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