The waning influence of deputy ministers

Recently, the prime minister announced changes to senior personnel in the public service, also known as deputy ministers. While some have written about who they are and where they’ve been placed, there’s been little-to-no coverage of the role these appointed people play in serving Canadians and the government of the day.  

Deputy ministers are chosen by the prime minister on the advice of the clerk of the Privy Council, and appointed by the Governor General. Their job is to run federal departments with a view to serving their minister, the government as a whole, and Canadians.

More often than not, they’ve risen through the ranks of the public service, and have demonstrated they have the right stuff to move into a role that occupies the light grey between democratically elected politicians and the over 255,000 non-partisan employees of the government who serve Canadians.  

These officials are seldom seen or heard from in the news. But their authority and influence over people, spending, and ministers is considerable.  

Deputies must serve the public interest impartially, while also being responsive to the political needs of the government of the day, and they must ensure their employees act in the same fashion.

Gordon Robertson, a former clerk of the Privy Council, described ministers and their offices as “partisan, politically oriented, and operationally sensitive,” and deputy ministers as “non-partisan, operationally oriented, and politically sensitive.”

In other words, deputies are the linchpin between a department’s professional public service and the duly elected executive the Governor General has asked to form a government.  

But this comes from an era when deputies tended to stay in a department for most of their careers, and had deep knowledge of, and experience in, the department they served, says Donald Savoie in his book Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability. A deputy cultivated his or her relationships with key stakeholders, and, indeed, parliamentarians themselves, over a decade or more.  

Jocelyne Bourgon, another former clerk of the Privy Council, described to me the role of deputies and the executives in their charge as “custodians” of the public service. This obligation requires those occupying positions of responsibility to be constantly trying to improve the civil service for their successors. This stewardship is one aspect of good governance in Canada that’s less transparent to the average citizen.

While the deputy-minister position has existed in one form or another since the Magna Carta, the modern form in Canada didn’t become established until 1925, when then-secretary of state for external affairs, O.D, Skelton, sought out the “best and brightest” in the form of Clifford Clark, a protégé from Queen’s University who later became deputy minister of Finance in the government of R.B. Bennett. 

The early days of the rise of this mandarin class is well documented in Jack L. Granatstein’s The Ottawa Men. Deputies today are accountable to their minister on a day-to-day basis, but, perhaps more directly, they’re accountable to the clerk of the Privy Council, the sole official to advise the prime minister on a deputy’s appointment.

In his book Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics, Michael Wernick (yet another former clerk of the Privy Council) also mentions this dual reporting: “Deputy ministers are managed as a portfolio of assets, and they may be redeployed to other positions,” Therefore, they move much more frequently than “back in the day,” according to Savoie.   

After the election of Stephen Harper in 2008, however, significant changes were made to the role of deputy ministers. The Accountability Act was one of five priority initiatives the new minority government introduced to capitalize on the fallout of the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal under the governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

The Act made deputy ministers accountable to Parliament as chief accounting officers, thereby tightening their accountability function. Experts will argue that this didn’t change the doctrine of ministerial accountability, but parliamentarians now have a target besides the minister to question about departmental or program effectiveness.

Regretfully, one of the unintended consequences was to reinforce a deputy’s compliance with rules and procedures, such as Treasury Board directives, as a measure of performance, rather than how well he or she has served Canadians. (The latter is admittedly harder to assess.)

But is the public interest truly served when one is being marked mostly on how well one follows instructions or colours within the lines? This doesn’t lend itself to inspired leadership or a culture of innovation and intelligent risk-taking — three qualities that are undoubtedly valuable in helping Canada and its institutions navigate a post-pandemic recovery.

The Harper government also: appointed an external body to advise him on the public service; commissioned an administrative-services review (the origins of the infamous Phoenix pay system); launched the deficit-reduction action plan (DRAP); and made revisions to both the leadership competencies of executives and the public-service oath. DRAP reduced human-resources and policy capacity within government. Changes to leadership competencies and the oath began a significant cultural change.

Other changes included greatly reducing the ability of exempt staff to transition to the civil service, which further limited the pipeline of talent into it, and, later, into the executive cadre. Why is this important? Because several respected, seasoned, and entirely professional deputy ministers and clerks of the public service served originally as exempt staff — those who were also attracted to public service through political offices. 

To Harper’s credit, many of these changes were “telegraphed” in his speeches from the throne from 2006 to 2013. No references to public-service renewal or reform have appeared in a throne speech since.

Today, deputy ministers are increasingly reliant on the efficacy of their chief financial officers, who’ve more than eclipsed senior assistant deputy ministers (SADMs) as strategic-policy advisers in most organizations.

Before 2008, SADMs were the established “right hand” to many deputy ministers, due to the high demand for economic and legal expertise to generate coherent policy, strategy, and plans for cabinet to consider. Demand for policy products generated by the public service declined significantly once the Conservatives formed government in 2006.

Wernick, the most recent former clerk of the Privy Council, describes the chief role of deputy ministers as establishing “a solid working relationship with the ministers, so they can effectively discharge their responsibilities and accountabilities. The job of deputy ministers is to help ministers do their job.” 

One wonders if this interpretation misses essential parts of the role that were legislatively, financially, and administratively curtailed between 2006 and 2015.

Stephen Van Dine is the senior vice-president of public governance at the Institute on Governance.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.

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