Letter from Ottawa: a new year begins quietly, but much lies ahead

By on 10/01/2024 | Updated on 10/01/2024
A photograph of Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo by Wladyslaw Sojka (www.sojka.photo) and reproduced under Creative Commons.
Photo by Wladyslaw Sojka (www.sojka.photo) and reproduced under Creative Commons.

2024 has begun relatively quietly in Canada but the ripples of the past couple of years are still being felt. It will be a year for public servants to put on their bifocals, says Michael Wernick – working on near-term pressures, but trying to look to the horizon

By now we should have learned the limitations of making predictions about the year ahead and how it might affect the public sector. Recent years brought many surprises and disruptions, including the pandemic, war in Ukraine, the return of inflation and the diffusion of generative AI. Closer to home few would have foreseen the occupation of central Ottawa in early 2022 by anti-lockdown protestors and the subsequent invocation of the Emergencies Act. Early 2023 brought the first large public service strike in decades, an event that has had later echoes in some Canadian provinces. Forecasting is a murky crystal ball.

2024 has begun relatively quietly in Canada but the ripples of the past couple of years are still being felt. Although inflation has eased in recent months, affordability remains a preoccupation for many households and lively conversations about food prices and housing continue, with a knock-on effect that is unusual in this country – a lively discussion of immigration intake and whether it is exacerbating a housing “crisis”. The war in Gaza has stirred up currents of antisemitism that have stressed and strained Canada’s self-image as a country of peaceful multiculturalism.

For the federal public service 2024 may be a year of bifocals – looking to the near term and occasionally to the horizon. On the one hand, the current Liberal government has another year and a half of governing ahead if it isn’t toppled prematurely in the minority parliament. It continues to push forward an ambitious agenda. But now having passed its eighth anniversary, it looks increasingly weary. It struggles to maintain traction and momentum and the political winds have swung against it. The prime minister appears to be past his best-before date with voters and even many of his supporters are looking for change. The opposition Conservatives now lead in the polls by a hefty margin and must be taken seriously not just as an effective, spikey critic but as a government in waiting.

And there lies the challenge. There is only one government at a time and most of the public service will be kept very busy advancing policies and delivering programs and services created by this one. As the sands run out and the remaining number of weeks dwindle, we can expect the government to try any number of legislative and policy maneuvers to try to improve its prospects. It has at most two more Budgets up its sleeve and about 220 days of parliamentary time to allocate.

Read more: Letter from Ottawa: diagnosing the elements of Tired Government Syndrome

In the meantime, some time and effort will have to be taken up by thinking about what it will mean to serve a new government – one that could have a very different starting premise about the role of the state, the role of the national government in our federal system and the respective roles of courts and legislatures. So far the opposition Conservatives have given very few clues about the agenda they would pursue in government, beyond a strident campaign against the federal tax on carbon. They have mused about importing the American device of “pay-as-you-go” legislation to curb spending, but clearly haven’t thought it through yet.

A conversation about values and ethics

Which brings me to the stealthy release shortly before Christmas of the report of the Deputy Minister Task Force on Values and Ethics. The report harvests a broad consultation launched last September by the new head of the public service. This was the first formal engagement on this topic since a landmark 1996 report led to the promulgation of a service-wide Code of Values and Ethics in 2003 and revisions in 2012.

Values and ethics codes have also been created in the UK and Australian public sectors, the ones most similar to Canada. Many private sector firms and professional associations have developed them. Sometimes they are expressed as codes of conduct or are combined with statements of mission and purpose. Apart from setting expectations and reducing the incidence of bad behaviours, these codes are argued to foster positive workplace cultures and enhance long term performance of organizations.

A solid grounding in values is particularly important for the public sector because of its unique role. The public sector supports democratic governance, and every day must earn the confidence and trust of not just politicians but citizens, voters and taxpayers through the services it delivers and stewardship of public moneys and assets. It works in the public interest for current and future generations. Voters and taxpayers will always be looking to the public sector for a commitment to excellence, continuous improvement, value for money and productivity.

For Canada’s public service the conversation is a timely one. For reasons discussed earlier, the cohorts of public servants who have joined recently and swollen the ranks will likely have their first encounter with the core mission of non-partisan support of the governments Canadians choose. What the consultations on values revealed is that a difficult conversation is coming regarding public servants’ expression of personal views on social media. Somewhere between unfettered free speech and a code of total silence, new boundaries will need to be set. In the end it will not be possible to use rules to prescribe and cover every situation, so the compass will have to come from judgement informed by values. Public servants are also uneasy about the influence of political staff and will be looking for guidance on the alignment of roles.

Calls for a smaller public service lack detail

The values and ethics conversation might yet become part of a much broader and deeper conversation about the public sector in 2024. Four years on from the first wave of the pandemic, the federal public service in Canada is now seen by many commentators as troubled, less effective, and in need of substantial renovation. A number of somewhat gloomy diagnostic pieces have started to pop up in op-ed pages. A frequently repeated argument is that a parallel service of partisan political staff has crowded out much of the policy advice role of the public service or that the public service has become too subservient. Another line of commentary has focused on the size of the service which has risen substantially under the current government and is more concentrated in the national capital than ever. The most common theme is that government spending is simply too large and unfocused and needs to be retrenched, a view that sees the public service as a cost centre to be trimmed.

The strands come together in blurry calls for a smaller but more effective public service. So far all we have heard are pleas that something must be done or that some sort of commission or review process should be launched. To date, no-one has plunged into the hard choices involved in structural reforms, or offered much in the way of options that can be debated, decided, and implemented.

Read more: Canadian government plans C$500m of in-year budget cuts

For those of us who managed during the major downsizing efforts of 1996 and 2012 it is clear that no link is yet being made between the aggregate public service body count, its distribution across Canada and across organizations, and the actual array of programs, services, institutions and locations, let alone the politics of changing them.

Interest in improving public service capabilities has been tepid and episodic. Will this change in 2024, or is it too late and already too close to the next election? Realistically, there is probably neither the time nor the will to embark on serious public sector reform. But it may yet be a year for those who care about better government to spend usefully on tackling the uncomfortable issues, crafting solutions, and challenging all of the political parties in Canada be clearer about their intentions.

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About Michael Wernick

Michael Wernick’s distinguished 38-year career as one of the key leaders of Canada’s world-class federal public service culminated in serving from 2016 to 2019 as the 23rd clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to Cabinet. With 28 years as an executive in the federal public service, including 17 years in the community of deputy ministers, and three as clerk, Wernick is one of Canada’s most experienced and influential public sector leaders. He appeared frequently at parliamentary committees, participated in dozens of intergovernmental and international meetings, and spoke at many conferences. Wernick worked closely with three prime ministers and seven ministers and attended close to 300 meetings of Cabinet and its committees. He was the key public servant at the Privy Council Office during three changes of prime minister. In October 2021, UBC Press released Wernick’s book Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics and Wernick undertook an extensive series of media interviews, podcasts and webinars to discuss this well-received practical handbook for Canada’s political leaders and those who aspire to understand them. As a senior strategic advisor to MNP Inc and the Jarislowsky Chair at University of Ottawa, Wernick now provides advisory services and mentorship to emerging leaders and to new generations of students.

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