1. not acting in one’s private interest or in the special interests of those one personally favours;
  2. bringing one’s best professional expertise to bear on the tasks one performs; and
  3. acting consistently with the agenda and direction set by one’s minister, provided it is consistent with the law, with formal government policies, and with public service values and ethics.

So, yes, a public servant could and should refuse, say, to provide support for a partisan event. But he or she could not decline to implement a policy because he or she judged it not in the public interest….

Heintzman’s concerns here are fair enough, but the public service doesn’t operate in an ivory tower. Policies and practices that embarrass governments have never been matters of indifference for public servants. What has intensified in recent years is the pressure of the public environment. Instantaneous digital technology and 24/7 media are undercutting the deliberative, process-driven way in which governments have traditionally responded to issues. “Issues management” has emerged as a growing government need and perhaps the most in-demand skill for an up-and-coming public servant. This reality makes for fine lines that demand vigilance, but it does not mean that the public service has gone political.

Interesting relative lower emphasis on “fearless advice” (from someone who was fearless!) in favour of the softer “bringing one’s best professional expertise,” a not insignificant nuance in the current context of sometimes fraught government public service relations.

How public servants support democracy: a response to latest Canada 2020 study |

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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