Shifting pair bonds: Canada’s former public service chief shares his top tips for working with ministers

By on 03/02/2022 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Prime minister Justin Trudeau flanked by Wernick (left) and his former principal secretary Gerald Butts (right). Photo by Adam Scotti

In his new book, Michael Wernick shares insights gathered over 13 years in the top echelons of the Canadian public service. He talks to Mia Hunt about one chapter of Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics in particular, outlining his advice to departmental leaders on how to work effectively with ministers – and crucially, earn their trust

Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council of Canada 2016-19, spent his decades-long public service career ‘in the room’ with the country’s top politicians. He is very well placed, then, to have penned a book that not only provides ample insight into the government machine behind-the-scenes but serves as a manual for Canada’s current and aspiring politicians and civil service leaders. 

In Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics, published by UBC Press in late October, there is a chapter in which Wernick provides advice to deputy ministers – Canada’s equivalent of permanent secretaries in the UK or departmental secretaries in Australia. He doesn’t dwell on their role as leaders of large, complex organisations responsible for managing people, financial resources, and delivering the business aims of the department. Instead, he focuses on the part they play in co-developing and co-delivering the minister’s agenda.

Doing this effectively requires a suite of skills and attributes, not least a keen understanding of human dynamics and the ability to build and manage a relationship with the minister that will make for success. So, what exactly are those skills and attributes? And how should deputy ministers avoid the pitfalls that often come with the territory? 

See more: Michael Wernick on turbulent times for Canada – and its clerk

As Wernick writes in the introduction to the chapter Advice to Deputy Ministers, “there is a constantly shifting set of pair bonds between ministers and deputy ministers”. Indeed, in prime minister Justin Trudeau’s latest Cabinet reshuffle following September’s snap election, fewer than 10 of the 38 ministers remained in their prior positions. Wernick’s done the maths: in the six years since Trudeau came to power, there have been 63 Cabinet ministers.

And then there’s the churn of deputy ministers. Last month, it was announced that three public servants had been promoted to deputy minister and that three existing deputies would be moving departments. “Deputies tend to be in the job for three to five years – they’ll do two or three stints as a deputy, maybe four. So there’s a lot of breaking up of combinations and forming of new ones.”  

As such, each time a new pairing is made, the deputy will have to work quickly to familiarise the minister with the department’s projects and priorities; understand their working habits and preferences and adjust accordingly; and – crucially – earn their trust.

Working through changes in government

One of the first things a deputy should do, Wernick says – a key message in the book – is try to figure out as quickly as possible the minister’s “learning style, way of working, and way of coming to decisions… it really is for the deputy to adapt to the minister, not the other way around”.

Then comes the need to build trust, which can be especially difficult after a change of government. When public servants work with one government for years, they tend to pick up its words and expressions, its presentation style, even its take on the role of government in society, all of which can be jarring for the incoming party, Wernick says.

“The lurch from one government to another is really quite considerable so one of the things we advise in preparing for what might happen after an election is to be very mindful of your choice of language and tone. You can get off on the wrong foot with a new government.

“Sometimes there’s a political wariness after wholesale regime change,” he continues. “New ministers tend to have an inherent ‘prove it to me’ scepticism about the public service that has just been working very hard for the other team. So, there could be a suspicion to overcome, and a period of adjustment that can be difficult on both sides.”

Policy advice ‘not flawless truth’

A key part of earning the trust of the minister is telling them what they should hear rather than what they want to hear. Wernick doesn’t like the phrase ‘speak truth unto power’. “It’s a little more diffuse than that. The public service has no monopoly on truth or wisdom about policy,” he says. “The advice it provides is not flawless truth. It’s often laden with blind spots and systemic biases of various kinds. It can be incrementalist and timid, and it can be politically foolish and reckless in the eyes of the minister.”

‘A View from the Desk in the Corner’ is the title of the opening chapter of Wernick’s book

Nevertheless, a deputy who panders to the minister will likely run into “big problems”. Wernick says nothing makes a minister angrier than finding themselves in a situation they could have been warned about but weren’t. “You want the minister to be confident that you’ll warn them of upcoming trouble and to trust you to give them frank advice and full information, so be prepared to bring them unpleasant news and uncomfortable realities.”

Tales of the obedient deputy minister who always tells the minister what they want to hear, or about the Sir Humphrey Appleby [the character from British TV series Yes Minister] men manipulating the minister from behind the scenes do the rounds. “But neither are accurate,” Wernick says, “it’s a complex relationship.”

An executive coach of sorts

In the book, Wernick floats the idea that a deputy minister is akin to an executive coach and should view the minister as something of a development project.

“It’s part of the training we give deputy ministers but I don’t know that all of my colleagues really were mindful about that,” he says. “They’re at least in part assessed on how well their ministers do and if you can help the minister to be more effective, more successful, to get things done, and at a minimum, to stay out of trouble, then it reflects well on the deputy.”

See more: Hope springs for a new wave of public sector transformation: a letter from Ottawa

For those new to the role of deputy minister, the advice Wernick gives is to spend as much time and energy doing the things that only deputy ministers get to do. “There’s the management of the department – making decisions about resources and people – and then there’s building a strong relationship with the minister. Nobody else can do it for you. Dual accountability also means you have a relationship with the so-called centre – the Privy Council Office, the Treasury Board and so on. There’s a lot of dialogue that happens at that level and the deputy minister has carriage of that.

“If you’re still clinging to your old job or micromanaging,” he adds, “then you’re letting your team down.” 

Another of Wernick’s key pieces of advice is to make “the very best of scarce pockets of time” because, given all the other demands on a minister, they may only have one dedicated slot per week to give to departmental briefings.

Deputy minister selection has tended to favour policy people

Returning to the issue of management, Wernick says there is well-founded criticism that the selection system for deputy ministers was for a long time skewed towards “a certain amount of flashy policy brilliance”. That meant the policy community was being promoted more quickly and that basic skills in people and financial management, operations, service delivery, and regulation were undervalued and being selected out. “My cohort of public service leaders tried to shore up and reinforce the importance of management skills,” he says.

There has been a big emphasis in the last five or six years on project management and delivery because, he says, “too many big things launched by government end up being late, over budget or poorly executed”.

While he says having the opportunity to work in and around policy and ministers is “a very useful thing to do on you way up the ladder”, it isn’t, in his opinion, a replacement for skipping the steps to becoming a leader with strong management skills. 

Can a degree of tension be a good thing?

When you are steward of an organisation with hundreds if not thousands of public servants and report directly to the minister, what’s key, Wernick says, is having the emotional intelligence and empathy needed to form and maintain strong interpersonal relationships.

There are times, though, when those relationships can deteriorate or even break down completely. As Wernick explains, tensions can be down to “a conduct issue, a perceived competency issue or just a clash or personalities”. Part of his job as clerk was to try to repair those relationships but in cases where they had become truly dysfunctional, deputy ministers could be moved elsewhere. “Sometimes you have to take the deputy out of the line of fire and in a few rare cases, people have found their careers prematurely terminated. They might feel they’ve been put in a situation where they can’t do their job anymore. If their advice is being consistently rejected or the minister is intent on pursuing a course of action that they feel strongly is wrong then the code is that you resign, as it is with ministers in the cabinet.”

A degree of tension between a minister and their deputy can be a good thing, however. Wernick has been reading British political memoirs of late and notes “you come across people that really clearly detested each other and still worked effectively”.

“Culturally, Canadians don’t like confrontation,” he explains. “They’re wary of triggering interpersonal conflicts and are usually quick to try to smooth out differences and to get along. I would argue that Canadians err a little too much on the side of caution and that sometimes more directness is called for. I think in some cases a greater degree of candour would be extremely helpful.”

Public servants who find themselves promoted to the role of deputy minister have a demanding stretch of their career ahead of them but one that can also be highly rewarding. Take the advice set out in Wernick’s book, and the ability to adjust to the new minister, to empathise, and to talk to them frankly should put both parties on the path to success. 

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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