Noël: Quand les gouvernements trébuchent [call for policy and program modestly]

Echoes the calls by others but nevertheless important.

Money quote: “le gouvernement fédéral devrait probablement modérer ses ambitions dans ses propres sphères de compétence, en adoptant des objectifs plus réalistes en immigration par exemple, afin d’éviter les échecs récurrents de gestion.”

Je n’étais pas en avance, c’est vrai, mais au début juillet, tard en soirée, je faisais des réservations pour un séjour de camping à Terre-Neuve et en Nouvelle-Écosse. Les réservations pour le traversier entre les deux provinces, opéré par Marine Atlantique, une société d’État fédérale, se sont avérées plutôt simples, tout comme celles pour des parcs provinciaux dans chaque province. Mais pour réserver des sites au parc national du Gros-Morne et à celui des Hautes-Terres-du-Cap-Breton, c’était un peu plus stressant. Avant de pouvoir réserver, il fallait créer une « CléGC (Service de gestion des justificatifs du gouvernement du Canada) », avec un nom d’utilisateur (toutes les variantes de mon nom ont été refusées), un mot de passe, et des réponses à une panoplie de questions. Pas un obstacle majeur, mais un processus un peu lourd pour une si petite tâche. À Ottawa, les missions les plus simples semblent souvent devenir complexes.

Tout ne va pas mal au Canada. Une étude parue à la fin juin dans le Canadian Medical Association Journal montre que, pour les deux premières années de la pandémie, le pays s’est classé parmi les meilleurs pour le nombre de cas, le taux de vaccination et la mortalité excédentaire, avec un bilan économique somme toute satisfaisant. Au Canada, ce sont les provinces atlantiques et le Québec qui ont connu les plus faibles taux de mortalité excédentaire.

Mais quelque part sur l’interminable voie de sortie de la pandémie, le bilan du gouvernement fédéral s’est détérioré. Cafouillage dans l’émission des visas et des passeports, congestion dans les aéroports, délais inacceptables à l’assurance-emploi, accueil difficile des réfugiés, traitement déficient des dossiers d’immigration, les échecs semblent s’accumuler.

Tout ne va pas nécessairement mieux dans les provinces. Il y a même des domaines où les ratés sont habituels, voire pérennes. La gestion des soins de santé constitue un cas patent. Mais dans ce cas, c’est largement une question de ressources. En 2019-2020, les soins de santé représentaient 41,4 % des dépenses de portefeuilles des provinces, comparativement à 31 % en 1981-1982. La même année, la contribution fédérale, par le biais du Transfert canadien en matière de santé, était tombée à 22,4 %. Si les provinces ne font pas mieux en santé, c’est largement parce que d’une année à l’autre elles doivent faire plus avec moins.

Dans d’autres domaines, comme en environnement, il s’agit plus clairement d’un manque de volonté politique. Si le ministre de l’Environnement du Québec « avait les convictions, la volonté, le courage et l’autorité morale nécessaires pour relever le défi de l’urgence climatique », écrivait récemment le chroniqueur Michel David, François Legault ne l’aurait pas choisi pour ce poste.

Mais émettre des visas et des passeports, acheminer des prestations d’assurance-emploi, traiter des demandes à l’immigration ? Le gouvernement fédéral a sûrement les ressources pour accomplir ces tâches et il devrait même être capable de marquer des points dans des secteurs qu’il contrôle depuis toujours, qui sont visibles et significatifs pour les citoyens et ne demandent pas des ressources faramineuses. « Il ne fallait pas être un génie », déplorait récemment l’ancien greffier du Bureau du Conseil privé Paul Tellier, « pour prédire qu’il y aurait une hausse des demandes de passeport » au sortir de la pandémie.

M. Tellier attribue les difficultés du gouvernement Trudeau à la centralisation excessive de la gestion autour du premier ministre et à la méfiance qui en découle entre élus et fonctionnaires. D’autres auteurs blâment le jeu politique, qui amène les élus à négliger les conseils et les actions des fonctionnaires.

Plus plausible, à mon avis, est le constat de l’ancien haut fonctionnaire Ralph Heintzman selon lequel le gouvernement fédéral se désintéresse des services aux citoyens depuis au moins trente ans. Dans la fonction publique fédérale, le prestige est associé aux conseils et à la stratégie, pas à la gestion compétente des programmes en place. Une carrière ascendante se caractérise par des sauts rapides d’un ministère à l’autre, pour appliquer à des niveaux supérieurs des méthodes de gestion largement indifférenciées. Consacrer trop d’années à maîtriser un domaine d’intervention gouvernementale semble manifester un manque d’ambition. Les hauts fonctionnaires voient ainsi les choses de haut. Quant aux élus, ils préfèrent annoncer des programmes plutôt que de veiller à leur bon cheminement.

Mais pourquoi ces travers semblent-ils plus prononcés à Ottawa ? Pour le comprendre, il faut considérer le fonctionnement de la fédération canadienne. Un rapport récent de l’Institut sur la gouvernance rapporte les propos d’un haut fonctionnaire qui note que « nous ne sommes pas un pays cohésif. Nous sommes une grande fédération ». On pourrait interpréter ce constat comme un appel de plus à davantage de collaboration entre les ordres de gouvernement. Mais il semble plus juste d’y voir une caractéristique structurelle, une condition d’existence du Canada.

La figure 1 ci-dessous montre bien pourquoi la gestion quotidienne de services aux citoyens n’est pas le fort du gouvernement fédéral.

Figure 1 : Dépenses du gouvernement fédéral et du gouvernement du Québec, 2021Sources : Comptes publics du Canada ; Comptes publics du Québec

Le gouvernement fédéral est un animal particulier, plus habitué à émettre des transferts aux individus, aux entreprises et aux gouvernements, et à énoncer des normes associées à ces transferts, qu’à livrer des services à la population. L’année 2021 exagère un peu le trait, puisque la pandémie a engendré son lot de transferts exceptionnels. Mais la logique générale ne change pas. Il y a plus de vingt ans, le rapport de la Commission sur le déséquilibre fiscal faisait état de proportions assez semblables.

Les difficultés actuelles du gouvernement Trudeau ne sont donc pas si exceptionnelles. Le gouvernement fédéral demeure principalement une machine à récolter et à distribuer des ressources fiscales et il a tendance à se perdre quand il s’agit de gérer des programmes concrets.

La solution réside donc moins dans une réforme additionnelle de la fonction publique fédérale que dans une meilleure compréhension du fonctionnement de la fédération. En premier lieu, il faudrait améliorer l’équilibre fiscal en laissant davantage de ressources propres aux gouvernements provinciaux, dont la tâche principale consiste justement à livrer des services à la population.

Ensuite, pour des raisons évidentes, il conviendrait de prendre avec un grain de sel les volontés de leadership fédérales sur des questions de compétence provinciale. Notant dans une formulation bien à lui qu’en santé « ce n’est pas juste pitcher de l’argent vers le problème qui va le résoudre », M. Trudeau invitait récemment les provinces à des « conversations » afin de réduire les délais d’attente. Compte tenu de l’état de ses services, il devrait se garder une petite gêne.

En fait, le gouvernement fédéral devrait probablement modérer ses ambitions dans ses propres sphères de compétence, en adoptant des objectifs plus réalistes en immigration par exemple, afin d’éviter les échecs récurrents de gestion.

Mais les difficultés actuelles ne sont pas nouvelles, et elles ne se résorberont pas facilement.

Source: Quand les gouvernements trébuchent

My latest: Disconnect between political priorities and service delivery [focus on passports and immigration]

Article below as behind a paywall:

The disconnect between government commitments and its ability to deliver on targets and service levels has never been clearer as the immigration and passport backlogs attest.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser indicated that the 2023-25 plan will likely include a target of 500,000 new permanent residents by the end of the plan. The number of temporary foreign workers will also increase significantly following relaxation of eligibility requirements (length of permits; increase in the cap allowed from 10 to 30 per cent; no longer refusing applications in low-wage occupations in regions with unemployment higher than six per cent), and the large number of Ukrainians arriving in Canada due to the war.

These current and planned increases are happening against the backdrop of large backlogs in permanent and temporary resident, citizenship and passport applications.

The resulting public and political outrage has prompted a mix of short-term measures, both symbolic such as the formation of a task force to improve government services as well as substantive, to alleviate applicant frustration (e.g., triage of passport applications, more online application tracking tools for immigration-related programs).

Why the disconnect?

Public service expert Ralph Heintzman focuses on the comparative neglect of service in relation to policy and program development (“poor cousin”) and how Service Canada never lived up to its promise to overturn that hierarchy in favour of citizen-centred service. As someone who has worked at Service Canada to implement that vision during the early days, we developed tools like score cards to maintain focus on service. Heintzman notes that departments do not focus on citizen and applicant satisfaction as current service failures illustrate.

Donald Savoie, a Canadian public administration expert, looks at the more fundamental issue of the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, and the need for the latter to have clear goals in order to implement effectively. The political level generally has conflicting goals, reflecting different stakeholder interests, and has a bias for the shiny and new, rather than program management, as any party platform will illustrate. Senior public servants are more akin to “courtiers,” rising through policy rather than service-delivery ranks, and have a “limited understanding of how best to help frontline managers deliver programs and public services.”

While his argument that government cannot be managed by using private-sector practices is valid at the policy level, I would argue that private-sector measurement and service practices are needed for the reasons outlined by Heintzman.

When service delivery is essential, as in the case of pandemic-related financial supports, the political and bureaucratic levels focus accordingly, and address the trade-off between speed of delivery and program integrity.

It is unclear the extent to which the public service advised the government that its focus on meeting its political objective of increased immigration would mean a surge in backlogs across programs, given reduced capacity during the pandemic.

The need for digitalization, modernization, and renewal of IT infrastructure was driven home during the pandemic. In the short-term, the IRCC has delivered online applications and updates for some programs. For the longer term, the challenges are greater, given the complexities of programs and government structures, the time involved and the need for effective management, as the Phoenix pay system debacle illustrates.

While the government is ultimately accountable, stakeholders, with some rare exceptions, bear some of the responsibility. Businesses complain about backlogs, but press for higher levels that exacerbate pressures, as do other levels of government, immigration lawyers, and consultants, settlement agencies, academics, and activists. While the general support for immigration across all these groups is laudable and exceptional compared to other countries, it also reveals an unhealthy group think that is unwilling to consider seriously trade-offs between addressing backlogs and increased levels.

Air Canada’s announcement that it is trimming capacity in order to ensure meeting their on-time performance service standards contrasts with the inability of the government to manage immigration and passport demand and related expectations. While I disagree with the government’s overall approach to increased immigration, a more responsible government would engage with stakeholders to explain the constraints and institute a partial and temporary reduction in immigration levels to reduce the backlog.

Politically, it is harder for governments to be open about service delivery issues than the private sector. However, being up front avoids the inevitable drip-drip of revelations of problems that result in greater public and media attention and prolonged controversies.

The challenge for the public service is to “provide stronger advice to the political level on the constraints and trade-offs inherent in public administration” on service delivery issues, always tricky to carry out in practice.

Canadians may not appreciate the abstraction of large numbers, but they do understand the many personal stories of those who are waiting for decisions, whether in passport lineups or applications in the system. As Heintzman, Savoie, and others have noted, government failure to deliver on services or communicate in advance of service delivery issues undermines overall trust in government.

Source: Disconnect between political priorities and service delivery

May: The Achilles heel of the federal public service gives out again with passport fiasco

Agree. Service delivery unfortunately the poor cousin compared to policy and program development. Previous governments missed opportunity with Service Canada to transform government around service delivery.

Valid risk concerns yet here we are again with service failures, driven in part by governments more interested in new policy and program initiatives, as our senior public servants most who rose through the ranks on their policy work:

Delivering services to Canadians has been an Achilles heel of the federal government for 30 years because of political disinterest and a senior management of “travelling salesmen,” who hop from job to job and barely know the business of the departments they lead, says the former senior bureaucrat who proposed the creation of Service Canada.

“You have deputy ministers and senior executives … who very rarely have deep experience and knowledge of departments, operations and services for which they’re responsible. They haven’t worked their way up in that department and are flying blind to a significant degree,” said Ralph Heintzman, who also launched the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service and the Public Sector Service Delivery Council.

This constant churn of executives moving in and out of jobs has created a public service with “little learning experience, no constancy of purpose or corporate memory.”  That makes it very hard for the government to “maintain a focus on service improvement or anything for a long period of time,” he said.

But Heintzman says those are foundational reasons for why service has never been given the attention it deserves. Then come all the operational problems: underfunding, old technology systems that never get replaced, poorly trained and disengaged employees, lack of planning and little accountability for poor service.

Passport and immigration backlogs with long lineups of frustrated and fuming Canadians at Service Canada offices across the country in recent weeks prompted the government to create a new ministerial task force to find ways to improve service.

The 10-member task force is expected to make recommendations outlining short and longer-term solutions that would reduce wait times, clear backlogs and improve the overall quality of services provided.

Big barriers to improving service are investment in technology and recruiting the right people. That’s money and, notably, the minister of finance is not a member of the task force. The task force also comes as the government is launching a strategic review to find $6 billion in savings.

“They now have two conflicting objectives and can’t have it both ways. Which objective will trump the other? If they want to improve service, they will have to spend some money on technology, training and staffing levels,” said Michael Wernick, a former clerk of the Privy Council and the new Jarislowsky Chairin Public Sector Management at the University of Ottawa.

But Heintzman says many of the problems with service delivery are the same as in 1998 when he first presented Treasury Board ministers with a plan for Service Canada, a single one-stop agency to focus on delivery and citizen satisfaction. When the plan was rolled out in 2005, it was billed as the single biggest operational reform in federal history.

And it was all built on putting citizens first, or what he calls serving Canadians “outside in” rather than “inside out.”

“The whole idea of Service Canada was to help increase the standard of service and citizens’ satisfaction with government service.  So, when I see those photos of people lined up around Service Canada offices, there’s a pang in my heart,” said Heintzman.

But what’s different now is trust in government is falling like a stone and a wave of populism is exploiting those backlogs to drive the message that government isn’t working.

Heintzman says the research is clear. The satisfaction of Canadians with service is directly tied to citizens’ trust in government.

“One of the reasons why governments should invest in and pay attention to the quality of service is citizen trust,” said Heintzman.

“It makes me even more anxious now, when there are people eager and willing to seize upon the failures of the government to use them as an excuse for attacks on democracy and on the public sector.”

Public servants have two jobs. They offer policy advice and deliver programs and services to Canadians.

Service delivery has long been the poor cousin to policy. The way services are designed and delivered is often dictated by the internal needs of public servants and all the processes and rules they must follow. That means users and frontline workers — who know the ins and outs of how programs work — aren’t always heard.

Frontline managers also rarely make it to the top and ambitious public servants opt for the policy jobs. Executives typically manage up and into ministers’ offices and the Privy Council Office, rather than “manage down to line operations and out to citizens,” said Heintzman.

Prime ministers, ministers, even deputy ministers, pay little attention to operations or service delivery until there’s a crisis. The focus is all policy and “announceables,” not execution.

Knowing politicians aren’t that interested, senior bureaucrats are reluctant to bring up operational problems or push for technology projects to help improve services – especially after the disastrous Phoenix pay system.

“Three-quarters of the responsibility for performance in service delivery rests with the public service,” said Heintzman. “It has to be a public service issue, not only for execution, but in making it a political issue by including it in their priorities to ministers and for funding.”

The government has pinned its efforts to improve services and trust on digital technology. But Heintzman worries the emphasis on technology loses sight of citizens and how to improve service. In many departments, service is rolled into the responsibilities of the Chief Information Officer where the focus is on the latest software, hardware and apps.

“There should be a chief service officer of the government to whom the people responsible for information [management] and IT report, but the tail should not be wagging the dog. The objective is promising a proper service to people of Canada not running an IM-IT operation,” said Heintzman.

A focus on technology brings an “inside-out” approach to service, which means services are built around the priorities of the managers and department, not citizens.

Departments also don’t pay enough attention to service satisfaction – tracking how Canadians view a service and rate it – which Heintzman argues is the only way to improve service.

Rather than measure satisfaction, the government focuses on results and inputs. The Liberals created a “results and delivery unit” modelled after the deliverology theory of Britain’s Michael Barber that did little to improve service.

Heintzman says departments don’t plan enough. They don’t set targets or deadlines built around how they want to improve a service over the long run.  Service standards are set “inside out” with promises to answer a call, fix a complaint or provide a service within a certain time, which are “set to suit the people inside and have nothing to do with what people want or need in the way of delivery.”

They also don’t study the drivers of customer satisfaction, which varies by type of service and whether accessed by phone, in-person or online. Timeliness is the big one, but competence, courtesy, fairness, outcomes and value all influence satisfaction.

Heintzman argues managers should be held accountable for the quality of service, perhaps by linking their annual performance pay to client satisfaction. Central agencies such as Treasury Board and the Privy Council Office abdicated leadership in service delivery by turning it over to departments.

And finally, the government should professionalize service delivery. The Institute of Citizen-Centred Service was created to train and certify public servants, at any level, who manage services. Service delivery needs a “holistic approach” that reinforces how the pieces connect; happy and engaged employees are the key to customer satisfaction, which in turn fosters trust in government.

“Service delivery is part of the proper functioning of a democratic government. If we can’t do that properly, we’re undermining our democracy,” said Heintzman.

Source: The Achilles heel of the federal public service gives out again with passport fiasco

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.

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

Union wants top bureaucrat to help restore public service ‘neutrality’ | Ottawa Citizen

Various commentary on the decision by unions to play a partisan role in the election. I agree with the overall message that this harms the overall public service-political relationship:

This wasn’t the first election in which unions opposed the government of the day but many say it was the most aggressive.

“The decision of unions to campaign against Harper … was unfortunate and harmful because it legitimizes the Conservative view that the public service is a partisan institution. I don’t think it is, but the actions of unions certainly makes it appear to be,” said Ralph Heintzman, a University of Ottawa professor who has proposed various reforms to restore public service neutrality.

He said a Liberal or NDP government would have to wonder about whether the public service could turn on them.

“No party can rejoice in public servants becoming actively involved in electoral politics against the government,” said Heintzman. “Mulcair and Trudeau … can’t be thrilled with unions campaigning against the Conservative government because it suggests that if unions don’t like what you do, they will become partisan again.”

That trust was further called into question when a secret policy briefing, prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs for deputy ministers on Canada’s shrinking international clout, was leaked during the election campaign. Charette called in the RCMP to find the leak. In a separate incident, the deputy minister at Citizenship and Immigration called the Mounties to track down who leaked that the Prime Minister’s Office had directed bureaucrats to stop processing Syrian refugees pending an audit.

Donald Savoie, a Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at Université de Moncton, said leaking information to embarrass the government in an election is such a breach of the public service’s ethos that the clerk had to play hardball and call the Mounties.

“They hurt the institution they service. What is the opposition supposed to think if they do this to the government of the day; what will stop them from leaking when we’re the government?” said Savoie.

But Daviau is convinced the public service will have the trust and respect of the Liberals or NDP because both parties were “forthright” in their promises and consulted with unions on their proposed reforms months before the election.

“I feel confident that with the declarations of the other parties to revert back to the traditional way of doing business, that the genie can be put back in the bottle, but now comes the work to get us back to where we were,” said Daviau.

But Heintzman said the eroding neutrality of the public service goes much further than unions’ electoral activism and the system needs a structural overhaul.

He said the Conservative government “exploited all the ambiguities of the parliamentary system for its own partisan advantage,” pushing public servants over the line that used to be drawn between politics and public service.

A big problem, he said, is that deputy ministers didn’t challenge this politicization of the public service, particularly “turning the PCO into a partisan communications machine.” The most talked-about example was a video Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre had public servants produce with department funds to promote the Conservatives’ universal child-care benefit.

“The clerk is part of the problem. (Her) role corrupts the public service by creating a hierarchy of power that no deputy minister will challenge. The deputy minister is appointed by the clerk, looks to the clerk as boss and won’t challenge directions from PCO,” said Heintzman.

David Zussman, the Jarislowsky Chair on Management in the Public Sector at the University of Ottawa, has written a book on transitions from one government to another called Off and Running. He said questions about neutrality will have to be dealt with but they won’t be on the priority list of a new government.

But the public service is the key player in managing a transition, giving it a “chance to shine” – which can go a long way to rebuilding trust, Zussman said.

Source: Union wants top bureaucrat to help restore public service ‘neutrality’ | Ottawa Citizen

Ralph Heintzman: Creeping politicization in the public service

Heintzman on the Finance Department’s crossing the line and calling for stronger action by the Clerk:

But we don’t need to wait for action until the next Parliament. The arrival of a new clerk gives her an opportunity to provide the kind of leadership for which the rest of the public service yearns.

It’s time to stand up for a professional, non-partisan public service, as described in all the official laws, regulations and policies of the government of Canada. But too often betrayed in practice.

It’s not enough to reaffirm, verbally, “the principles of a non-partisan professional public service,” as the clerk did in a recent interview (Canadian Government Executive, 2 February 2015). Words like these are only hot air if they’re contradicted by public service behaviour. The walk has to match the talk.

If the clerk wants her words to be taken seriously, she should start by doing something about the unaddressed and still uncorrected case of the department of finance. And she should tell us what’s being done to prevent public servants from crossing the line, from non-partisan to partisan communications, in future.

Ralph Heintzman: Creeping politicization in the public service | Ottawa Citizen.

How public servants support democracy: a response to latest Canada 2020 study | hilltimes.com

More reaction from Maryantonett Flumian to Ralph Heintzman’s Canada 2020 report:

But doesn’t there come a point where a public servant—whose ethical code requires that he or she act “in the public interest”—must say no? Indeed there does. But the threshold is high, and the public servant’s responsibility to act in the public interest does not mean the public service determines the public interest.

For an unelected official, acting in the public interest essentially means three things:

  1. not acting in one’s private interest or in the special interests of those one personally favours;
  2. bringing one’s best professional expertise to bear on the tasks one performs; and
  3. acting consistently with the agenda and direction set by one’s minister, provided it is consistent with the law, with formal government policies, and with public service values and ethics.

So, yes, a public servant could and should refuse, say, to provide support for a partisan event. But he or she could not decline to implement a policy because he or she judged it not in the public interest….

Heintzman’s concerns here are fair enough, but the public service doesn’t operate in an ivory tower. Policies and practices that embarrass governments have never been matters of indifference for public servants. What has intensified in recent years is the pressure of the public environment. Instantaneous digital technology and 24/7 media are undercutting the deliberative, process-driven way in which governments have traditionally responded to issues. “Issues management” has emerged as a growing government need and perhaps the most in-demand skill for an up-and-coming public servant. This reality makes for fine lines that demand vigilance, but it does not mean that the public service has gone political.

Interesting relative lower emphasis on “fearless advice” (from someone who was fearless!) in favour of the softer “bringing one’s best professional expertise,” a not insignificant nuance in the current context of sometimes fraught government public service relations.

How public servants support democracy: a response to latest Canada 2020 study | hilltimes.com.

Reforms to bring neutrality to public service could lead to ‘government by the unelected’: think tank | Ottawa Citizen

More on the debate over the Canada 2020 by Ralph Heintzman, this time from  Maryantonett Flumian, who reminds us of the parameters of public servants:

Maryantonett Flumian, president of the institute, a think-tank devoted to public service issues, said a debate on the nature of governance is long overdue, but the answer to the trust gap between politicians and bureaucrats isn’t to isolate the public service and protect it from politics.

“That means Canadians would have a public service that no one wants. There is already an official opposition in this country and no one wants to be governed by the unelected. That is not the role of the public service,” she said. ….

She said deputy ministers are the “linchpins” between the government and the public service. They bridge the two worlds. They have to translate the prime minister’s agenda into action by the public service. Similarly, they explain the views of the public service to politicians.

Flumian argues the Clerk, not the Public Service Commission as recommended by Heintzman, is ideally positioned to select deputy ministers who have the capabilities, skills and personalities best-suited to work “this two-way relationship” with ministers.

She argues turning these appointments over to the Public Service Commission makes bureaucrats independent of their political masters and risks politicizing the public service.

“Who will become those linchpins?” Does the deputy minister role get taken over by the ministers’ chief of staff?” she asked.

“If senior public servants are cloistered priests and nuns who don’t speak to the outside world and who don’t think their jobs is to understand the governance from the party in power, through to the prime minister and cabinet, then who will do that bridging?

Flumian believes Canada needs a neutral public service so to can work with any party in power. As a result, public servants don’t have an “independent voice” and their advice must be given in confidence “because it is the government that has a positions on issues, not the public service,” she said.

She acknowledged public servants are obliged to act in the public interest but the public interest is determined by the government and public servants must implement its policies whether they like it or.

“Politicians are elected, not public servants and they get to set the ground rules and, as long as they are not breaking the law, they are boss. That is what democracy is. “

Reforms to bring neutrality to public service could lead to ‘government by the unelected’: think tank | Ottawa Citizen.

Public service needs ‘moral contract’ to keep it neutral, study says | Ottawa Citizen

More on the respective roles of the Government and the public service, this time from Ralph Heintzman and Canada 2020. While much of his observations and criticism is valid, it is no accident that no government has accepted an explicit moral contract or charter to govern the relationship. Ambiguity has its advantages for both sides, and the wish for clarity in the essentially messy business of governing is unrealistic.

None of this condones a number of the actions of the Conservative government but as I argued in my book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism, the public services was also responsible for some of the breakdown in the relationship:

Canada 2020, a progressive think-tank, plans to release a paper Wednesday that calls for a “charter of public service” or a “moral contract” to set the boundaries for a bureaucracy whose role and responsibilities have become blurred by a powerful Prime Minister’s Office with an iron grip on communications.

Ralph Heintzman, the University of Ottawa research professor who wrote the paper, said the line between public servants and politicians has been blurring for years, but rapidly changing technology, the 24-hour news cycle and government’s obsession with communications and “spin” have made the problem worse.

“I think behaviours in the public service are not what they should be, but not because they are bad-willed but rather because we don’t have the right systems, rules and mechanisms to direct people how to behave properly,” he said in an interview.

Heintzman proposes a new charter that would be legislated and far-reaching. It would enshrine a value and ethics code to guide behaviour. It would include tougher communications rules; give teeth to the accountability of deputy ministers as accounting officers; and revamp the appointment process for deputy ministers by taking it out of the hands of the Clerk of the Privy Council.

… Heintzman argued the three-way relationship – between public servants, MPs and ministers – is critical to the implementation of any government’s agenda regardless of political stripe, but the need for a charter is more critical today for a public service that has been “neglected,” “devalued” and has seen its neutrality “abused” by the Harper government.

The role of the public service has been in the spotlight because of Privy Council Office Clerk Wayne Wouters’s ongoing Blueprint 2020 exercise to retool the future public service. Wouters’s report, like many previous reform exercises over the past 25 years, dodged the deteriorating relationship.

… The grey zone between politicians and bureaucrats was at the heart of everything that went wrong and led to the sponsorship scandal, concluded Justice John Gomery, who headed the sponsorship inquiry. He also recommended a legislated charter. The Tait report made a similar recommendation a decade earlier.

Heintzman argued the Conservatives’ flagship Federal Accountability Act, meant in part to fix the problem, was badly flawed and increased confusion around deputy minister accountability.

Heintzman concludes a big problem is that the Conservatives don’t value the public service as a national institution for Canada’s democracy and see it as an extension of the government to be used as desired; for example it is expected to adhere to a communications strategy to rebrand the “Government of Canada” as the “Harper government.”

“They make no distinction between the Harper ministry and the government of Canada,” he said. They think it is the same thing, so the public service is just there to achieve their own partisan objectives.”

Public service needs ‘moral contract’ to keep it neutral, study says | Ottawa Citizen.

Subsequent article and interview comments are even more critical:

The study, Renewal of the Public Service: Toward a Charter of Public Service, released by the think-tank Canada 2020, says Privy Council Office Clerk Wayne Wouters became the government’s political spokesman for stonewalling Page and refusing the information Parliament needed to do its job – right down to the language of a letter in which he wrote that “in our view” the government’s reductions are credible.

The new study, written by University of Ottawa Prof. Ralph Heintzman, argues that Wouters could have provided an explanation of the government’s reasoning but should never have publicly justified or defended a “contestable political decision” and made it his own.

“Words such as ‘in our view’ – our! – would be quite natural in the mouth of a prime minister. In the mouth of the head of the public service, they are very difficult to explain, or justify. In using them, the clerk left no space whatever between himself and the current ministry,” writes Heintzman.

“A Privy Council Office that could draft such a letter and a clerk who could sign it are at serious risk of abolishing the distinction between a public service and the political administration it serves. No wonder that under the Harper administration, the PCO has become home to a large communications machine serving the partisan needs of the incumbent government and the prime minister.”

When public servants go partisan: new study seeks solutions

The alternate view by  Maryantonett Flumian and Nick Charney, in Canadian Government Executive, is more nuanced, noting how the public service has to adapt to the government of the day:

As the new Clerk, Wouters could have taken the public service in many directions. He chose to rise to the challenge by recognizing the somewhat strained relationships and by doing what he is best at, thoughtfully and persistently building bridges between those who must work as one in the public interest. With the Prime Minister’s public support, he chose a path of reenergizing the public service and channeling its leadership toward transformation and modernization of the institution supported with the necessary infrastructure and tools to serve Canadians and the government. He has not ducked the challenges, nor has he focused on confrontation.

To everything there is a season, and this is the time when both major players seem to have understood that they depend on each other to fashion a modern, resilient and agile public service that supports a modern nation in achieving its place on the global stage. And so, in Wouters’ time at the PCO, his greatest skill as head of the public service may well turn out to be his capacity to get the Prime Minister on side and work with him on issues having to do with the role of the public service, the size of the workforce, and changing the business model of government. This bridge to the future began when he launched the Administrative Services Review. The review looked for government-wide opportunities to consolidate and standardize government operations and led, among other things, to the creation of Shared Services Canada.

Wouters’ ability to work closely with the Prime Minister has manifested itself in other areas than public service renewal, however important that may be. He used his position as Clerk, working with colleagues such as the deputy minister of Finance, to support the government’s economic goals, ensuring the development of five successive budgets that kept Canada out of recession and brought the government back into surplus. His support and advice was critical to the finalization of a number of bilateral trade agreements, including the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union and the Canada-Korea Free Trade Agreement. ….

Through Blueprint 2020, Wouters is moving the public service into unchartered waters. Responding to criticism that the public service is too focused on the short term, he is using it to promote a longer term view of policy, program development and service delivery. He is staking the future on the belief that the leadership – at all levels of the largest employer and most diverse workforce in the country, operating in very complex domains – is up to the challenge.

The Prime Minister and the Prime Ministers’ Advisory Committee on the Public Service, until recently chaired by David Emerson, are supportive and aligned to the challenge. The call to arms in the Blueprint 2020 exercise has been launched against a backdrop of cynicism, cost reduction, and a drive to operational efficiency. This renewal starts at a time when the same sort of efforts at transformation are being led by public services around the world. Blueprint 2020 fundamentally recognizes that existing policies, tools and processes no longer fit the needs of today.

The issues of engagement, culture, agility and relevance are at the heart of this renewal. There is a profound recognition, which the cynics missed in the early days, that reforming public service is a team sport where every player must be called upon to be a leader, where every step, big and small, will add up to change. With the public service going through a transformation, the need for broad engagement is fundamental. That is the engagement that Wouters, as head of the public service, has unleashed in Blueprint 2020. Over 100,000 public servants from 85 different departments and agencies have participated in this dialogue.

With the release of Destination 2020, the call to action is clear and the momentum continues. Social media, along with the openness of spirit and engagement with which Wouters has launched this dialogue on collaboration, innovation and modernization, is unprecedented in the history of public service reform. The engagement at so many different levels of the organization will ensure that the momentum will not end with the “tabling” of this living, crowd-sourced document.

To come full circle, two unlikely partners – Stephen Harper and Wayne Wouters – picked each other to work together in support of the public interest. Each is working to reshape his own sphere. There is no question that tough conversations occur – as they must – behind closed doors. What will be accomplished is a modern, relevant public service better able to serve Canadians.

I find this to be an overly optimistic take on the government-public service relationship. It avoids the difficult issues of conflicting ideologies, reliance on anecdotes over evidence, and major reductions in core policy and analytical capacity.

However, relationships and trust matter, the Clerk, deputies and other senior managers have to decide the appropriate balance between “fearless advice and loyal implementation,” and where greater cooperation rather than “confrontation” is appropriate. The public service has to adapt to the government more than the other way round.

I worked at Service Canada under Flumian and she was one of the strongest and effective leaders I have encountered. Like Steve Jobs in her ability to inspire and develop a vision, with some of the same human flaws. One of my most rewarding times in government.

To everything there is a season