Public Health Agency head should have a science background, advisor says

Good summary of some of the issues regarding whether the head of PHAC should be a general administrator or one who also has a scientific or medical background (government announced the appointment of the president of the National Research Council, Iain Stewart, who also has extensive government experience):

With the government expected to name a new president of the Public Health Agency of Canada this week, a former top adviser says the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the department needs a person with a science background at the helm, not an administrator.

After the sudden departure of president Tina Namiesniowski on Friday, the naming of a new leader is under heightened scrutiny. The resignation followed a string of problems associated with Canada’s pandemic preparedness and response over the past several months that were recently made public.

The government has signalled it will name a replacement as early as this week, but Michael Garner, a former senior science adviser and epidemiologist at the federal department, said the lessons of the pandemic are that a background in public health should be a primary requirement for the job.

“We can have all the expertise in the world working at PHAC, but if the leaders don’t understand public-health science, our pandemic response will continue to suffer,” Mr. Garner said. “It’s someone who can ask the right questions of the scientists. They have to be able to rapidly adjust as they get new information.”

Mr. Garner, who left Public Health last fall, is speaking out to The Globe and Mail on behalf of some of his former colleagues, including doctors and epidemiologists who still work at the department and are not authorized to speak publicly.

Several Public Health employees, who can’t be named owing to fears they could face reprisals, have told The Globe that they often struggled to communicate urgent and complex messages up the chain of command inside Public Health. Because senior officials within the department lacked an understanding of the science, key messages often had to be “dumbed down” one scientist told The Globe this summer.

Ms. Namiesniowski, who previously worked at the Border Services Agency, after roles with Agriculture and Public Safety, came to the agency with a political-science background. Vice-president Sally Thornton, who also left recently, had a background in law, and served in the Treasury Board and Privy Council before being appointed to a senior Public Health role.

Both oversaw critical aspects of the country’s pandemic preparedness and response systems. That included the handling of Canada’s early warning and surveillance unit, the Global Public Health Intelligence Network or GPHIN, which had its operations cut back last year, and the national emergency stockpile, which came up short in supplying personal protective equipment.

In an e-mail sent to staff, Ms. Namiesniowski said she needed a break, and was stepping aside to spend time with family. The e-mail indicated a new president for Public Health would be named early this week, suggesting the government already had a replacement for Ms. Namiesniowski in mind when her resignation was announced.

The selection of a new president has taken on increased importance with Canada seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases, and signs of a second wave of the outbreak emerging.

Canada’s pandemic response has been criticized for delaying critical decisions, and for underestimating the threat of the virus, particularly as the country curtailed much of its intelligence-gathering capacity by early 2019. That led to the government’s official risk assessments of the outbreak repeatedly labelling the virus a “low” risk to the country, even as it began to spread aggressively around the world in February and mid-March, and new evidence emerged about human-to-human transmission.

A Globe investigation in July detailed the problems inside Public Health, including the concerns from staff who said that science had been “devalued” within the department. Health Minister Patty Hajdu told The Globe those revelations were troubling.

“The pleas from the scientists and the researchers [inside Public Health] were particularly profound,” Ms. Hajdu said two weeks ago, as she ordered a federal review into the department’s handling of the pandemic early warning and surveillance unit, which was cut back against the protests of the scientists inside the department.

“The review, hopefully, will get at why are these processes in place, and are there better ways to manage?”

The Auditor-General has also launched an investigation of its own into the oversight of GPHIN and the decisions surrounding the intelligence-gathering unit.

Mr. Garner and several employees working inside Public Health say the department underwent a crucial shift in 2014, when the Conservative government revised the Public Health Act. That decision moved the leadership of PHAC from the Chief Public Health Officer, which is a public-health doctor, to the role of President, which became a government appointee.

While the Chief Public Health Officer is the face of the agency, and speaks directly to Canadians, the structural decisions for the department, which have the greatest influence over how the various programs operate, are made by the president.

Though the Liberals opposed the move when it was made, the structure remained in place when the government changed.

“This decision set PHAC on a course that has gravely influenced its ability to put into place the foundational elements required to proactively prepare for and effectively respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” Mr. Garner said.

Ms. Thornton has been replaced as vice-president by Brigitte Diogo, who recently worked in rail safety for the federal government. A spokesman for Public Health told The Globe that Ms. Diogo has experience in safety and security policy at Transport Canada and the Privy Council, and risk mitigation while at Immigration Canada.



With civil service shakeup, Trudeau brings youth, diversity to top jobs

Election 2015 and Beyond- Implementation Diversity and Inclusion.001Simon Doyle on changes to Deputy ranks but more anecdotal than evidence-based.

My count of the 19 Deputy appointments to date by PM Trudeau: 10 men, 9 women, 1 visible minority, no Indigenous people. Gender parity but weak visible minority and Indigenous peoples representation, reflecting in part weaknesses in ADM diversity as shown in the above chart:

Retirements of Ottawa’s highest-ranked bureaucrats have accelerated under the Justin Trudeau government as the Liberals shuffle the leadership of the public service after years of management under Stephen Harper.

The government has made a series of moves with its highest-ranked bureaucrats since coming into office last fall, most recently promoting senior officials who had worked on the Environment and Foreign Affairs portfolios.

…..David Zussman, a former senior government official and a professor of public-sector management at the University of Ottawa, said the number of appointments are high, with more than 20 changes in the senior ranks of the public service since late December, including retirements.

“I’m sure word would have gone out that: ‘We’re in a process of renewal, and any of you guys thinking of leaving, do me a favour and tell me now,’ ” Dr. Zussman said.

“A lot of them are really long-standing public servants who I think hung around for the election to help out [former clerk] Janice Charette, and now, six months into it, they decided to trigger their retirements. They’ve all got their 35 years,” he said, indicating they can collect pensions.

…“Some ministers may want a new deputy, and it’s their prerogative to say they would like someone new. The clerk may decide that he feels someone should move, or sometimes deputies will go and say they would like to move,” said C. Scott Clark, former deputy minister of finance and a senior adviser to the prime minister under the Jean Chrétien government.

“It takes time for a minister and a deputy to form what I would call a good relationship, a professional, working relationship. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t,” Mr. Clark said.

…The new deputies also reflect efforts by Mr. Trudeau and the clerk to renew the public service and, as with the makeup of the Prime Minister’s cabinet, introduce some youth and diversity into the government’s leadership.

“He’s been very clear about the importance he attaches to having a professional, non-partisan, responsive, agile, creative public service,” Mr. Wernick told The Globe and Mail in an interview earlier this year. “It’s the only way he’s going to accomplish the goals he put in front of Canadians.”

One senior government official said Mr. Trudeau, in late January, made a rare appearance at the Deputy Ministers’ Breakfast, a gathering of all the public service’s most senior mandarins who meet in Langevin Block. Prime ministers typically address the breakfast once or twice per year.

While it’s unclear what was said, the PM has been emphasizing with senior officials a program for getting results and revitalizing the public service. Mr. Trudeau attended the meeting shortly after he appointed Mr. Wernick as Clerk.

….Mr. Scott expects more changes in the fall after the government takes the summer to regroup. “I would expect there will probably be more moves coming,” he said. As Mr. Wernick said in a recent letter to the PM: “It is clear to me that we are entering a period of dramatic generational change in the Public Service.”

Source: With civil service shakeup, Trudeau brings youth, diversity to top jobs – The Globe and Mail

Diversity of Deputy Ministers – Current Baseline

With the announcement that Janice Charente is being replaced by Michael Wernick as Clerk of the Privy Council, I thought it might be interesting to see what the baseline is before further appointments and changes take place this year.

Including the 22 deputies for departments (per GEDS), eight deputies at PCO, and the heads of CBSA, CRS, CSE, CSIS, PSC, RCMP, SSC, StatsCan and TBS (39 deputies or equivalents), generates the following results (14 women, 25 men, 1 visible minority):


Will update this at the end of the year to see if any significant changes given the government’s focus on diversity and inclusion (and of course if I have missed anyone or mischaracterized anyone, happy to revise).

Kathryn May’s analysis of the appointment worth reading:

The announcement left many public servants scratching their heads as to why Trudeau replaced Charette with Wernick and asked him to help find his replacement.

It’s unclear how long Wernick will be in the job, but one of his key tasks will be studying how to select the next clerk. “The Prime Minister has asked Mr. Wernick for advice on a process to fill the position on a permanent basis,” said the press statement.

Ralph Heintzman, the University of Ottawa research professor who has long argued for an independent appointment process to pick the clerk and all deputy ministers, said the move is in line with the new approach Trudeau is taking to all appointments.

He said finding a new arm’s length process for appointing the clerk is the first step to a “renaissance” of Canada’s non-partisan public service, which many argued had become politicized as more power shifted to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Michael Wernick new Clerk of the Privy Council

Top bureaucrats met to resist partisanship imposed on public service #cdnpoli

Encouraging sign that senior levels appear not to have remained in denial mode (the change in government makes this all the more pertinent as the incoming government and the public service need to establish trust):

As a new Liberal government takes the reins this week, Canada’s top bureaucrats are looking for ways to purge partisan politics from the shell-shocked public service.

The highest echelon of the bureaucracy met in the spring, before the election was called, to discuss ways to insulate public servants from intense pressure to be “promiscuously partisan” instead of neutral in carrying out the government’s agenda.

The May 13 meeting of deputy ministers was asked by Canada’s top civil servant to consider how Canada’s Westminster parliamentary system needs to be “re-set and if medium-term planning could provide the opportunity.”

The group was provided with one paper for backgrounding — dating from 2010, by the late scholar Peter Aucoin — describing how partisanship has damaged Westminster systems in Canada, Britain and Australia.

The new reality “is characterized by integration of governance and campaigning, partisan-political staff as a third force in public administration, politicization of appointments to the senior public service, and expectation that public servants should be promiscuously partisan,” says a summary provided for the meeting by the Privy Council Office, the central organ of government .

The group was urged to consider how the damaged system could be fixed “during periods of transition and government formation.”

One proposal called for clarifying the job description of Canada’s top public servant, the clerk of the Privy Council.

‘Confusion and mistrust’

“Without a set of guidelines to clearly determine which of the clerk’s roles should be given primacy in situations where duties may conflict, confusion and mistrust can arise during periods of government formation.”

Meeting documents, some heavily censored, were obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act. They represent a candid acknowledgment by the bureaucracy that partisan politics have radically changed the nature of their work, especially under the Harper government.

A spokesman for Janice Charette, appointed clerk just last year, declined to respond to questions, including what actions were taken arising from the meeting. “We are not able to provide details of meetings of senior executives,” Raymond Rivet said in an email.

The so-called “creeping politicization” of the public service dates as far back as the 1970s, under Liberal governments, but the Harper administration has come under special criticism from some scholars.

Ralph Heintzman, a research professor at the University of Ottawa, has cited the example of a communications directive requiring bureaucrats to refer to the “Harper government” in news releases, rather than the government of Canada.

Other examples include a request last year that departments send retweets promoting a family-tax measure not yet passed by Parliament, including a hashtag with the Conservative slogan #StrongFamilies, and public servants working overtime to create promotional videos about child benefits, spots that prominently featured Pierre Poilievre, the employment minister.

“For anyone who cares about the condition of our federal public service, this is a very depressing story,” Heintzman wrote about the “Strong Families” tweets last April, a month before the deputy ministers’ meeting.

“It seems to confirm the widely reported slide of too many senior public service leaders from their traditional and proper role as non-partisan professionals to a new and improper role as partisan cheerleaders for the current political administration.”

Source: Top bureaucrats met to resist partisanship imposed on public service – Politics – CBC News

Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Former DM Reaction

A good discussion this week with a group of some 20 former deputy ministers, using my “10 inconvenient truths” framework.

Interesting to hear their views on how previous transitions and relationships compared with the current government. In addition to my points about the sharp ideological contrast and the non-responsiveness of the public service in many cases, participants also noted that the minority nature of the government further exacerbated tension.

Always rewarding to test out one’s ideas with such an experienced group.

New generation of DMs top-notch managers, but lack policy development expertise: Mitchell |

Interesting debate between David Mitchell, President of the Public Policy Forum, and Donald Savoie, of Université de Moncton, on the policy skills of the current crop of deputies, and whether the emphasis is on policy development or management skills.

I think context matters. While deputies generally have a rounded skill and competency set, there is less appetite for longer-term policy development under the current government than previous governments, as the Conservative government has its own strong policy agenda and the public service has focused more on short-term program policy in implementing that agenda.

It is the more open-ended and longer-term policy development that has been weakened, and my understanding is that policy capacity  in a number of departments has been cut back through successive rounds of expenditure reductions. Not to say there was not capacity to be trimmed, or that this does not reflect legitimate political and bureaucratic decisions. We need to start by acknowledging the changes and likely longer-term impact of the capacity of the public service.

Savoie’s comments strike me as ignoring the current context. Just as he has argued against parliamentary officers at a time when Parliament is not performing its job of scrutinizing government spending (Do we need a PBO?), he does not acknowledge the degree to which policy advice and direction comes more from the political level. In addition, he does not acknowledge the degree to which official-level advice has been discounted or ignored, or limited to program policy and implementation issues.

Given the paywall, full text below:

The newer generation of federal deputy ministers have top-notch management skills, but lack sufficient expertise in policy development which could prove to be detrimental for the current and future governments in dealing with unforeseen crises situations such as terrorism, climate change, or military conflicts, says David Mitchell, president of the Public Policy Forum, one of the country’s leading think tanks, but other experts disagree.

“The newer deputy ministers who are emerging or senior public servants who are emerging have very, very solid managerial skills and expertise, but probably less experience in terms of policy development because there hasn’t been such a great demand for it in recent years,” said Mr. Mitchell in an interview with The Hill Times, adding that that the outgoing deputy ministers have more policy development experience than the ones replacing them.

“Most of the work of the public service has been around service delivery, management [and] accountability because that’s been the order of the day, but there’s been less of a demand on the public service for policy development and policy skills and many of the senior public servants who are moving into retirement are taking those skills with them and the newer generation of leaders likely has not had as much experience with that. That could be a challenge in the future when a government may require policy options and policy development skills, especially if they are not there in abundance in the future.”

Mr. Mitchell, a political historian who also served as MLA in the British Columbia legislature from 1991-1996, said that the process of shifting of focus away from policy development to effective management, service delivery, and accountability in the federal public service has been in progress over the last generation and now most of the policy development takes place in thinks tanks, industry associations and universities. This, he said, has made the top bureaucrats unprepared to deal with crisis situations.

“An aging population, increasing responses to natural disasters, international dimensions to public policy in terms of terrorism, climate change, or military conflicts, or unanticipated areas that we really don’t know about. If the public service isn’t actively thinking through scenarios and coming up with potential policy options for future governments, we could be in a position where we could be less prepared as a country to deal with emerging realities that the Canadian public can’t easily anticipate now. But it used to be the job of the public service to be thinking about this and to be prepared to not only advise the government of the day, but also to present policy options in order to deal with unanticipated circumstances. Today, that capacity has atrophied within government,” said Mr. Mitchell who in the past served as vice-president of Queen’s University, the University of Ottawa, and Simon Fraser University.

Mr. Mitchell said that with the departure of outgoing deputy ministers, the federal public service not only is losing individuals with significant policy development experience but also the institutional memory.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) shuffled the senior ranks of the public service in late July. In the shuffle, George Da Pont, who was then president of Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), was appointed as the deputy minister of Health; Bruce Archibald, then president of the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario was named president of the CFIA; Karen Ellis, former associate deputy minister of Natural Resources was named the president of Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario; Anita Biguzs, former associate deputy minister of Citizenship and Immigration was promoted to the position of deputy minister in the same department; Wilma Vreeswijk, former deputy secretary to the Cabinet (Business Transformation and Renewal) was named associate deputy minister of Citizenship and Immigration; Colleen Volk, former deputy secretary to the Cabinet (senior personnel), Privy Council Office, was named deputy secretary to Cabinet (senior personnel, Business Transformation and Renewal) Privy Council Office; and Helena Borges, former assistant deputy minister, programs group at Transport Canada was named associate deputy minister of Transport. At the time of the shuffle, Prime Minister Harper also announced the retirement plans of Glenda Yeates, former deputy minister of health, and Neil Yeates, former deputy minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

Meanwhile, Donald Savoie, who holds a Canada Research Chair in public administration and governance at the Universitè de Moncton, N.B., and is also a leading expert on the machinery of government, disagreed with Mr. Mitchell’s opinion that senior federal public servants have insufficient experience in policy development.

“I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think deputy ministers today have to have a number of skills. One is policy, second is political skills, not partisan, I want to make that important distinction. They have to have political antennas, not partisan antennas, a big difference. They have to have policy skills, they have to know how to work with other departments because policy now transcends departments and they do hopefully know how to manage and it’s a very difficult environment,” said Mr. Savoie, who is the author of numerous books and articles on public administration and public policy, in an interview with The Hill Times.

“There’s a series of skills that someone who makes into a deputy minister rank has had to prove in the past and policy skills happens to be one of them,” Mr. Savoie said. “The deputies who are recently appointed over the past several years, a lot of them come from central agencies: the bulk of deputies from the PCO, Finance, Treasury Board and so on. That’s not where you hone your management skills, that’s where you hone your policy and political skills.”

Mr. Savoie, who also has extensive experience in both government and academia, said that the process of policy development has changed over the years with more players offering their input but the senior civil servants are still the ones that are the decision makers in the formation of policies.

“There’s different forces that come into play, different contributions. But, ultimately, at the end of the day, people who present policy packages are those who are in government. Deputy minister is the final funnel before policies arrive on a minister’s desk, or the Prime Minister’s desk, or the Privy Council Clerk’s desk. Various forces shape it, but deputy minister is the guy or the gal who has the gate to the policy process. The policy process gate is still inside government. It hasn’t moved outside. Different people try to make it to the gate, but deputies still control that gate,” said Mr. Savoie.

Mr. Savoie said that the loss of institutional memory is not something new in the public service as it has been going on dating back to 1867. He, however, suggested that the government should come up with some arrangement by which the institutional memory could be preserved.

“You can’t [pull] the hand of a deputy minister to stay in government till the age of 75 to protect institutional memory. It is part of the process. Should there be a process to capture better institutional memory and to value it inside government, yes. There’s all kinds of things you could do: There’s a need for more case studies on policy management [and] development inside federal government. I don’t see many case studies that have been produced. They are relatively simple to produce. And exit interviews, inviting the [outgoing] deputy to a series of round tables, there’s a way to capture that institutional memory and I think government should work on it a bit more.”

Mike Joyce, former assistant secretary at the Treasury Board Secretariat who retired about five years ago, in an interview with The Hill Times, also disagreed with Mr. Mitchell that the new crop of top civil servants have insufficient policy development expertise.

“The previous criticism of deputy ministers has, of course, been the reverse that they’re good at policy and they are rotated so quickly that they are not very good at management. If you are looking at the current crop of senior appointments as being good at management, I would say that’s a good thing if that’s true, but I wouldn’t suggest that they are any weaker on policy,” said Mr. Joyce who is now an adjunct professor at Queen’s University School of Policy Studies.

New generation of DMs top-notch managers, but lack policy development expertise: Mitchell |