After the liberation: Is Canada’s public service equipped to deliver?

There is no worse heresy than that high office sanctifies the holder of it.

Lord Acton

These are exciting times across the country, and not least in Ottawa, where the repercussions of Oct.19th continue to rock the capital.

The sensation of a new beginning is palpable – something akin to awakening from a decade long coma to discover a world on the cusp of transformation.

The debilitating communications gag, which had in particular compromised the work of scientists and diplomats, has been removed. Federal government employees, assured that they may once more speak and write freely about their work and will be treated with trust and respect, are exuberant.

The “Sovereign’s Wall” in the Pearson Building lobby – dominated by a larger than life portrait of Elizabeth II once described to me by a British diplomatic colleague as the expression of a “curious royalist fetish” that induced in him an “out of body” experience – is gone. It has been replaced by the pair of canvasses by Quebec artist Alfred Pellan which were removed on the occasion of a visit by Prince William in 2011. The restoration of these paintings, which celebrate Canada and Canadian artistic achievement rather than our colonial past, is a powerful totem.

More substantively, a striking array of initiatives – on refugees, climate change, foreign and defense policy – have been launched to compliment the raft of symbolic gestures and encouraging statements.

Still, the question must be put: with much of the low hanging fruit now harvested, what are the realistic prospects for bringing in the more complicated and difficult elements of the new government’s program?

That outcome will depend in large part upon the capacity of the public service to deliver, and in that respect, beyond the loss of critical expertise, the challenges may prove unexpectedly formidable.

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I spoke recently with a bright young fellow who decided to return to university rather than pursue a promising career in government. In fact, he left his position early because after slightly less than a year he concluded that he had had enough of working in Ottawa. When asked about what prompted his decision, he offered three reasons:

  • Fearful leadership – timidity and self-censorship reigned, accompanied by constant anxiety about how best to please the boss
  • The triumph of bureaucratic process – endless transactions and busywork trumped content, generating much motion but little movement
  • Politicization of the workplace – a sense of constant ideological oversight prevailed, with junior ministerial staff regularly providing direction and sometimes attending divisional meetings

In my estimation, in a very few words that almost says it all. Conservative rule was tough on all public servants, but especially those who believed that their job was offer the best, most carefully considered advice to ministers. Speaking truth to power.

But there was no political appetite for such advice… or analysis, or initiative. Instead, all were actively discouraged. The job was unquestioning implementation, with talking points at the ready and risk averted. Dissent, even if offered constructively, confidentially and in-house, was treated with extreme prejudice. The modus operandi was kiss-up, kick down, follow instructions and don’t rock the boat.

Over the years, that formula gave rise to an epidemic of bureaucratoxis, the antithesis of an open, productive and supportive work environment.

In the face of these developments, some resigned on principle. Tens of thousands lost their jobs to the cuts. Many who remained simply hunkered down. But others used the available time as an opportunity to advance their careers by keeping the lid on, making their bosses look good and otherwise doing the necessary to get ahead. Successful executives were rewarded generously.

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As scientists and diplomats were muzzled and the control of all public communications centralized in ministers’ offices and the PMO, there was little evidence of “push back” from officials. Recently, however – in a fashion reminiscent of  the end of Vichy France –  news of some form of resistance to the degradation of the public sector has begun to trickle out. Indeed, it may be that in the coming weeks and months we will learn that between 2006 and 2015 there were in fact many instances of noble, but hitherto unknown attempts within the system to secretly defend the values placed under siege by the Tories.


But in the meantime, in addition to significant reinvestment, there is much to be done if the machinery of government is to deliver. Without ensuring that the right people are in the right places, the new skipper of the ship of state might well find the helm unresponsive.

Put another way, and although more conveniently ignored, it remains that most of those occupying senior positions across the public service achieved their status under circumstances very different than those in place today. The new government might therefore consider undertaking a careful, but comprehensive leadership review to ensure that the qualifications, experience and competencies of executives serving in key positions are in demonstrable alignment with its progressive, activist agenda.