Perception of politicization of the public service is a problem for Liberals | Ottawa Citizen

Not unexpected to hear this kind of criticism from the opposition, as well as the more-balance assessments from others:

The appointment of Matthew Mendelsohn, who helped write the Liberal election platform, as a senior-ranking bureaucrat is a “clear, unprecedented and blunt” politicization of Canada’s non-partisan public service, says former Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney.

Kenney said the previous Conservative government — which had a rocky and sometimes hostile relationship with the bureaucracy — would have been vilified if it “plunked” such a key election player into the top ranks of the Privy Council Office (PCO).

“The real shocker here is his appointment to a No. 2 position in the PCO, the summit of the entire public service,” said Kenney in an interview. “A fellow who worked as a partisan political Liberal on the election campaign … I don’t think there is any precedent for this.”

That perception has dogged the Liberals since Mendelsohn was appointed in December as a deputy secretary in the PCO to head a new “results and delivery” secretariat to ensure election promises are tracked and met.

Results and delivery are big priorities for the Liberals and the public service has a lousy track record at both. By all accounts, Mendelsohn is working hard to get buy-in from ministers, deputy ministers and departments on creating a “delivery culture” in government.

And there seems little debate Mendelsohn is qualified. He is an academic, founding director of the Mowat Centre, an Ontario think-tank, a former deputy minister of several provincial portfolios; an associate cabinet secretary in Ontario and a one-time public servant.

But his bona fides include a leave from the Mowat Centre to work on the Liberal platform and help pen Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letters for ministers.

He is also part of the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne brain trust that has joined the Trudeau government.

He worked with Queen’s Park veterans Katie Telford, now Trudeau’s chief of staff, and Gerald Butts, his principal secretary. (Mendelsohn’s wife, Kirsten Mercer, was Wynne’s justice policy adviser who moved to Ottawa to become chief of staff for Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould but has since been replaced.)

“The closer you fly to the action the bigger the risk of being branded,” said David Zussman, who holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management at the University of Ottawa. He was recruited into PCO to help lead the Jean Chrétien government’s massive program review.

Zussman also cautions the government has to be careful about the perception that it is too Ontario-centric when staffing ministers’ offices.

“They need a national perspective in ministers’ offices and they have to be careful about that. They could all be meritorious appointments but if they all come from the same place they are not as valuable to ministers as people who come from across the country,” he said.

Ralph Heintzman, a research professor at University of Ottawa, was a harsh critic of the Tory government for politicizing the public service particularly for using government communications to promote party interests.

Heintzman, a key player in writing the public service’s ethics code, feels Mendelsohn’s appointment is within bounds. He was tapped as a policy expert for the platform but wasn’t a candidate or campaign worker.

But perception is reality in politics and Heintzman said Mendelsohn had “sufficient involvement” with the Liberals that the government will now have to be sensitive to all future appointments.

“The very fact the appointment created a perception, fair or not, creates a new situation for the Liberals in the future because it will have to be very sensitive about any future appointments from outside the public service to make sure those impressions aren’t reinforced,” said Heintzman.

That could pose a problem for a government that is anxious to renew the public service and bring in new talent and skills to fill many policy and operational gaps.

The public service has long been criticized for monastic and a “closed shop.” In fact, former PCO Clerk Janice Charette made recruitment, including bringing in mid-career and senior executives, one of her top three priorities.

Source: Perception of politicization of the public service is a problem for Liberals | Ottawa Citizen

From a different angle, Geoff Norquay, a former staffer to former PM Mulroney, argues for greater movement between the two spheres:

We learned this week that a significant number of public servants have been joining ministerial offices in the new Liberal government.

The knee-jerk reactions of some Conservative commentators were predictable enough: “It absolutely feeds into the perception that the civil service favours the Liberals, and that the public service is becoming more political,” said Michele Austin, a former chief of staff to two Harper government ministers.

I believe these reactions are wrong, for several reasons.

Canada has a non-partisan public service, but people have been crossing back and forth between the public service and political offices for many years. It used to be a normal process and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Actually, it’s a good thing.

Until the Harper era, these movements were openly acknowledged and positively sanctioned, because people from ministers’ offices wishing to cross over to the public service were given a priority for hiring in the bureaucracy.

As part of his effort to close “revolving doors,” Stephen Harper put a stop to the priority system. That was a mistake. Once it has worked through its top priorities, I hope the new government considers bringing the priority system back.

Ministers’ offices are the nexus where the public service and politics meet. They are the place where political judgments are applied to bureaucratic recommendations, where political desires meet practical realities, and where executive decision-making confronts the art of practical execution.

Far too often, these two sides operate as non-communicating solitudes. When relationships between ministers’ offices and the public service become strained, it’s usually because they don’t understand each other’s motivations, priorities, imperatives and constraints.

Many of these tensions and frustrations can be made more manageable if public service recommendations to ministers are more politically sensitive, and if requests and instructions from the political level are tempered by respect for bureaucratic considerations.

open quote 761b1bCreativity comes from your ability to see the different and conflicting sides of complex issues, and apply what you’ve learned from one field to the challenges of another.

The odds of this happening are much better if at least some people making these calls, and negotiating the interface, have experience on both sides. That’s certainly been my experience through more than forty years of working in and around provincial and federal governments.

Trudeau’s blurring the line between ministries and the public service. Good for him.

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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