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Mel Cappe (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Mel Cappe (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

MEL CAPPE

Let's respect the ‘faceless bureaucrats’ who keep Canada running Add to ...

As a former “faceless bureaucrat,” I want to address the things we take for granted – and one of them should not be the Public Service of Canada.

If I have been successful at all in my Public Service career, it is because of literally thousands of dedicated, committed and professional non-partisan Public Servants with whom I have worked. And of course, most of them have toiled in the background, faceless bureaucrats, ceding the foreground to publicly elected officials, as they should. However, faceless bureaucrats risk being taken for granted.

We take for granted that each day, because of the work of dedicated and committed Public Servants: Thousands of planes take off and land safely; hundreds of thousands of people come through the border securely; thousands of prisoners stay incarcerated and in remediation; our food is assured safe; thousands of communities are well policed; OAS, EI and CPP cheques are delivered to the right people at the right time in the millions; path-breaking research is undertaken in government laboratories; and nobody notices.

But we need to take stock every now and then and realize that notwithstanding all the orange juices claimed by Ministers, all the books not kept by charities, all the forms not filled out when they should have been, we are served very well by a professional, dedicated and committed Public Service of Canada. We take them for granted at our peril. Ministers better not take them for granted, for all our sake.

When I worked at the Treasury Board, my mother, gave me a lucite paper weight with pennies floating inside. I used to show that paper weight to every new analyst at the Secretariat to remind them to follow the money. When I was deputy minister of HRDC, my mother gave me a desk clock to remind me tempus fugit – two gifts that remind me of the importance of time and treasure. They are two very scarce resources that you cannot take for granted.

But frankly, in my career, and in the career of all public servants, the two most important things to pay attention to, and the two things that risk being taken for granted, are respect and trust. In particular, respect and trust between public servants and ministers. But respect and trust, if taken for granted, are so easy to lose and so hard to regain. I worry that the public service is being taken for granted and that the respect and trust required from ministers is missing.

Finally, we take for granted the importance of analysis and evidence in public policy. Governments get elected on platforms that are well fleshed out in policy terms. But they should not implement a platform that flies in the face of analysis and evidence.

And then to compound the problem, some governments replace evidence with ideology. If you have ideology, who needs evidence? You need to ask questions before you have answers. We need ministers to be demanders of good analysis and good evidence for good decision-making.

And worse than replacing evidence with ideology, some governments have reduced the production of the public goods of good science, good analysis and good evidence, to inform public policy and to inform public debate.

Scientists should be prohibited from talking to the public about policy. That’s the job of ministers. But they should be encouraged to talk to the public about their science and their research.

And it is the role of the public service to have the proper filters to help ministers screen out the chaff from the wheat in the cacophony of voices in the market for ideas. But like respect and trust, it is easy to lose the analytic capacity of the service by its neglect and by taking it for granted.

We need ministers to be the demanders of good analysis and evidence in the policy process. If ministers don’t ask, then public servants will get out of the habit of serving the public interest. I fear that we, they and the public are taking for granted the public service and analysis and evidence that should inform the policy process.

We are blessed with many high performing, professional, dedicated and committed public servants.

It requires positive action to build and maintain respect and trust between the public service and ministers.

We need ministers to be demanders of high performing scientists, researchers, policy analysts and advisors in the public service.

And we need to remind ourselves not to take the Public Service for granted.

Mel Cappe is a former Clerk of the Privy Council, Secretary to the federal cabinet, and Canadian diplomat. He was one of five former Clerk’s of the Privy Council honoured on April 11 by the Public Policy Forum.

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