Make way! Creating space for change in Canadian politics

Former MP Caesar-Chavannes and Alex Marland make the case. IMO, a bit unrealistic in terms of solutions and no guarantees that increased diversity will necessarily reduce partisanship and “team player” conformity, or result in greater diversity of thought.

But an important reflection none the less:

There are many ways politicians and bureaucrats can show leadership in response to calls to democratize Canadian politics. Specifically, there are a lot of things men can do, particularly heterosexual white men.

As the largest demographic in Parliament, they can lead the way by stepping back or stepping aside, in order to create meaningful opportunities to engage more women, Indigenous, Black and marginalized peoples. 

Let’s face it, if we are to transform the culture of Canadian political institutions, we must take immediate, deliberate and intentional action.

As co-authors, one of us is the only Black woman MP who served in the 42nd Parliament (2015-19) and is a champion of diversity, equity and inclusivity. The other has interviewed more than 100 Canadian politicians and political staff for a book about party discipline. We met as part of that research, and share a deep concern about the need for the political elite to make room for diverse voices in the House of Commons.

Representation matters

When interacting with politicians, it becomes clear that at different points in their careers they approach politics with distinct philosophies about representation

Some elected officials take a principled stand on big picture issues. Some believe that voters trust them to figure things out, while others feel a duty to follow the wishes of constituents. Far too many Canadian politicians are guided by loyalty to their political party and leader, whereas some are motivated to champion the concerns of people who share similar identities or similar experiences.

Prioritizing the composition of legislatures and looking at public policy through the lens of gender, Indigeneity, race or other identity characteristic is sometimes known as “descriptive representation,” a term coined by American political scientist Hanna Pitkin in her landmark book The Concept of Representation. In it, Pitkin dissects what the contested concept of representation means. She makes a compelling argument that a democratic legislature must be a forum to hear from a diversity of people’s voices. This is important because otherwise these voices are excluded from political debate and from public policy decision-making.

But in what tangible ways can diversity improve democracy?

Identity and intersectionality

Diversity is necessary for citizens to see themselves represented. Since 1867, and before, generations of white, land-owning men were the beacon of political leadership. Since the Second World War, they have increasingly toed the party line, as have others, recruited into a political system that values conformity over diversity. In today’s world, it is important to remember that we are each the product of a variety of different identities that intersect to make us who we are. For some, their different identities add layers of oppression in politics.

Studies have argued that descriptive representation can fundamentally support the principles of democracy. This extends beyond reshaping the composition of legislatures: listening and receiving input from diverse voices can result in better governance and better policy. A good example is research showing that women leaders have been rated significantly more positively than men during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, women are thought to have exhibited better interpersonal skills in managing the crisis. 

Listening to marginalized voices is needed to help shape Parliamentary decisions. Deliberations around medical assistance in dying legislation (Bill C-7) would have benefited from improved listening to disability groups and racialized communities.

Diversify legislatures

More diverse legislatures can transform Canadian politics in a profound way: challenging the dogma of party discipline that keeps politics organized but corrodes representation. In Ottawa and the provinces, political parties have an iron grip over politicians, and group conformity is expected. 

Why is it normal in Canada that a politician jeopardizes their parliamentary career by taking a public stand different from the party leader? Don’t we want politicians who feel that they can speak truth to power? Homogeneity in party politics might work for partisans, but does it work for constituents? Even MPs become frustrated with democratic institutions when they are reduced to robots, encouraged to vote along party lines and repeat talking points.

Electing a broader array of Canadians can help break down party silos and soften polarization. In workplaces, more heterogeneity can stir internal conflict and rattle group norms. But injecting different perspectives also enriches the ability of a group to come up with creative and innovative solutions. The same is true in politics. 

The more diverse the voices that occupy seats in legislatures, the more political parties can benefit from better policy which, in turn, benefits the public. Sadly, there is little evidence that partisans are open to listening to people willing to rebuff the “team player” mentality that dominates Canadian Parliament. A good way to help change that is to change who is being elected.

This can include white men not seeking re-election in order to create space for others, encouraging people to run for political office, and also helping the newest members thrive when they get there. 

Taking proactive steps toward fewer white men in politics in order to create an opening for others has worked in British Columbia. In 2011, the B.C. NDP introduced a radical policy that when a male legislator vacates a seat, the party must nominate a woman, racialized person or someone from other underrepresented groups in Canadian politics. 

In the 2020 provincial election, the B.C. NDP won a majority of seats, and for the first time in Canadian history a governing party’s caucus has more women than men, as well as more people of colour serving than any B.C. caucus ever elected before. Diversity in Premier John Horgan’s caucus meant that he had more choices to assemble a diverse cabinet. The party’s policy of affirmative action has translated into meaningful, profound change in both the legislative and executive branches of government. Bold action like this is needed to achieve the ideals of descriptive representation.

Ensuring democracy thrives

The principles of diversity, equity and inclusivity are important, and taking action so that Canadian politics are not dominated by one segment of society is necessary to democratize our institutions. Regardless of party affiliation, or political ideology, the urgency of now demands that those with power choose to challenge the status quo. 

To ensure democracy thrives in Canada, politicians need to listen to the voices of those who are often on the margins of our political ecosystem and act accordingly. Gaining knowledge is a necessary first step, and men in positions of authority can help create a thriving democratic landscape by opening opportunities to people who are different than them. 

A good place to start is for men to listen.

Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Queen’s University, Ontario; Alex Marland, Memorial University of Newfoundland


Inside the federal bureaucracy, Clarke digs up a ‘creeping culture of excessive silos, hierarchies’ in digital attitudes

Reflects basic accountability at both the political and official levels, and that governments, by their very size and broad impact, have to be more cautious given their stewardship role:

What happens when the risk-averse organizational culture of the Government of Canada confronts the freewheeling style of digital culture? A purposeful slow reaction, finds a new book on the topic.

Amanda Clarke is a public administration scholar at Carleton University who specializes in digital government. Opening the Government of Canada: The Federal Bureaucracy in the Digital Age is a result of years of work documenting the Government of Canada’s transition to a digital world. The findings reveal how an organization that is prone to resist change is compelled to deal with global forces propelling innovation.

Opening the Government of Canada documents the digital responsiveness of the federal bureaucracy in the later stages of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. Clarke consults an abundance of what academics call grey literature, namely media coverage, government tweets and blogs, and completed access to information requests. She gains original insights through interviews with 32 Canadian public servants and a special adviser. Those are buttressed by conversations with seven public servants in the United Kingdom. They narrate a consistent theme: that the Canadian government is cautious and hesitant about digital reform.

Provocative questions are asked at various junctures in the book. On page 69: What happens when closed government gets a Twitter account? On page 95: Who should speak for the government? These jarringly simple questions belie the author’s natural curiosity about how government works. The inquisitiveness is an excellent framing device to generate interest in figuring out the answers.

The book begins by summarizing some statistics about digital media. Among the observations are that managerial philosophies shift as digital disruption grows. Conflict ensues, which at its core is an ideological battle about notions of democratic government. On one side of the philosophical divide are valid reasons for government to operate in silos with a centralized hierarchy. On the other side are those advocating for government transparency and accountability. Readers are encouraged to consider a variety of perspectives in the closed doors versus crowd-sourcing debate.

For my part, whenever I think of digital politics scholarship in Canada, one of the subject experts who immediately comes to mind is political scientist Tamara Small of the University of Guelph. Small’s work barely factors into Opening the Government of Canada, likely because she mostly studies political parties. Yet she has repeatedly shown that most Canadian politicians use social media as a broadcasting medium. That is, instead of two-way engagement, they use social media as a digital megaphone. Politicians and their staff are more likely to raise awareness of content from news releases than they are to get into a digital conversation. Clarke discovers the same tendency in the Government of Canada, where tweets are informational one-way broadcasting (pages 82-83). Moreover, Clarke finds that government departments routinely amplify other government departments’ posts, much like MPs from the same party retweet each other. This example shows that studying how politicians behave (political science) can help inform our analysis of what happens in government (public administration). A key difference is that communicating digitally has become a fundamental aspect of what MPs do whereas it is still a work in progress for the government.

The comparison between politics and public administration is a useful reminder about drawing parallels. In government, there is safety in following what other entities are doing. It is much easier for organizations to transpose existing behaviour to new platforms than it is for them to do something radical. Thus we have the creation of GCTools, which is the government’s own social media platform.

This innovation caused Canada to be a global leader in digital government. Despite spotty uptake, public servants could avail of this safe space to discover skilled experts across government (page 131). GCTools is loosely reminiscent of the government seeking to exert control over other forms of communications, such as the Canada Gazette newspaper or any number of public relations activities. A key difference is that GCTools connects people.

GCTools was developed under the Conservative government, which had a well-deserved reputation for top-down communications management. Chapter 3 documents how the government adapted to changing digital norms earlier in this decade. The developments were slow, reserved, measured, and cautious. In society, the Twitterverse came alive with people busily posting about everything from serious questions about government, to the banalities of their personal lives. Meanwhile, within the Government of Canada, a web of policy frameworks and multi-stage workflow processes were implemented to generate social media content. It is clear that the public service struggled to react to changing societal norms.

The command and control approach of the Harper government seems to have aligned well with government’s natural ethos to run a closed shop. Clarke evokes the environment of permanent campaigning that injected a further dose of caution. Permanent campaigning refers to non-stop electioneering—that is, the official election campaign may be over, but many of the same politicized communications activities persist. A non-stop communications mentality is especially evident during periods of minority government and when the dissolution of Parliament is on the horizon. On page 86, we are informed that communications centralization becomes a virtue to avoid the “nightmare” of public servants freelancing on government social media accounts.

There are other challenges with digital government. Striving for public service neutrality in digital communications is a complex proposition (pages 92-94). Questions about who is running public-facing accounts are warranted, given that many public servants have personal social media profiles. Open data is fine in principle, but releasing datasets as PDFs that inhibit running calculations is unhelpful (page 98). Many public servants are not digital natives. This requires re-training and a conscious effort to recruit digital talent (page 158). Ultimately, fewer barriers to public interaction is less about technology than it is about attitude (page 186).

Reading about public administration can be fraught with information that gets lost in a blur of acronyms, dates, and technical writing. Thankfully, Clarke largely spares her readers from those trappings. The more I read, the more I learned and the more I enjoyed going on a journey inside the public service as it responded to digital demands. That said, for her next book I would encourage less quoting of passages from literature in order to free up more room to quote her interview participants. Another pedantic criticism is the inclusion of the U.K. interviews, which was an unusual decision. As well, the book was published in 2019, and it would be interesting to know how the analysis of 2012 Twitter data stands the test of time. We are told that e-government has become flatter, more nimble and responsive (page 157). There is some brief mention of happenings under the Liberal government, however it is unclear how the e-government trend has permeated post-Harper.

What has changed under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? In some ways quite a lot. Since 2018, Trudeau has churned through three ministers of digital government. The creation of the portfolio is a telling development. The first two, Scott Brison and Jane Philpott, resigned from cabinet for unrelated reasons not long after taking on the portfolio. When Philpott took the helm, Amanda Clarke published some advice in Policy Options (Feb. 8, 2019) about managing the digital file. She and co-author Jonathan Craft of the University of Toronto recommended courageous leadership, more training, and a willingness to embrace experimental approaches. They urged the minister to integrate digital thinking earlier on in the public policy process. Joyce Murray became the latest minister of digital government in March 2019.

The position was secondary to Brison, Philpott, and Murray serving in their primary role of president of the Treasury Board. The post-election cabinet unveiled in November expanded the number of ministers. A lot of the attention has gone to the unusual title of minister of middle class prosperity—a good example of permanent campaigning at work. Digital government was hived off. Jean-Yves Duclos is now exclusively overseeing the Treasury Board while Murray is exclusively minister of digital government. This is mostly about the prime minister spreading political rewards around. But make no mistake: digital government is a much bigger entity than it was even a few years ago. For evidence, one need look only at how the Government of Canada has upended where its advertising dollars go, with an unequivocal preference for digital.

Yet is it unclear whether anything has changed in other areas. For instance, some internet access was blocked in some government departments in 2015 (page 103). To what extent is that the case today? Smartphones seem to present an obvious workaround. Details like this seem fundamental to assessing whether the Government of Canada is fostering a digital culture.

Looking deeper, digital optimists have reason to be frustrated. The Trudeau Liberals imported a spirit of openness into government in 2015. Part of this was to present a contrast with the Harper Conservatives. The longer the Liberals have been in power, the more the have adopted the characteristics of risk-aversion and information secrecy. The Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada has vocalized frustrations with the government’s lack of commitment to access to information. Digital communications creates efficiencies whereas open government creates headaches. It seems likely that it is “corner of the desk work” (page 112) under the Liberals as it was under the Conservatives.

The concluding chapter makes a number of recommendations best left for readers to discover. Suffice it to say, Clarke finishes off by commenting on what her research about digital attitudes in the Government of Canada has found: “a creeping culture of excessive silos, hierarchies, and risk aversion.” Here’s hoping that Minister Murray and her team find time to read Opening the Government of Canada over the holidays.

Source: Inside the federal bureaucracy, Clarke digs up a ‘creeping culture of excessive silos, hierarchies’ in digital attitudes

Federal advertising ‘blacklist’ of websites includes far-right outlets

Makes sense. Alex Marland’s points about more transparency regarding the criteria for inclusion/exclusion are valid, however:

The extreme-right outlets The Rebel, Breitbart and the Daily Stormer are among more than 3,000 websites on an internal “blacklist” to ensure the federal government’s digital advertisements do not appear on sites promoting hate, porn, gambling and other subjects deemed unacceptable.

The expansive list also includes conservative news sites like the Drudge Report, the Washington Times, Gateway Pundit and the National Review, as well as many non-political websites, such as TMZ, Esquire and Cosmopolitan.

CBC News obtained a copy of a recent version of the list, dating from June, via an Access to Information request.

There are 3,071 websites on the current blacklist, which is maintained and regularly updated for the federal government by Cossette Media, the agency hired to place Ottawa’s ads online, on radio and TV and in newspapers. The vast majority of federal ad dollars is now directed to the web.

The released version of the blacklist is non-alphabetical and uncategorized, with no information about the date a website was added nor about the reasons for its inclusion.

“It has evolved consistently since it was established [in 2012], and continues to evolve as the internet landscape and industry trends change and technology advances,” Nicolas Boucher, spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), said in an email.

“Categories have expanded, and sensitivities evolve over time.”

Boucher, whose department co-ordinates federal advertising, declined to respond when asked about the reason for inclusion of particular websites, including some that appear innocuous.

But sites can be blacklisted because they “have consistently underperformed in advertising campaigns,” he noted. “Sites may also be excluded if there have been comments or complaints about the content.”

Breitbart added in December

Breitbart, the U.S.-based ultra-right website to which Steve Bannon recently returned after his departure as U.S. President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, was added to the list last December after complaints.

The move followed a social media campaign by Sleeping Giants, a shadowy activist group that emerged on Facebook and Twitter last November and pressed corporations to pull their ads from Breitbart, which also runs several affiliated websites.

Sleeping Giants focused on the Canadian government after an ad for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission appeared on the site for three days, Nov. 28-30, 2017, before being pulled. Previously, ads for Statistics Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada had also appeared there.

And in May this year, Sleeping Giants launched a campaign urging corporations to pull ads from Canadian ultra-right site The Rebel.

Boucher would not say when The Rebel was added to the blacklist, or why. (The outlet received a letter of support from Environment Minister Catherine McKenna last October when it applied for media accreditationat a climate conference in Morocco, in a press-freedom controversy.)

A Jan. 4 ministerial briefing note for PSPC outlines “brand safety measures” for determining which websites are forbidden when government digital ads are purchased via networks such as the Google Display Network.

“For digital advertising that is purchased programmatically — that is, by a computer, based on a series of parameters — we developed a list of acceptable sites referred to as a whitelist,” says the document, also obtained by CBC News under Access to Information.

‘Ensuring that editorial content does not incite racial hatred, discrimination or the subversion of Canada’s democratic system of government.’– Official criteria for excluding websites from receiving federal government ads

“For maximum safety, the whitelist is used in conjunction with a blacklist filter,” the document says.

“The screening process is based on criteria that the Government of Canada has been using for traditional media. These include ensuring that editorial content does not incite racial hatred, discrimination or the subversion of Canada’s democratic system of government.”

Boucher said that among the screened-out sites are those dealing with crime, death, tragedy, military conflict, “juvenile/gross/bizarre content,” profanity, rough language, sexually suggestive content, sensational and shocking content, gambling and sensitive social issues.

The in-house blacklist is an extra layer of “brand safety” supplementing the exclusion criteria that the Google Display Network and other ad services impose on their own distribution networks for all clients.

Governments should not ‘pick favourites’

An expert on political branding warns that governments too often focus on delivering messages directly to their political bases, and that advertising can be misused as a partisan tool.

Alex Marland, political science professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control (2016). (Memorial University)

“Our governments should not be picking favourites,” said Memorial University of Newfoundland political scientist Alex Marland, author of last year’s Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control.

“And because of the choices of media, you can communicate information to some Canadians, and other Canadians are never contacted.”

Marland said the Liberal government needs to be clear on exactly how and why websites are put on a blacklist, based on public and transparent principles, and how those websites can get off the list.

Among other sometimes surprising inclusions on the blacklist: men’s magazine Maxim, lingerie seller La Vie en Rose, female-targeted blog Jezebel, the promotional site for erectile dysfunction drug Cialis, sports sites SB Nation and Barstool Sports, Auto Trader, India Times, Mayo Clinic.

Source: Federal advertising ‘blacklist’ of websites includes far-right outlets – Politics – CBC News

Liberal government’s new public appointment process fails to improve system, says Conacher

Like many such changes, the proof will only become apparent after a few years, when over 50 percent of GiC positions have been renewed or replaced.

From my perspective, the application of the diversity and inclusion agenda to appointments, hopefully accompanied by annual reporting, will help judge whether Duff Conacher or Alex Marland are correct in their initial assessments.

My take, given my focus on diversity issues, is that we will see an increase in women, visible minorities and indigenous peoples, along with other aspects of diversity, although the “values” of appointments will be largely aligned to the Liberals, just as the previous appointee values were aligned to the Conservatives.

For the baseline of current GiC appointments, see my article, Governor in Council Appointments – 2016 Baseline, or my book, “Because it’s 2015 …” Implementing Diversity and Inclusion, available as a free download (iPad/Mac version (iBooks)Windows (PDF) Version):

“The Conservatives, for most appointments, put an ad up on that website, sometimes put an ad in a newspaper, usually had a headhunter firm, for lack of a better term, do the search for candidates … the Conservatives kept on claiming ‘we’re doing this new way of appointments,’ but the key is the headhunting firm or whoever did the search would just put a list that was a completely advisory list to cabinet and cabinet or the prime minister could choose whomever they wanted,” said Mr. Conacher.

On Feb. 25, 2016, the Liberals quietly announced a new approach to governor in council appointments, which will “apply to the majority of non-judicial appointments, and will make hundreds of part-time positions subject to a formal selection process for the first time.”

“We are committed to raising the bar on openness and transparency in government to make sure that it remains focused on serving Canadians as effectively and efficiently as possible. Government must serve the public interest, and remain accountable to Canadians,” reads a quote from Mr. Trudeau on the release (there is no corresponding event or actual in-person announcement indicated).

As indicated online, the “new approach will” require all GIC opportunities to be advertised online, as well as in the Canada Gazette, and GIC candidates will complete an online profile of their personal background (including language and identity group) in order to try to ensure diversity in appointments.

“Additional online and/or print media may be used in some cases,” reads the website. “Each rigorous selection process will be based on advertised selection criteria developed for the position, and assessment of candidates against the criteria,” it reads, adding this assessment is then provided to the minister responsible.

Members of these selection committee “will be chosen to represent the interests of those who are responsible for decision-making on appointments (the minister, the prime minister), as well as individuals who bring a perspective on the specific interests and needs of the organization,” reads the frequently asked questions section.

The February release indicates this “will be” the new process for GIC appointments, and “the Governor in Council appointment process does not require the approval of Parliament,” said PMO press secretary Cameron Ahmad, when asked what’s required to formalize the new process posted online.

“The process is currently being implemented and applies to Governor in Council appointments. It was made public in February,” he said, adding “the Privy Council Office supports the prime minister with respect to governor in council appointments” when asked which department drafted the new process.

The Liberal government’s new “rigorous approach to appointments is based on the principals of open, transparent and merit-based selection processes that will support ministers in making appointment recommendations for positions in their portfolio,” said Mr. Ahmad, when asked why ultimate discretion to recommend to the GG lies with cabinet and the PM.

“The new approach raises the bar on openness and transparency in government and supports accountability to Canadians,” his response continued.

Mr. Conacher said the Liberal government’s new GIC process is ultimately “no different than what the Conservatives did,” and by allowing ministers or the PM to ignore selection committee recommendations it’s “maintained the patronage crony system.” He said he thinks the Liberals are reluctant to fully take decisions out of the hands of government because “the Liberals have a whole bunch of people who volunteered for 10 years while they lost three elections and some of those people want a reward.”

“This is one of the greatest areas of cabinet power,” said Mr. Conacher.

Mr. Conacher said instead, there should be a new process introduced federally similar to Ontario’s judicial appointments committee which has 13 members, six of whom are members of the public—though he said the “flaw” is seven members are from the ruling party. Mr. Conacher said with a minority of members from the ruling party and a majority from opposition parties, or require membership to be approved by all House leaders. This committee would “come up with a short list” of candidates and then cabinet would “have to choose from the short list.”

As well, he said all positions should be advertised widely online, including on popular public job sites (like Monster Jobs, for example).

Alex Marland, associate professor of politics at Memorial University, said if the “composition of the group of people making the [GIC appointment] recommendations have deep Liberal connections” it’s hard to “put a lot of faith that this is any more than window dressing.” But he also said he doesn’t worry about cabinet or the PM having discretion over such appointments.

“I actually think that’s necessary, because ultimately cabinet is accountable to Parliament, and ultimately cabinet has to run the government, so how could the government function if somebody is being recommended to a position and cabinet is bound to appoint someone who they realize the can’t possibly work with or who will undermine what they’re trying to do,” said Prof. Marland.

Prof. Marland said more transparency is good, and the fact that the process is publicly available “does reduce the possibility” for cronyism and at the end of the day, “you have to trust that these groups take their jobs seriously and will actually make recommendations that they believe are the right ones.”

The Liberals have also committed to review the judicial appointment process and in an email response to questions from The Hill Times, including on timing, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said she “will work with interested stakeholders, including the judiciary, and Canadians on these appointments.”

“In the interim, our Government is moving forward on measures that will facilitate appointments to fill highly pressing judicial vacancies as soon as possible,” reads her response. There are currently about 46 vacant seats on the benches of federally appointed superior courts across Canada.

As well, back in December, the Liberals announced the creation of a new Senate appointment process with the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments.

Source: Liberal government’s new public appointment process fails to improve system, says Conacher |

Privy Council Office’s new delivery unit increases capacity for centralized control, say experts

Will be interesting to assess in a few years but it is designed to deliver on the government’s agenda:

The Privy Council Office’s Results and Delivery Unit, created by the new Trudeau Liberal government, has increased the capacity for more centralized control over government, say experts.

But while there are early positive signs it will be used to strengthen cabinet, it remains to be seen what the effect will be in practice in the years ahead.

“We don’t really know [yet] whether it will result in centralized control, but what it does mean is that we’ve now increased capacity at the centre,” Anna Esselment, an assistant professor of politics at the University of Waterloo, said in an interview last week. “There’s always suspicion when greater capacity occurs in the centre that this will ultimately mean greater power for the prime minister.”

In a recent interview with The Hill Times, Alex Marland, an associate politics professor at Memorial University and author of Brand Command, said “central control is deepening far more than people know or seem to care about.

“The creation of delivery units in the centre of the Liberal government are an excellent example of PMO control. It is not lost on me that if the Harper administration had created those we’d be hearing howls that Canada is becoming an authoritarian state,” he said. “It is the role of academics to see beyond public personas of political leaders, especially when everyone else is distracted by them.”

The Liberal government announced the appointment of former Ontario deputy minister Matthew Mendelsohn to the new role of deputy secretary to cabinet on results and delivery on Dec. 23, putting him in charge of the PCO’s new Results and Delivery Unit (RDU).

The RDU has been created within the PCO and “will support efforts to monitor delivery, address implementation obstacles on key priorities, and report on progress to the prime minister,” as well as facilitating “the work of government by developing tools, guidance, and learning activities on implementing an outcome-focused approach,” explained PCO spokesperson Raymond Rivet in an email response to questions from The Hill Times. It’s “designed to help ministers deliver on commitments and help the prime minister track progress on the delivery of top priorities,” he said.

…As for Canada’s federal delivery unit, there are a dozen staff listed as working in the office of the deputy secretary to cabinet on results and delivery: Francis Bilodeau, assistant secretary; Valerie Anglehart, executive assistant; Christina Norris, director of operations; Craig Kuntz, director of data; Mélanie Lavictoire, cabinet committee coordinator; Bruce Wang, senior analyst; Yanic Allain, administrative assistant; and analysts Kevin Dobbie, Sophie Hashem, Karim Moussaly, and Melissa Tan.

Source: Privy Council Office’s new delivery unit increases capacity for centralized control, say experts |

PMO ‘central control deepening far more than people know or seem to care about’

Good interview with Alex Marland, author of Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control;

Your book also examines political communications under the Harper Conservatives. Has political communications changed under the Trudeau Liberals? 

“The Trudeau brand is refreshing and engaging. Even those who cringe at the selfies and the blatant photo-ops should acknowledge that the change in tone is a welcome relief after the intense negativity that permeated Canadian politics dating to the early 2000s. Hopefully the showmanship will fall away, because a shameless desire for publicity and public adulation can turn many citizens off politics too. For someone like me, the issue is that the more that the media’s glare is on the prime minister, the more power that individual has. I believe that central control is deepening far more than people know or seem to care about. The creation of delivery units in the centre of the Liberal government are an excellent example of PMO control. It is not lost on me that if the Harper administration had created those we’d be hearing howls that Canada is becoming an authoritarian state. It is the role of academics to see beyond the public personas of political leaders, especially when everyone else is distracted by them.”

Why do you say the pursuit of political power is strategic as never before? What do you mean?

“The competition for power involves a level of strategic manoeuvering and tactical execution in ways that are exceedingly complex. Sure, there’s a lot of gut instinct involved—there just isn’t enough money in Canadian politics to enable the kind of data analytics found in the U.S.A. In any event, you cannot form government on the basis of marketing alone. It was sometimes said that Harper was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers. I would suggest that everyone is forced to play chess now. Even the smallest political parties have supporter databases, are using social media, are familiar with market segmentation to bundle coalitions, and so on. Everything is quick, quick, quick—not only do you need to be sharp-minded, but you need to operate in a media cycle that churns multiple times per day. This is where branding comes in: if you have a core set of messages and values the brand mantra acts as a guide for spinning a message no matter what the circumstance.”

How has branding influenced democracy?

“Branding’s supporters, including in the government, will tell you that it saves money and makes things more efficient. Navigating webpages with a common look and feel is an example; cutting down on the number of sub-brands and logos throughout government is another. Templates for campaign signs, brochures and websites have done wonders for local campaigns, while simultaneously imprinting a central command ethos. Branding also simplifies things for electors—the same messages are repeated, we see the same visuals over and over. Only the most rabid politicos read campaign platforms, or care about policy discussions at party conventions. Most Canadians are busy with their daily lives and pay surface attention to politics. Branding connects with them. It also limits the potential for a brand ambassador to commit a gaffe or so-called “bozo interruption” that undermines the leadership team. So as a strategy it helps to move an agenda forward. The downside, of course, is that candidates and MPs, and even some ministers, become regional sales reps of a message set by people at the top. It becomes a serious problem when all messages align, bordering on state propaganda.”

Where is Canadian politics headed? 

“I am a cautious optimist. The proliferation of digital media means that traditional elite power structures are under stress to change and evolve. This is generally good. What is not good is that the online sphere has become a powerful interest group for the hyper-sensitive forces of political correctness. A healthy democracy is strongest when open-minded citizens carefully deliberate a variety of opinions. As a society, we need leaders who encourage thoughtful constructive debate, who are willing to challenge the wisdom of crowds, who question attachments to party labels, and who aren’t afraid to sometimes take a public punch from their own brand ambassadors.”

Source: PMO ‘central control deepening far more than people know or seem to care about’ |

Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control

Alex Marland’s book on branding and message control under the Harper government is now out (Marland also edited the wonderful Canadian Election Analysis 2015 –, issued just a few weeks after the election).

Now that the ‘brand’ has changed, interesting to reflect on the Liberal government’s equally – if not stronger – branding, evident at both the PM, Ministerial and other levels:

A brand-centric approach to power involves the strategic unification of words and visuals. At the most basic level, a branding philosophy holds that communicating disjointed messages in a haphazard style is less likely to resonate with intended audiences. Conversely, core information repeatedly communicated in an uncomplicated, consistent, and efficient way to targeted subgroups is more likely to secure support for the sender’s agenda. Branding strategy positions the sender as unique, reassures audiences, and communicates aspirational, value-based, and credible messages. Repetitiveness and symmetry are crafted to pierce the clamour. A “less is more” approach to communication reinforces information and messages and does so in a resource-efficient manner that accentuates visual imagery.

Branding balances the information demands of the impassioned and the uninterested. It communicates cues and signals to distracted audiences while stoking emotional connections with those who are most loyal. It involves marketers maximizing their communications investments by promoting messages designed to differentiate the brand and to resonate on an emotional level with target audiences. It understates or ignores the brand’s flaws. It turns a humdrum interaction into a memorable experience. The resulting brand loyalty felt by the most ardent supporters is such that they can be impervious to missteps and to courting by competitors. An organization requires tenacious leadership to assert branding objectives over the demands and criticisms of other actors. The more fractured that media become, the more that party strategists and senior public servants seek to standardize and centralize their messages. The more that message cohesion, discipline, and centralization are practised, the more that society makes political choices based on images of politicians rather than on policy details. In politics, the brand unites everything.Th e rest of us need to look at political leaders, party politics, the media, and public administration through a branding lens to understand this.

…This book … is concerned with establishing that changes in communications technology are enabling the centre to enforce communications control and to implement branding strategy. This examination will provide both believers and disbelievers of the Savoie thesis with a basis for further assessment of whether the centre has too much power – and in particular a better understanding of the institutional conditions and processes related to political communications and elite behaviour. Brand Command argues that the causes of centralization are systemic, not individualistic. In this light, Trudeau’s pledge to empower cabinet and buck the forces of centralization seems idealistic. Branding strategy seeks to influence public impressions and to set and advance agendas. It is accompanied by an organizational willingness to exploit opportunities to penetrate a communications cyclone and a motivation to achieve resource efficiencies. In interviews conducted for this book, many respondents pontificated, unaided, along the following lines: “Disseminating a message in the clutter or bombardment of information that you get today is a huge challenge … One of the solutions to that is consistency of messaging, which probably explains to a large degree the centralized approach that government has taken to its communications.”

Brand Command UBC Press