Canada’s Trudeau ‘must provide clarity on role of public service’ – says think-tank

By on 30/10/2015 | Updated on 25/09/2020

A Canadian think-tank has called on the country’s new prime minister to provide greater clarity on the role of civil servants and consider producing a document similar to the UK’s and New Zealand’s Cabinet Manual.

Canada’s Public Policy Forum – an independent not-for-profit think-tank – says in its report Time for a Reboot: Nine Ways to Restore Trust in Canada’s Public Institutions that producing such a document would provide “publicly-accessible guide to governance in our country.”

The report, published yesterday, states that although the federal Public Service Employment Act and the Values and Ethics Code for the public sector make it clear that civil servants should be non-partisan and be appointed based on merit, “much of the public service’s role is defined by unwritten convention – informal rules of governance that have evolved over time.”

It recommends that 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.”

Such a statement, the report says, “should clearly define the public service’s core role in the provision of impartial, well-informed and evidence-based policy advice; duty to bring their perspectives on longer-term challenges; and impartiality and non-partisanship.”

New Zealand introduced its manual in 2008 and defines it as “a primary source of information on New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements, as seen through the lens of the executive branch of government.” And the UK – under the leadership of former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell – introduced its Cabinet Manual in 2010, which it says, “sets out the main laws, rules and conventions affecting the conduct and operation of government.”

Both documents provide guidance on the relationship between ministers and senior civil servants, special advisers and select committees as well as a code of conduct for civil servants.

Yesterday’s report was led by a panel including former clerk of Canada’s Privy Council Kevin Lynch, as well as an advisory council that includes O’Donnell and former chief of staff to Stephen Harper, Ian Brodie.

It also called for a legislative change: the principles, roles and responsibilities of the public service, including specific accountabilities for deputy ministers – the most senior civil servants in charge of Canadian government departments – “should be enshrined in legislation,” the report says.

Another change advocated in the report relates to select committees – cross-party groups of politicians given a specific remit to investigate.

In Canada, members of each committee vote for a chair and two vice-chairs. But in practice, the report argues, the prime minister’s office or the House Leader select the chair and committee members vote accordingly.”

Similarly, it adds, “opposition leaders exercise tight control over the selection of chairs for the committees their party leads”, concluding that committee membership reflects the partisan composition of the House meaning that “as a result, members of the governing party chair most standing committees.”

Instead, the report says, committee chairs should be elected by secret ballot in the full House of Commons, which would take “the edge off partisanship” and enhance the independence of committees.

It argues that, again, the UK’s parliamentary committees, which have been electing their chairs via secret ballot since 2010, “offer a useful model for Canada.”

Other recommendations include a reduction in the total number of select committees in Canada from currently 24, the boosting of committees’ resources and the introduction of a rule that requires deputy ministers and senior officials to appear before committees regularly.

This, the report says, “would give committee members valuable insight into the forces shaping key trends, challenges and opportunities, as well as the longer-term consequences of policy options.”

Panel chair Jim Dinning said he hoped that Canada’s new government, led by Liberal Justin Trudeau, who won this month’s general election, “can pick up some of the good ideas” set out in the report.

Trudeau’s office failed to submit a response by the time this story was published.

A spokeswoman for APEX, Canada’s national association for federal public service executives, told Global Government Forum that “any initiative that seeks to improve the Public Service is always welcomed.”


See also: Our full interview with Lord O’Donnell

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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