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Wayne Wouters, the Clerk of the Privy Council, is retiring after 37 years working for federal and provincial governments
Wayne Wouters, the Clerk of the Privy Council, is retiring after 37 years working for federal and provincial governments

Canada’s top-ranking civil servant announces retirement Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is sticking with a familiar face to head Canada’s public service – a change of command that comes as one former watchdog warns of the need for bureaucratic renewal.

Wayne Wouters, the 63-year-old Clerk of the Privy Council, announced his retirement online Wednesday from a position that reports directly to Mr. Harper. “It’s been a true honour & privilege to serve as Clerk,” he wrote.

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Shortly afterward, Mr. Harper’s office thanked Mr. Wouters and announced he will be replaced by Janice Charette, 52, who is his second-in-command as the current deputy clerk and associate secretary to cabinet. She’s a long-time civil servant with past ties to Jean Charest and Kim Campbell, stalwarts of the defunct Progressive Conservative Party.

Mr. Wouters was a former secretary to the Treasury Board who was said to have impressed Mr. Harper in quickly organizing the approval of government stimulus spending, leading up to his appointment as clerk in 2009. The clerk is a non-partisan position, essentially the Prime Minister’s go-to aide in navigating the bureaucracy.

Mr. Wouters introduced the Blueprint 2020 plan last year aimed at renewing the federal public service. But his tenure wasn’t without controversy. Mr. Wouters also clashed with then-parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, an outspoken watchdog, over departmental spending details Mr. Page was seeking.

Mr. Page acknowledges they “did not agree on much” while he served as PBO, but wished Mr. Wouters a long and happy retirement – the two overlapped in several stages of their careers after meeting on a hockey rink in the 1980s.

“He is good athlete. More importantly, he is a good person. He gets along well with people from all walks of life,” Mr. Page, now the Jean-Luc Pepin Research Chair at the University of Ottawa, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. When Mr. Page’s son died in September, 2006, Mr. Wouters phoned him that day. “He told me I was going to have to reach out to others to get help. He knew me. He knew that my tendency was to bottle things up inside,” Mr. Page wrote, later adding: “It took courage and empathy to make that call. He helped me.”

However, he believes Mr. Wouters “overlooked public service values of transparency and accountability” while Mr. Page was the budget officer, and that the Privy Council Office (PCO) “played too strong a hand” in the search to replace Mr. Page. He said Mr. Wouters “should have considered resigning” over the elimination of the long-form census, which led to the resignation of Statistics Canada’s chief statistician Munir Sheikh.

“The public service is in a state of decline. Wayne is not totally responsible for this decline but he did have the top job while the trajectory was negative,” Mr. Page wrote.

Mr. Wouters was born in Saskatchewan, earning a master’s in economics before joining the federal government in 1982. His career path also included stints as deputy minister – the top public servant in the department – before joining Treasury Board and, then, the PCO.

Ms. Charette first joined the public service in 1984 and has three times served as a deputy minister. She once served as chief of staff to then-PC leader Jean Charest, and in the office of then-prime minister and PC leader Kim Campbell. She has also worked in the PCO under Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien and took her current PCO role in 2010. A Prime Minister’s Office spokesman declined to say if there was an open hiring process. “As you can see from Ms. Charette’s biography, she’s highly qualified for the position,” spokesman Carl Vallée said.

Ms. Charette has a tough task ahead of her, Mr. Page warned. The public service is struggling in its analytical and administrative capacity, and is not transparent, he said. “We have kicked the proverbial can down the road with respect to public service renewal. These challenges await the next Clerk of the Privy Council and perhaps a future government,” Mr. Page said.

In a written statement released through a spokesman, Mr. Wouters said he’s leaving now because he has achieved what he set out to do, adding ‎“the Public Service is in a good position to tackle future challenges‎.”

His last day is Oct. 3. Ms. Charette takes over Oct. 6.

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