Canada is sleepwalking into bed with Big Tech, as politicos float between firms and public office

Sort of inevitable, unfortunately:

Canadians have been served a familiar dish of election promises aimed at taking on the American web giants. But our governments have demonstrated a knack for aggressive procrastination on this file.

A new initiative is providing a glimpse into Canada’s revolving door with Big Tech, and as the clock ticks on the Liberal government’s hundred-day promise to enact legislation, Canadians have 22 reasons to start asking tough questions.

The Regulatory Capture Lab — a collaboration between FRIENDS(formerly Friends of Canadian Broadcasting), the Centre for Digital Rights and McMaster University’s Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program — is shedding light on a carousel of unconstrained career moves between public policy teams at Big Tech firms and federal public offices. 

Canadians should review this new resource and see for themselves the creeping links between the most powerful companies on earth and the institutions responsible for reining them in. 

And they’d be wise to look soon. According to the Liberal government, a wave of tech-oriented policy is in formation, from updating the Broadcasting Act to forcing tech firms to pay for journalism that appears on their platforms.

But our work raises vital questions about all these proposals: are Canadians’ interests being served through these pieces of legislation? Has a slow creep of influence over public office put Big Tech in the driver’s seat? These promises of regulation have been around for years, so, why is it taking so long to get on with it?

Cosy relations between Big Tech and those in public office in Canada have bubbled to the surface before, most notably through the work of Kevin Chan, the man for Meta (Facebook) in Canada. In 2020, the Star exposed Chan’s efforts to recruit senior analysts from within Canadian Heritage, the department leading the efforts to regulate social media giants, to work at Facebook.

It doesn’t stop there. A 2021 story from The Logic revealed the scope of Chan’s enthusiasm in advancing the interests of his employer. Under Chan’s skilful direction, Facebook has managed to get its tendrils of influence into everything — government offices, universities, even media outlets. And in so many instances, Chan has found willing participants across the aisle who offer up glowing statements about strategic partnerships with Facebook.

Facebook isn’t alone in the revolving door. For some politicos, moving between Big Tech and public office appears to be the norm, in both directions. Big Tech public policy teams are filled with people who have worked in Liberal and Conservative offices, the PMO, Heritage and Finance ministries, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, and more.

Conversely, some current senior public office holders are former Big Tech employees. Amazon, Google, Netflix, Huawei, Microsoft and Palantir are all connected through a revolving door with government. And this doesn’t even begin to cover Big Tech’s soft-power activities in Canada, from academic partnerships, deals with journalism outlets (including this one), and even shared initiatives with government to save democracy. The connections are vast and deep.

So, why has tech regulation taken so long? Armed with the knowledge that so many of Canada’s brightest public policy minds are moving between the offices of Big Tech and the halls of power in Ottawa, Canadians should be forgiven for jumping to conclusions. Or, maybe it’s just that simple? 

That these employment moves are taking place in both directions is hardly surprising. But the fact that so little attention has been paid to this phenomenon is deeply troubling. And how can this power be held to account when our journalism outlets are left with little choice but to partner with Big Tech?

The Regulatory Capture Lab has pried opened the window on this situation, but others must jump in. It’s time for Canadians to start asking tough questions. FRIENDS is ready to get the answers.


Despite ministerial parity, women still underrepresented as senior cabinet, PMO staff

Nice to see this analysis being done by The Hill Times. Now they need to expand this to include visible minorities and Indigenous peoples:

Even though the Liberal cabinet was designed with gender parity in mind, women only represent 40 per cent of the senior staff supporting those ministers’ offices.

Those positions—made up of chiefs of staff and their deputies, directors of policy, communications, parliamentary affairs and senior advisers—are the gateways to ministers and the people who help shape political decisions, observers said.

“That’s where the primary influence is,” said Rachel Curran, former policy director to prime minister Stephen Harper. “Those are the people helping set the agenda in conjunction with the minister.”

While the Liberal government seems to have made more of an effort staffing women in political circles, Ms. Curran said having 60 per cent men in senior positions is “indicative that there is a problem there.”

Men held 98 of 162 positions, according to a Hill Times analysis using an October list exported from the government’s electronic directory services (GEDS) of all staff working for cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister’s Office, marked each by perceived gender, job title and cross-referenced with our records. While the public service annually reports staff numbers by gender, which is almost at parity at the executive level, no such data exists for political staff.

This is the second of a two-part series looking at women at senior political staff levels.

“Women still have a long way to go to be considered equal,” said Michele Austin, who was chief of staff to former Conservative minister Rona Ambrose, after reviewing The Hill Times’ staff lists. “Progress has been made, but certainly not in the senior staff rank.”

via Despite ministerial parity, women still underrepresented as senior cabinet, PMO staff – The Hill Times – The Hill Times

Non-partisan to partisan: Federal politicians pluck their staff from the civil service

Growth in political staffers 2000-15.001Some useful Treasury Board stats subject of the article below by David Akin, captured in the chart above, showing a correlation in the earlier years of the Conservative government between growth in staffers and growth in the public service (see my earlier article Diversity in political backrooms still lacking):

To fill as many as 500 partisan political jobs on Parliament Hill, the Justin Trudeau government has been dipping into the non-partisan civil service — just like the Stephen Harper government before it and the Paul Martin and Jean Chretien governments before that.

Though Harper did make a rule change about this revolving door, the system continues to be set up in a way that helps those who jump to partisan jobs go back to the civil service if the government of the day changes.

Those scooping up jobs as chiefs of staff, press secretaries, or policy advisors in ministers’ office can request an unpaid leave-of-absence, a request that is usually granted. It may not guarantee their old job if they leave politics, but it usually guarantees an equivalent job.

It also counts just as much towards a pension as the non-partisan service.

Plus the new jobs in politics usually come with a big raise.

A minister’s chief of staff can earn up to $180,000 a year. A press secretary can earn up to about $108,000.

There were 559 of these partisan staff in the last year of the Harper government.

While Conservatives are just as likely to use this revolving door as Liberals, Harper said in the 2006 election campaign that a “Liberal” civil service would act as a check on any Conservative government if only because Liberals have, since the Second World War, been in office more than the Tories.

The civil service, naturally, objects to that observation.

“It is an overarching and utmost priority of the Government of Canada to manage the public service with integrity and in accordance with existing polices and collective agreements,” said Kelly James, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board, the federal department that manages human resources policies.

The last time the Liberals were in charge, Liberal political staff had an inside track on non-partisan civil servant jobs. So long as they met the basic requirements for an open civil service position, they got the job — along with the employment security and pension opportunities.

Harper changed that, eliminating the preferential treatment.

There’s no data tracking the partisan/non-partisan revolving door, though long-time Parliament Hill watchers have seen at least a handful of Martin/Chretien era partisan staffers back in that role after spending the Harper decade in a civil servant jobs.

Source: Non-partisan to partisan: Federal politicians pluck their staff from the civil service

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.

Diversity in political backrooms still lacking

My piece in The Hill Times:

The Liberal government included in its mandate letters to all ministers a “commitment to transparent, merit-based appointments, to help ensure gender parity and that indigenous Canadians and minority groups are better reflected in positions of leadership.”To recall, the Prime Minister appointed a Cabinet with gender parity (15 each of men and women) and almost 17 per cent visible minority ministers (four Sikh and one Afghan Canadian).

Gender parity was not attained for parliamentary secretaries (12 positions out of 35 or 34 per cent) or other leadership positions such as whips and House leaders, visible minority parliamentary secretaries are over-represented (nine positions or 24 per cent) in relation to their share of the voting population (15 per cent).

Given this commitment and action, is the Liberal government also applying diversity and inclusion to its hiring of political staff? What about the official opposition?

To assess this, I looked at the Prime Minister’s Office (59 total positions and 12 senior staffers), the Leader of the Official Opposition’s office (OLO, 23 positions), and ministerial offices (senior staff defined as chief of staff, directors of communications, policy, issues and parliamentary affairs, along with press Secretaries, total number of 101 positions filled at time of writing).

Sources for the data include the regular ‘Hill Climbers’ updates in The Hill Times, other relevant press articles, and the imperfect Government Electronic Directory Services (GEDS). Gender and visible minority status were identified through names, LinkedIn profiles, biographies and photos where available.

From a gender perspective, women are under-represented at the senior level in PMO (one-third), but close to 40 per cent for all 59 PMO staffers. OLO has slightly lower representation of women (30 per cent). For minister’s offices, the percentage of chiefs of staff is slightly less than the overall per cent of close to 40 per cent who are women.

Visible minorities are consistently under-represented, save for the overall numbers in PMO (15 per cent). OLO and senior ministerial office staff all range between four to seven per cent, less than half of the percentage of visible minority Canadian citizens, with chief of staff visible minority representation slightly higher at 10 per cent.

While I have focused on gender and visible minority status, diversity includes of course other dimensions such as regional diversity (many, if not most Liberal staffers come from, or have worked in, Ontario and Toronto), sexual orientation, religion, education etc. R. Paul Wilson’s A Profile of Ministerial Policy Staff in the Government of Canada provides the best most recent analysis of the different aspects of diversity among staffers under the Conservative government October 2012 to June 2013.

Does this matter? In many ways, it does not. Gender parity in Cabinet and relatively strong Parliamentary Secretary representation set the tone for the government and Parliament.

Being a political staffer may not necessarily lead to a direct path to becoming a future MP. Staffer experience is not necessarily perceived as an asset in local riding associations or to the broader public. Staffers may be asked by the party to be its flag-bearer in unwinnable ridings. The most famous example of a staffer becoming an MP is, of course, former Prime Minister Harper, who was a staffer to Reform Party leader Preston Manning among other positions.

All three major parties were able to recruit an impressive number of visible minority candidates (women less so).

However, staffers play an important role in government (and opposition) decision-making. Having a diversity of backgrounds and experience generally helps inform decision-making.

The Liberal government’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, so well executed at the public level for both women and visible minorities, is lacking in the backrooms, particularly for visible minorities. Given the role that staffers play in preparing ministers for debates and discussions, this may impact on the degree to which the overall diversity and inclusion agenda is implemented. 

All Pearson, no Pierre: Inside Trudeau’s inner circle – The Globe and Mail

Good series of articles and profiles of the 12 in PM Trudeau’s inner circle.

Applying the usual diversity measures, two-thirds are male, and one is visible minority (13 percent).

Will be interesting, once staffing is complete in PMO and Ministerial offices, to analyze the full picture, as staffers are one of the recruiting pools for future candidates (and the Liberals had recruited more visible minority candidates than other parties (16 percent compared to 13 percent for the CPC and NDP).

Source: All Pearson, no Pierre: Inside Trudeau’s inner circle – The Globe and Mail