Letter from Ottawa: transitions and reboots for the public service

By on 12/06/2023 | Updated on 15/06/2023
A picture of the Canadian parliament buildings from a Hot Air Balloon, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
A picture of the Canadian parliament buildings in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Photo by tsaiproject from Canada, used under Creative Commons.

A new clerk takes the top job at a period of unusual attention and angst in the Canadian government. Political tumult is ever-present, even two years from an election, and planned restraint on public spending likely means tough decisions to come. All the more reason to celebrate the role of officials this Public Service Week, says Michael Wernick

Thirty one years ago Canada’s Parliament passed a law designating a National Public Service Week to be marked in June. It would be a stretch to suggest this gesture has broken through into broad public awareness or had much influence on governments’ allocation of attention or resources over the years. However, it has given the federal public service itself, and some provinces who have followed suit, a focal point – this year running from June 11-17 – for events of celebration and reaffirmation. Together with the annual report on the public service tabled by the clerk of the privy council there is always an opportunity at this time of year to do a bit of stock taking and to lean against the usual patterns of feedback.

Canada’s public service, and those who take a genuine interest in it, may look back on 2023 as an inflection point. This year’s week comes during the changing of the guard of key leaders at the top, starting with a new clerk and a new deputy minister of finance. There will be a cascade of other leadership moves over the next couple of months.

Cynics and curmudgeons will trot out tired old metaphors of moving deck chairs on the Titanic to go with their contention that the public sector is broken and presumably headed for any number of icebergs. This year’s celebrations come during a period of unusual attention and angst.

Read more: Canadian PM Trudeau names new clerk of privy council as Janice Charette announces retirement

Politics is never far away. The governing Liberals are looking increasingly tired and error prone as they approach their eighth anniversary. They trail in the polls but have two years to recover. There is rising speculation that the changes at the top of the public service are only a smaller part of a larger “reboot” including a new session of Parliament, a major cabinet shuffle and changes of key political advisers. We may never know if this turns out to be effective. So much can happen in the next two years that will explain how Canadians feel about their political options, notably the US election in 2024.

On the other side of the parliamentary aisle the “government in waiting” are a populist brand of conservatives trying to convince a sufficient number of voters, and people who don’t usually come out to vote, that just about everything in Canada is broken, and that the fault lies with Team Trudeau. They have been on the attack for months and so far have been light on what they would actually do in government.

The dominant issue that has roiled and unsettled Canadian politics this spring has been foreign interference in our politics. Media stories generated by leaks from at least one intelligence officer have kept it rolling and the story is far from over. Attempts by the government to cauterize the issue have failed miserably. In March, they turned to a former governor general David Johnston to look into the matter and recommend a way forward. His advice, delivered in May, has been rejected by all four opposition parties, and he has announced he stand down from the role.

And David Johnston is only part of collateral damage to date. So far this has been a bad time for everyone the issue has touched. The government has undermanaged the file as policy and bungled the politics. The opposition leader has chosen Trumpian personal attacks as the winning strategy and refused offers to review the classified information compiled by Johnston. For some commentators this has diminished his image as a serious would-be prime minister. Our main intelligence agency now looks leaky and less reliable.  We are no closer to fixing the underlying problem by shoring up Canada’s defences, with another election coming up fast. Our politics continues a slide toward nasty personalization and polarization.

Foreign interference is likely to take up all the oxygen in the political world for quite a while. Meanwhile, the new leadership of the public sector wrestles with a daunting set of challenges. The post-pandemic hybrid workplace has been much discussed. In Canada “return to workplace” coincided with the “return of inflation” to create the conditions for the first large scale public sector strike in three decades. The agreements that ended the strike have been sent to members for ratification  and will create a fresh set of implementation challenges for middle management.

Read more: Canadian public service strike ends as deal reached over pay and remote work

Overshadowing everything for the federal service is the tapping of the brakes on resources and what is surely the end of a long cycle of growth and abundance and the beginning of another cycle of restraint. This shift is already under way, with modest cuts to operating budgets announced in the last Budget. How harsh the new era of restraint will turn out to be will depend mostly on the outcome of the next election. To give some idea of the range of scenarios:  to return the federal service to the size it was at the beginning of the Trudeau mandate in 2015 would mean shedding a quarter of staff and nearly 80,000 job cuts. To achieve more modest reductions the next government will still require painful choices about programs, services and institutions. Many middle and senior managers will be facing austerity for the first time, as it was back in 2012 when the last serious cuts were made through a Deficit Reduction Action Plan.

Read more: More money for Canada’s public service workers won’t cure an unhappy workplace

As the public service marks another anniversary there are several issues and goals competing for attention. Leadership is trying to achieve greater traction for its efforts on diversity and inclusion. It is trying to manage the demographic shifts in the workforce as older workers retire. The next wave of technological disruption, through the application of learning software and variants of artificial intelligence is making the ongoing quest for “digital government” and the struggle against disinformation all the more high stakes. The government has been pressed to reduce the use of management consulting firms and have committed to do so, but there is yet to be any evidence of a solid plan to raise the capability of the public service to do that work in future.

I was fortunate to be clerk and cabinet secretary during the ebullient start up phase of an ambitious new government with a majority in Parliament and a strong lead in the polls that was good for their morale. The new clerk has been dealt a more difficult hand. But also has the opportunity to steward the public service through a period of transition and adaptation and a period when its role of stable long term stewardship and support of democratic governance is vitally important.

I do know, from experience, that the public service has successfully navigated waves of change before: existential threats to national unity from Quebec separatism; periods of inflation and of recession; major spending cuts; major shifts in geopolitics; the disruptive arrival of the internet and social media, and currents of social change around equity and inclusion. The public service I see today in my work as an academic and consultant is far better than the one I joined in 1981, and worth a nod of appreciation and celebration this Public Service Week.

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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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