Senior public servants feel ill-equipped and fearful to provide fearless advice

More of a recap of the Top of Mind report than concrete suggestions on how to address the apparent decline in “fearless advice” beyond reexamining the Accountability Act of the Harper government:

Canada’s public servants have a noble and proud heritage of “answering the call” to serve their country and communities. Professional, non-partisan, and highly trained, they work within our public institutions to help elected leaders make our communities safer, cleaner, healthier, and more prosperous both today and for the future.

However, according to a recent report, Top of Mind, senior executive leaders today feel ill-equipped to provide “fearless advice” in a climate of divisive politics, polarization, and misinformation. “Fearless advice and loyal implementation” are the bedrock bonds between those elected and those who serve in the public service.

This foundation supports our democracy and how public services rise to meet the challenges of the day. At its core, “fearless advice” is about elected decision-makers knowing they have been given the best information and the broadest options available to address the issue of the day. Those elected to represent their communities get to decide what to do. Once the decision is taken, public servants move on to “loyally implement.”

In Top of Mind: Answering the Call, Adapting to Change Summary Report, recently released by the Institute on Governance and the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University, senior public service leaders at the local, provincial, territorial, and federal levels of government were unanimous in their concern that fearless advice was more challenging to deliver than ever before.

One participant said, “I think there is a[n] [em]broiling of political perspective about the role of the bureaucracy and the work that it does and is challenged to do, and the independence of that in my view is no longer understood or seen by a lot of political bodies, parties, and individuals for what it is truly supposed to be.” Other participants remarked about the lack of “a safe space” to give alternative perspectives or views on a given issue. It’s a situation that, if left unattended, could be contributing to the erosion of trust in our public institutions.

The role of the senior public servant is unfamiliar to many Canadians. Often unseen, this cadre of professionals support decision-making and program delivery underpin the very quality of life that Canadians take pride in. Many successful partnerships between prime ministers and the heads of the public service have resulted in significant Canadian accomplishments.

Lester Pearson and Gordon Robertson teamed up to bring about our national safety net, our anthem, and our flag. Pierre Trudeau, Gordon Osbaldeston, and Michael Pitfield respectively delivered official bilingualism, international peace measures and the repatriation of the Constitution along with the establishment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Brian Mulroney, Paul Tellier, and Glen Shortliffe helped to end apartheid in South Africa, brought in free trade and eliminated the manufacturing sales tax. Jean Chrétien, Jocelyne Bourgon, and Mel Cappe returned Canada to economic surplus, helped the country overcome the aftermath of 9/11 and said no to the war in Iraq. These teams understood the principle or ‘secret sauce’ of fearless advice and loyal implementation.

Michael Wernick, former clerk to the Privy Council, wrote that, “Open, honest, and two-way communication is key” between the minister and their deputy minister in his book, Governing Canada A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics. Wernick’s advice to deputy ministers: “Your most important task is to secure and maintain the trust and confidence of the minister. That doesn’t mean telling ministers what they want to hear. On the contrary, you will want ministers to be confident that you will warn them of upcoming trouble and to trust you to give them the frank advice and full information.”

So, if fearless advice is on the decline, the question is why? Top of Mind does not explore the root causes. However, a brief examination of how the role of the deputy minister has changed over the years may be a good place to start. In 2006, the role of the deputy minister at the federal level was fundamentally changed along with changes to the Public Service Commission, the public service oath, and the executive leadership competencies for choosing those in charge of people; money and physical assets.

Sixteen years later, it is time to examine whether the changes introduced in 2006 have contributed to the erosion of the bedrock principle of “fearless advice and loyal implementation.” It may be proven that the reforms undertaken then have little to do with the situation today. However, in the absence of a thorough assessment or review, we will never know.

Clearly something is amiss within the public services of our country. Having an open discussion on the barriers to fearless advice is both urgently required and essential if Canada to restore trust in its public institutions and to serve Canadians effectively to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Stephen Van Dine is senior vice-president of the Institute on Governance. Don Abelson is director of the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University.

Source: Senior public servants feel ill-equipped and fearful to provide fearless advice

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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