Trudeau must clarify 'unwritten' PS rules: expert panel

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01/06/2016
KATHRYN MAY, OTTAWA CITIZEN
Published on: December 28, 2015 
 
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should “clarify” the unwritten rules for Canada’s public service and expand the responsibilities of deputy ministers to help public servants resume the role they were traditionally intended to play, says one of Canada’s former top bureaucrats.
 
Kevin Lynch, former clerk of the Privy Council and now vice-chair of BMO Financial Group, argues that deputy ministers’ responsibilities should extend beyond financial responsibility and signing off their department’s books to include the “overall health” of their department to ensure it is doing its job impartially.
 
“It would expand the list of things that deputies are accountable for (to include) a well-functioning department,” said Lynch. “We saw it as an annual health check that deputy ministers should sign off in addition to a financial report on the department.”
 
The recommendation is among the fixes proposed by a blue-chip panel of experts on governance aimed at getting the public service back to its traditional non-partisan role.
 
Along with Lynch, the panel included Jim Dinning, former Alberta provincial treasurer; Jean Charest, former premier of Quebec; Monique Leroux, chief executive` of Desjardins Group; and Heather Munroe-Blum, principal emerita of McGill University
 
The panel looked at reforms for four key players in Canada’s democracy: parliamentary committees, cabinet, the public service and political staffers — or what it termed the “political service.” The panel’s reforms are aimed at rebooting the checks and balances of the four institutions.
 
For the public service, the first thing to do is clarify the “conventions” or unwritten rules underpinning its role on policy advice, as well as carrying out programs and delivering services, says the panel.
 
Lynch said that clarity should come in a statement from the prime minister. He said the statement should be made in Parliament, with all-party support, and would be the benchmark for future behaviour. 
 
After the sponsorship scandal of the Chrétien era, the Conservative government under Stephen Harper passed legislation that beefed up the role and responsibilities of deputy ministers, making them “accounting officers” responsible for the management of their departments. 
 
The panel wants deputy ministers to also annually attest to measures that ensure regular meetings between the minister and deputy ministers, as well as working relationships between the minister, minister’s office and departmental officials.
 
Deputies would also have to attest to the “highest levels of integrity and impartiality” in the department on policy advice, program delivery, regulatory administration and departmental communications. They would have to confirm departments have the policy capacity to deliver the government’s agenda and handle the study of long-term issues.
 
The department would also be expected to consult Canadians and use digital technology to stay abreast of the public’s views when developing policies and programs.
 
Many argue the existing legislation for “accounting officers” covers much of this territory because deputy ministers are responsible for following all Treasury Board policies and the code of conduct.
 
Lynch said the panel was intent that its report, published by the Public Policy Forum, not be shelved without debate so it is taking the discussion on the road. He and other members are touring the public policy and management schools at universities across the country to discuss the proposals.
 
Academics and public management experts have sounded the alarm for years on the deterioration of Canada’s democratic institutions as more power was centralized in the Prime Minister’s Office. Many argue the problems got worse under the Conservative government.
 
Lynch said the panel is proposing “practical” fixes that could be done quickly without changing the constitution and new legislation.
 
A big problem for the public service is the mushrooming army of political staffers led by the PMO, the “political service” that has taken over some of the work of the public service. 
 
Politicians began to rely on staffers for ideas and advice, sidelining the public service. As a result, the public service didn’t use, and thus lost, some of its policy capacity, and deputy ministers ended up more connected to the PMO than their ministers.
 
The panel recommended a new code of conduct for political staff that would clearly spell out the roles and duties of public servants and what political staff can do. It also urged more training and an oversight body for political staff.
 
Trudeau introduced a new code of conduct for staffers in his updated Guide to Ministers.
 
But Lynch said “short-termism” and political parties being in “permanent campaign” mode have changed the nature of the work of the public service and its relationship with politicians.
 
“This is not about going back to the good old days,” said Lynch. “These broad trends are happening regardless and what we have to do is figure out — given that reality — the checks and balances that will ensure (our institutions) work they way they are intended.”
 
Politicians are racing to keep up with today’s rapid, “technology-driven round-the-clock news cycle.” Parties are seen to be always in campaign mode and focus on short-term issues for political gain rather than long-term policies and strategies. Public servants, however, are supposed to be neutral and have no role in campaigns.
 
 “We have drifted into a period of permanent campaigning, which is an American phenomenon …. which is not a good thing for the role of the public service because it doesn’t have a role in a campaign, said Lynch.
 
“Political parties operate less as a government and more as a party for re-election so the more we get into permanent campaign modes, it changes the relationships and not necessarily in good ways.”
 
Lynch argued that once the governance issue is fixed, the next challenge for the public service will be changing the way it does policy in a world driven by big data and analytics. Public servants must learn to manage risk; they will have to become innovative and use more open communications and using social media.