Time to reboot Parliament, public service


Published: Thursday, 10/29/2015 

Canada’s public institutions are no longer effective or serving the purposes for which they were designed which is contributing “to an erosion of trust” in them and the political system, says a new report.

“Our political system clearly needs a reboot if it is to 
fulfill citizens’ expectations and serve the purposes of advancing our provinces and our country—and Canada’s place in the world,” says the Public Policy Forum report, Time For a Reboot: Nine Ways to Restore Trust in Canada’s Public Institutions, released yesterday. “The problem is that our public institutions are no longer playing the roles for which they were designed, nor with the authority to be effective. And they are still using processes created a century or more ago for a very different world.”

The report was written by a panel of eminent Canadians and chaired by former Alberta treasurer Jim Dinning. The other panelists included former Quebec premier Jean Charest, Desjardins Group president Monique Leroux, former Privy Council Office Clerk Kevin Lynch, and Canada Pension Plan Investment Board chair Heather Munroe-Blum.

The report notes that the centralization of the power in the Prime Minister’s Office, the decline of the public service, the increase of the ‘political service’ and permanent campaigning have eroded public trust in institutions such as Parliament and entities such as the Cabinet.

“The centralization of Canada’s political system means that our prime ministers have become far more than ‘first among equals.’ In fact, they wield more power than their counterparts in other Westminster-style Parliamentary systems. As Gordon Robertson, former clerk of the Privy Council, put it more than a decade ago: ‘With the lack
of checks and balances, the prime minister in Canada is perhaps the most unchecked head of government among the democracies,’” the report says. “Today, the PMO functions as the ‘real’ cabinet. It develops and screens government policy, decides on appointments, devises communication strategies and writes speeches for the prime minister, ministers and others. Its reach and influence extends into almost every corner of government.”

The centralization of power in the Prime Minister’s Office is at the expense of the Cabinet which was designed to provide a forum for high-level discussion, policy direction setting, and decision making. “Executive governance has evolved to the point where cabinet ministers no longer play the vital role they once did,” the report says. “In the past, prime ministers would delegate responsibility to ministers for policy initiatives, and those ministers were expected to bring to cabinet important subjects for examination. They were also expected to be knowledgeable about their own portfolios as well as those of their colleagues. Today, by contrast, the measure of a minister seems all too often to be his or her ability to avoid controversy.”

Similarly, the non-partisan public service has turned into a bureaucracy used only to enact legislation and carry out day-to-day service rather than act as an arena where advice is sought and public policy created.

“The public service in Canada is today in danger of becoming an ‘administrative service’ whose sole
task would be to execute the orders of politicians and their aides without informed policy advice, question or discussion. In theory, these political advisers complement the
public service, rather than compete with or displace it. Regrettably, there is little evidence of it working that way in practice,” the report notes. “The permanent public service is increasingly supplanted by the ever-stronger ‘political service,’ made up of political appointees who provide support, typically at the behest of the PMO and provincial premiers’ offices. Elected officials now rely heavily on political appointees for advice, marginalizing the important contributions of the senior ranks of the public service and eroding the complementarity of their respective roles.”

While “political staff are an essential part of our system of government,” they should not be doing the public service’s work, the report says.

“Some concentration of authority is arguably a natural evolution in Westminster-style Parliamentary systems such as those in Canada,” the report says. “However, this should not come at the expense of stifling democratic debate. The unbalanced centralization of power now evident in Ottawa and many provincial capitals does not serve the public interest.”

In addition, the report says that non-stop electioneering is blurring “the lines between political messaging and public policy for the non-partisan public service” and “reinforces the power of the political service.”

The report makes nine recommendations on how to improve this new reality. The first is to strengthen Parliamentary committees by allowing the full House of Commons to elect committee chairs by secret ballot, allowing the chairs and members to sit on the committees for the life of a Parliament, allowing the committees to determine their own meeting schedules, and reducing the number of committees in order to “provide them with effective resources to fulfill their mandates.” In addition, ministers and deputy ministers should regularly appear before committees.

“Our parliamentary committees can play a key role through broader, more imaginative tools of public engagement,” the report says.

In order to restore trust, Cabinet government must also be restored. “Ministers should be accountable for their political staff and should appoint their own chiefs of staff,” the report says. “When a minister’s political staff are appointed by the PMO or premiers’ offices—and not by the minister—there is a misalignment of responsibility. A direct channel of communication with centralized first ministers’ offices is essential; however, this shouldn’t be the primary linkage, because such arrangements carry a risk that ministerial staff are thereby undermining the minister’s authority and accountability as stewards of their departments.”

And finally, the public service must be allowed to fulfill its intended role and more public accountability needs to be built into the political service.

“A clear public statement by the prime minister and government is needed regarding the ‘conventions’ underpinning the public service in Canada and its role with respect to policy advice and implementation, administration of programs, and delivery of services to Canadians,” the report says. “The principles, roles and responsibilities of the public service, including specific accountabilities for deputy ministers, should be enshrined in legislation. … The political service will continue to be an important part of our system. However, its uncodified standards of accountability and transparency are inconsistent with the demands of a modern democracy.”

Mr. Dinning said in a release that these issues are “critically-important” and the recommendations are “readily implementable” and will benefit the country.

“If adopted, our proposals stand to reboot Canada’s public institutions, fortifying them so they can perform the roles for which they are intended. Canada would then benefit from more productive, more transparent and more accountable public institutions and governance that matters,” the report says.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in The Hill Times .