Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism: Optimum Online Vol. 43 Issue 2 June 2013

One of the tests in any parliamentary democracy is the professionalism, agility and responsiveness of the public service in adjusting to changed priorities and perspectives of a new government. This article, based on my forthcoming book, examines my experience with respect to citizenship and multiculturalism during the period 2007-11 under Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney.

As noted by Prime Minister Harper in 2008, one of the main challenges for an incoming government, particularly one with limited governing experience, is learning how to manage the relationship between the political level and the bureaucracy:

Probably the most difficult job, you know, practical difficult thing you have to learn as a prime minister and ministers, our ministers as well, is dealing with the federal bureaucracy. … It’s walking that fine line of, of being a positive leader of the federal public service, but at the same time pushing them and not becoming captive to them.1

The fine line for public servants, in contrast, is in the practice of providing ‘fearless advice’ and acting on ‘loyal implementation,’ ensuring that the professionalism and quality of their advice is not compromised by either their implicit and assumed beliefs or by the need to support the government in its policy priorities.

Under the Harper government, one of the main challenges for the public service was having its knowledge and expertise put into question, given the sharp break with the citizenship and multiculturalism policy continuity of previous governments, both Liberal and Conservative. Public servants had internalized the previous policy continuity, and shared many of the underlying perspectives, biases and assumptions of previous policies. The Minister’s direction posed an almost existentialist threat to the public service, as he and his officials constantly – and fundamentally – challenged prevailing policies, programs and perspectives. ‘Fearless advice and loyal implementation’ became more difficult given the radical challenge to, and questioning of the knowledge, expertise and advice of the public service.

While public servants need to be careful in framing and timing their advice so that it will be considered, rather than dismissed, over time, this becomes less acute, as decisions are taken and ‘loyal implementation’ comes into play. This, in turn, leads to the risk of public servants overly internalizing the new orientation (‘Stockholm syndrome’), with the quality of advice weakening as public servants, consciously or not, increasingly shape policy advice in line with what the political level wants to hear. Efforts to keep independent policy capacity and thinking are invariably diverted towards meeting deliverables, space for contrary views shrinks, and structural and personnel changes reinforce this internalization, with the public service being perceived, at least by opposition critics, as less professional and impartial.

Furthermore, the transfer of the multiculturalism program from Canadian Heritage to Citizenship and Immigration in the fall of 2008 accelerated this tendency towards internalization of this change. Having one minister responsible for citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism simplified policy coordination while reducing political-level attention to multiculturalism. Moreover, dispersing multiculturalism across CIC’s functional model, the reality of CIC’s ‘centre of gravity’ or focus on immigrant selection, reallocation of resources, and the operational culture of CIC, further weakened the capacity and appetite for ‘fearless advice.’

As the political and bureaucratic levels worked through policy options, each learning about the other’s policy perspective, evidence-base, and sensitivities, a number of aspects presented themselves:

    • Contrasting Ideologies: While we typically think of ideology as being the domain of political parties, no one is immune from ideological bias or perspective. How we respond to different perspectives, how we assess evidence, how we react to language is rarely neutral. While we expect this from politicians as they tend to wear their ideology openly, public servants present themselves as professional and impartial, but are subject to the same psychology of cognitive biases, particularly confirmation bias, consciously or not.2

      The development of Discover Canada, the new citizenship study guide for new Canadians issued in 2009, with a more conservative viewpoint on Canada, emphasizing history, the military, the Monarchy, with more muscular language on Canadian values, challenged public servants who had grown up with a narrative more focused on contemporary Canada, social rather than military history, and the Charter. Similarly for multiculturalism, the shift towards more emphasis on integration, in contrast to accommodation, and the largely exclusion of discrimination and barriers to participation, went against the grain of where many public servants believed the emphasis should be.

    • Different evidence base: Officials relied excessively on large-scale surveys, similar research and existing stakeholders, that did not take into account and, discounted input from, the Minister’s extensive outreach to the various ethnic communities. In particular, Ministerial interaction with a wide range of communities provided more granular insight into issues particular to communities than many surveys and research on overall trends. While anecdotal in nature, the scale of Ministerial outreach meant that public servants could not ignore what he was hearing from his ‘practicum,’ as he called it.

      While surveys on citizenship did not indicate major differences in civic behaviour (e.g., voting, volunteering, donating, belonging) between Canadian-born and foreign-born citizens, Ministerial interaction with a wide range of communities suggested a number of integrity and participation issues. Similarly, the general multiculturalism-related surveys generally captured perceptions of discrimination between the ‘mainstream’ and visible minorities; the Minister’s outreach suggested that there were similar instances of prejudice and discrimination among visible minority or religious communities that were of equal concern from an integration perspective.

  • Risk perception: Political and official levels often have different perceptions of risk. For officials, there is a need to ensure that advice reflects rigorous formal risk analysis from legal, policy, program and service aspects. Officials tend toward caution, in part, to balance against the political imperative to deliver on government commitments that may lead to risks being discounted. The political level focuses on political risk, how will this play with their base and the broader electorate, and intrinsically has a shorter, electoral time frame than the public service, which will have to deal with any longer-term foreseen or unforeseen effects.

In efforts to improve the integrity of citizenship knowledge and language testing, officials emphasized the risks to social cohesion posed by more vulnerable and less educated groups having greater barriers to citizenship, and the possible need to develop integration or settlement services targeted at these groups. For multiculturalism, the development of the historical recognition program required flagging the legal risk of differential treatment by community (some communities had greater funding than others despite arguably comparable historical experiences). The Minister’s assessment of the political risks involved, however, showed greater understanding of the community dynamics.

Working through these and other citizenship and multiculturalism issues, and living through the contrasting ideologies, evidence base, and risk perception, one ironic shared characteristic between the political and bureaucratic levels emerged: the lack of policy modesty on both sides. Neither fully appreciated the degree of complexity of society, social issues and social policy, particularly for citizenship and multiculturalism, where the federal government is but a minor player in relation to other levels of government, and the wide range of public and private institutions also influence participation in society.

Just as the political level is certain about their policies; the bureaucracy is equally certain about their evidence base. Both sides had to learn to appreciate the strengths of the other. The political level had to learn to appreciate – if not welcome – advice and expertise that identified potential implications of policy changes; public servants had to learn to recognize how extensive political interaction with Canadians helped complement their evidence and expertise.

As noted earlier, getting over the challenge to their expertise, advice and biases was existentialist, demoralizing and even traumatic for many public servants, particularly but not exclusively in multiculturalism. The Kubler-Ross model of grief applied; consciously or not; many had to pass through varying degrees of the denial, anger, bargaining and depression stages. At the same time, the political level grappled with the lack of responsiveness of the public service, perceived at times as arrogance or even disloyalty, in responding to their policy direction and priorities.

The risks for both sides of falling into a pattern of ‘rolling one’s eyes’ and viewing the political-bureaucratic relationship as antagonistic, were high. Both needed to ‘get over it’ and find a way to work together, respecting their complementary roles, and both equally needed to apply a certain policy modesty to their respective ideologies, evidence base, and expertise. Given the nature of government, public servants had to show more policy modesty than the political level – recognizing the legitimacy of the policy choices and evidence that supported those choices of the political level. Over time, this occurred, whether by resignation or design, but it was not an easy transition.

Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism
Providing frank advice had to be tempered in this context – as much art as public administration ‘science,’ given the need to find the balance between being overly frank and risk advice being discounted, and being overly positioned to suit the political direction, and running the risk of diluting advice so much that any eventual paper trail will suggest the public service had compromised its professionalism.

In many ways, it is only when the advice of the public service emerges publicly through access to information and the media that the professionalism of the public service can be appropriately judged. No one has a perfect record here, given the delicate balance between advice and implementation; while it is easier to judge in retrospect (hindsight is always 20/20), the task is harder in real time as public servants grapple with framing advice in a manner that will be considered, and not seen as obstructionist or disloyal. All public servants can do is be more aware of their own thought processes, cognitive bias, compromises, and ensure that advice is documented and reads clearly to an outside observer and, in so doing, practice both professionalism and policy modesty.
1  Quoted in Susan Delacourt, “Tory government takes aim at bureaucracy,”Toronto Star, 17 January 2008.

2  See Daniel Kahneman. 2001. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, for his exhaustive research on cognitive and other psychological bias.

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