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David McLaughlin: How the Clerk of the Privy Council behaves affects our cherished ‘peace, order, and good government.’
David McLaughlin: How the Clerk of the Privy Council behaves affects our cherished ‘peace, order, and good government.’

David McLaughlin

Five ways to renew the public service Add to ...

David McLaughlin has been both a chief of staff to the prime minister and a deputy minister to a premier.

There is a new Clerk of the Privy Council in Ottawa today.

Most Canadians will neither notice nor care about an obscure Ottawa bureaucratic name change. That would be an oversight. Despite the antiquated and low-grade title (who calls anyone a “clerk” any more?), this is the most important and powerful public service position in the federal public service. And how the Clerk behaves affects our cherished “peace, order, and good government.”

No mere bureaucratic mortal, the Clerk is also Secretary to the Cabinet, responsible for the management of the government’s highest decision-making processes. She – for the second time in our history “it” is now a “she,” Janice Charette – the Clerk is the Prime Minister’s principal public service adviser. All formal advice from the public service to the PM goes through the Clerk. And all formal directions from the PM to the public service go through the Clerk. That is a lot of “get,” as they say.

In short, the Clerk is the PM’s deputy minister while the Privy Council Office, housed in the same buildings with the Prime Minister’s Office, is really the department of the Prime Minister. It exists to assert the Prime Minister’s will across the vast apparatus of government. If the Prime Minister is in theory primus intra pares or “first among equals” in the cabinet, the Clerk has no such encumbrances and really exists as “with no equals,” theoretical or otherwise.

After almost nine years in government Prime Minister Stephen Harper knows what he wants in this, his third Clerk, and how he intends to deploy her. It is the only true instance where the Prime Minister can appoint his own deputy minister. All other deputies are appointed by the PM on advice of the Clerk for cabinet ministers; they cannot choose their own, continuing the formal non-partisan, merit-based appointment system of many years. While the Clerk is supreme in the public service as a whole, the job derives practical authority from the trust relationship with the prime minister.

This dynamic is worth watching most. For the Clerk of the Privy Council is also head of the Public Service of Canada charged with the effective leadership and management of the federal public service. It is in this capacity that conflict can occur for this is a government not shy about imposing its political will not just on decisions, but on the very decision-making process itself. The independence of the public service has been eroded in important ways not through crass political appointments as some might expect, but by the more deliberate diminution of its once pre-eminent advisory and expert role.

Fairly, this phenomenon was not invented by the current Conservative government. But it has flourished and perhaps metastasized to an unhealthy degree. Calls for the public service to reform its culture and operations too often masquerade as demands to conform to the government of the day. Akin to recent musings about the supremacy of Parliament versus the courts in making and interpreting laws, insisting the public service exists – full stop – to loyally carrying out the program and policies of the duly-elected government obscures the essential role of checks and balances necessary for good governance.

Each Clerk has systematically embarked upon some form of public service renewal within the ranks during their tenures. This next round needs to be aimed at first principles, not the latest management fad or gimmick like Dragon’s Den policy-making.

Here’s a five-point checklist for the new Clerk:

First, stop the churn in deputy minister turnover. Fewer and fewer deputies stay in their respective departments for more than a couple of years now. Environment Canada is on its fifth deputy minister in eight years. This erodes corporate memory and expertise at the top, severs the link between responsibility and accountability in a department, and makes deputy ministers more amenable to short-term priorities and thinking.

Second, build back the research capacity for independent, evidence-based decision-making. Access to good, reliable data and information is at the core of sound policy and decisions. Governments are the ultimate knowledge-based institutions. So, why do we insist they operate without it?

Third, think out loud with smart, committed Canadians. Fear of failure is endemic to large bureaucracies, but fear of facing others in case one is challenged over politics is a recipe for idea ossification and policy stasis.

Fourth, build up the Canada School of Government from a management incubator to an idea accelerator. Use it to engage bright and controversial thinkers to challenge and test the public service’s own thinking.

Fifth, heed the maxim I once heard from a Clerk: It is unavoidable that governments get caught up in the short-term, but it is unforgivable that they ignore the long-term. Only governments have the mandate and capacity to think about what the future might bring. Seize that role and share what was learned with us all.

Think of it this way: Good policy is good politics.

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