Top bureaucrats met to resist partisanship imposed on public service

Internal documents show the highest echelons of Canada's public service met in May to talk about how the federal bureaucracy has had partisanship imposed upon it by the Harper government.

Deputy ministers gathered in May to discuss 'creeping politicization' of federal public service

Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre came under fire for having public servants produce so-called 'vanity videos' of himself promoting the government's proposed enhancements to the universal child care benefit. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

As a new Liberal government takes the reins this week, Canada's top bureaucrats are looking for ways to purge partisan politics from the shell-shocked public service.

The highest echelon of the bureaucracy met in the spring, before the election was called, to discuss ways to insulate public servants from intense pressure to be "promiscuously partisan" instead of neutral in carrying out the government's agenda.

The May 13 meeting of deputy ministers was asked by Canada's top civil servant to consider how Canada's Westminster parliamentary system needs to be "re-set and if medium-term planning could provide the opportunity."

The group was provided with one paper for backgrounding — dating from 2010, by the late scholar Peter Aucoin — describing how partisanship has damaged Westminster systems in Canada, Britain and Australia.

Ralph Heintzman, research professor at the University of Ottawa, has raised alarms about the politicization of Canada's public service. (University of Ottawa Faculty of Social Sciences)
The new reality "is characterized by integration of governance and campaigning, partisan-political staff as a third force in public administration, politicization of appointments to the senior public service, and expectation that public servants should be promiscuously partisan," says a summary provided for the meeting by the Privy Council Office, the central organ of government .

The group was urged to consider how the damaged system could be fixed "during periods of transition and government formation."

One proposal called for clarifying the job description of Canada's top public servant, the clerk of the Privy Council.

'Confusion and mistrust'

"Without a set of guidelines to clearly determine which of the clerk's roles should be given primacy in situations where duties may conflict, confusion and mistrust can arise during periods of government formation."

Meeting documents, some heavily censored, were obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act. They represent a candid acknowledgment by the bureaucracy that partisan politics have radically changed the nature of their work, especially under the Harper government.

Prof. Donald Savoie says Canada's federal public servants have been undervalued and under siege, but the new Liberal administration is sending positive signals.
A spokesman for Janice Charette, appointed clerk just last year, declined to respond to questions, including what actions were taken arising from the meeting. "We are not able to provide details of meetings of senior executives," Raymond Rivet said in an email.

The so-called "creeping politicization" of the public service dates as far back as the 1970s, under Liberal governments, but the Harper administration has come under special criticism from some scholars.

For anyone who cares about the condition of our federal public service, this is a very depressing story.–Prof. Ralph Heintzman, University of Ottawa

Ralph Heintzman, a research professor at the University of Ottawa, has cited the example of a communications directive requiring bureaucrats to refer to the "Harper government" in news releases, rather than the government of Canada.

Other examples include a request last year that departments send retweets promoting a family-tax measure not yet passed by Parliament, including a hashtag with the Conservative slogan #StrongFamilies, and public servants working overtime to create promotional videos about child benefits, spots that prominently featured Pierre Poilievre, the employment minister.

"For anyone who cares about the condition of our federal public service, this is a very depressing story," Heintzman wrote about the "Strong Families" tweets last April, a month before the deputy ministers' meeting.

"It seems to confirm the widely reported slide of too many senior public service leaders from their traditional and proper role as non-partisan professionals to a new and improper role as partisan cheerleaders for the current political administration."

New Zealand solution

Aucoin's paper proposed a New Zealand solution, where a panel independent of government makes appointments to the senior public service. A Canadian research group, the Public Policy Forum, last week called for legislation to more clearly define the roles and responsibilities of deputy ministers along with other measures to counteract an era of "permanent campaigning" by parties.

"Permanent campaigning subverts sound governance.… It blurs the lines between political messaging and public policy for the non-partisan public service," said a forum report, calling for a "reboot" of democratic institutions.

Donald Savoie, a professor of public administration at the University of Moncton, said the timing of the deputy ministers' discussion is no surprise.

Peter Harder, a career public servant, has been chosen to lead the Liberals' transition team. (Northland Power)
"Public servants tend to be much more daring in the dying months of a government," a period when ministers are preoccupied with a pending election campaign and make fewer demands, he said.

Savoie said a former Liberal minister has already contacted him about the issue of keeping politics out of the public service.

The appointment of Peter Harder, a career public servant, to head the Liberals' transition team is an "extremely powerful signal" that the new government values a non-partisan public service, Savoie said in an interview.

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