Privy Council Office tracks party promises to prepare for government transition

An internal document obtained by CBC News shows the Privy Council Office has been closely tracking the election promises of the main parties since at least March 30, in the most comprehensive transition-planning project ever.

Senior public servants log and analyze every election promise on a daily basis to prep briefing books

Janice Charette, clerk of the Privy Council, has launched the most comprehensive government transition process ever for the outcome of the 2015 election.

No matter who becomes prime minister after Oct. 19, the incoming government will receive the most comprehensive policy briefing in Canadian history.

Internal documents show that the Privy Council Office has been closely monitoring and compiling party platforms since at least March 30 this year, four months before the election was called on Aug. 2.

And the government-wide project, now in its seventh month, includes detailed spreadsheets — updated daily during the election campaign — which all departments are drawing on as they translate platform commitments into more concrete policy proposals to present in briefing binders to the winning leader.

The spreadsheets break down party promises into major categories, such as economic issues or social issues, and then create sub-categories that include minute details of the platforms, such as "aerospace" or "bank regulations."

The electronic spreadsheets are accessible to major departments, which are also creating their own specialized lists, to ensure consistency and give the public service as much detail as possible.

Secret planning document

"This would enable departments to focus on tracking and analyzing the specific commitments related to their portfolio, and link with other departments on cross-cutting issues as necessary," says an internal document from the Privy Council Office marked "secret."

"The objective of the exercise is to ensure that all relevant commitments are captured so that the public service has the information required to develop policy responses."

A heavily censored copy of the document was obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

'The most co-ordinated transition exercise that I have witnessed.'–David Zussman, author and former public servant

The project is much more elaborate than the version that preceded the May 2, 2011, federal election that gave the Conservatives a majority.

In that exercise, party-platform analysis by the Privy Council Office, the central agency of government and the prime minister's home department, began four days after the election was called, and lasted a little over a month until election day itself.

The current project, whose long lead time of half a year was made possible by a fixed election date, is intended "to help ensure that more time is spent across government on analyzing commitments, and to effectively equip the public service to respond on key issues to the incoming government."

The Privy Council Office began compiling party-platform data once a week at the start, but has been doing daily updates since Aug. 2. A sample spreadsheet from 2011 shows data gathered from the Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Green and Bloc platforms, with no smaller parties represented.

Process called 'normal'

Janice Charette, clerk of the Privy Council and responsible for the project, declined an interview. Spokesman Raymond Rivet said that "pre-election planning is an essential element in any successful post-election transition and part of PCO's duties."

Author David Zussman has written about government transitions in the period 1984-2011. He says the coming government transition project is the most co-ordinated he has ever witnessed. (David Zussman/YouTube)

"The Privy Council Office is analyzing the platform commitments of the political parties as part of the normal transition planning exercise," he said.

David Zussman, a University of Ottawa author and himself a longtime public servant, called the project "the most co-ordinated transition exercise that I have witnessed.… The public service will be very well prepared for all electoral outcomes."

Zussman is author of the 2013 book Off and Running: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Government Transitions in Canada, which covered elections and transitions from 1984 to 2011 and its aftermath.

"It strikes me that this time, the whole public service is more engaged in planning than before," he said.

Wayne Wouters, the clerk during the 2011 election, declined an interview, as did Kevin Lynch, clerk from 2006 to 2009.

Zussman has argued that the public service was not well prepared for the 2006 transition from the Liberal government of Paul Martin to the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

"They didn't appreciate that this was going to represent a cultural and philosophical shift in thinking," he said in an interview last year.

Last month, a transition briefing document from Foreign Affairs was leaked to the news media, prompting an RCMP investigation. It warns the new minister of Canada's eroded reputation on the world stage, especially with regard to governance, economic sustainability and gender equality.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet pose after their swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in July 2013. The new government being elected Oct. 19 will be among the best briefed of any since Confederation, thanks to a project begun in March to compile party platforms and offer policy options. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Insiders say that briefing binders for a new prime minister or cabinet minister typically include a "hot issues" section, outlining imminent problems that a party may not be aware of. They are also likely to include a mechanics-of-government section (on the nuts and bolts of running a government) and a section offering detailed policy options and costs for election campaign commitments.

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