Nova Scotia

Ex-civil servants reflect on changing governments ahead of Rankin's swearing in

Premier-designate Iain Rankin has promised to bring "generational" change to governing Nova Scotia, starting Tuesday, but two long-time, retired civil servants don't expect dramatic change as a result of one Liberal replacing another at the top.

Change at the top brings trepidation but also excitement, say retired bureaucrats

Iain Rankin, accompanied by his wife Mary, addresses supporters after winning the leadership of the Nova Scotia Liberal party at a virtual convention in Halifax on Feb. 6, 2021. (The Canadian Press)

After Iain Rankin takes the oath of office Tuesday to become Nova Scotia's 29th premier, the 37-year-old politician will walk down the street to his new office, formally greet his new staff and get to work charting a new course for the province.

What won't change during the handover of Liberal power is the bureaucracy that will be at Rankin's disposal — which, at last count, was a group 10,436 strong.

Retired bureaucrat Jane Allt, who has co-authored a book on public service, said she doesn't expect her former colleagues to be as anxious about welcoming Rankin as they would be if a different party was taking over after a general election.

Allt is a retired senior bureaucrat with the Nova Scotia government. (Submitted by Jane Allt)

"I expect there will be probably more excitement than trepidation," said Allt, who spent 31 years working for the provincial government.

"It will mean new bosses for a lot of people, new ministers."

Allt and Angela Poirier, a former senior policy adviser with the provincial Justice Department, chronicled their careers in the recently published book How Government Really Works: A field guide to bureaucracies in Canada.

'Short-term tenants'

The 221-page book is part instruction manual, part exposé of the inner workings of the Nova Scotia government.

It tells of the joys and challenges of working within government, including the tension between those elected or appointed to their jobs and those who have to earn them on merit and experience.

Executive assistants and political appointees were thought of as "short-term tenants," said Allt and Poirier in the book.

"They were never around for long, so most employees didn't invest much time developing strong relationships with them," they wrote.

Poirier retired after more than two decades in Nova Scotia's civil service. (Submitted by Angela Poirier)

Although change is sometimes necessary, the former civil servants agreed there's a need for stability within government.

"People depend on the programs and services that governments provide, and so you don't want things changing all the time," said Poirier in an interview.

"Government is also about maintaining the status quo in terms of the services and programs that it delivers."

Poirier, who retired after spending 24 years in the civil service, recalled feeling post-election jitters within government when the party in power was on its way out and an opposition party was preparing to take over.

"Sometimes we were in situations where things we were working on were going to be eliminated," she said.

COVID as a catalyst

During the Liberal leadership campaign, Rankin positioned himself as a candidate for generational change and social progress, framing much of his policy around the environment and a COVID-19 economic recovery plan rooted in green policies.

Allt and Poirier's book touches on the pandemic, describing it as a potential "catalyst that will spark unprecedented change in public services."

"Despite the glib talk, transformational change is highly unlikely in government unless there is a crisis," the authors wrote.

In an interview, Allt pointed to people working from home as one of the major changes brought on by the pandemic.

"For a very, very long time, government was reluctant to have anybody working from home," said Allt, who advocates for providing employees with more flexibility. 

Premier Stephen McNeil and Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, hold a COVID-19 briefing in Halifax on Dec. 29, 2020. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

The two authors differ on whether they would have wanted to work during these tumultuous 11 months.

"I would have liked to be in there for some of it — I do enjoy a bit of panic," said Allt.

Poirier, however, is not so sure.

"I think I'm happy that I did retire when I did," she said.

About the Author

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.

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