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Reading between the lines of the cabinet mandate letters

Maryantonett Flumian is the president of the Institute on Governance and a former long-serving federal deputy minister.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent each of the 30 members of his cabinet a letter, with messages of congratulations, encouragement and exhortation. The letters also contained the ministers’ individual marching orders — the prime minister’s expectations of where they will focus and what they will accomplish, at least in the opening years of their mandate.

In this, Trudeau was following the practice of his predecessors dating back to his father’s days in the PMO. Justin Trudeau has departed significantly (and no doubt irreversibly) from past practice by making these letters — once the closely-guarded preserve of a handful of politicians and senior officials — entirely public. In so doing he both underscored and raised the stakes in his commitment to more open and accountable government.

The chances are fair that no newly minted Canadian prime minister has ever formally articulated a preference for closed and unaccountable government. It’s not surprising then that commentators have spoken of the “cut and paste” quality of all but the specific ministerial commitments and of the “pious nostrums” that may be found in the shared generic text. Arguably, however, there is more to these letters than meets the eye.

True, at least 90 per cent of the specific commitments come directly from platform commitments (duh). And about 90 per cent of the common text reads like a grievance-by-grievance dismantling of the former prime minister’s reputed governing style — affirming that public servants should be listened to and the questions of journalists, who are engaged in an important aspect of democracy, should be answered (double duh). What would people have said had it been otherwise?

It’s still telling that so much space should be dedicated to collaboration, to building and re-building relationships (with Indigenous peoples, provinces, the United States), to the principle of respect (for Opposition members, for institutions like Parliament, and for scientific evidence). The letters don’t limit themselves to such pieties: Despite their public status they are marked by a level of detail and specificity that will one day bring intense scrutiny. There are plenty of concrete measures to back the nostrums up, such as changes to the workings of Parliament and changes from which there will be no turning back — for example, a daring expansion of access to information with ministers’ offices and the PMO, and new power granted to the Information Commissioner to compel disclosure.

There is more going on here in terms of integrated strategy and breaking down of silos than the formal machinery might suggest at first blush.

Beyond the generalities of style, the dismantling of the old order is extraordinarily detailed and specific. It ranges from initiatives that had been much discussed during the campaign — restoration of the long-form census, cancellation of income-splitting, revisiting C-51 and the Fair Elections Act, putting climate change at the center of environmental policy, and launching an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women — to areas whose profile had been lower, such as a review of tax expenditures, increased cultural funding (not least for the CBC), the restoration of the Court Challenges Program, and the freeing of charities from “political harassment”.

There isn’t much change to the formal machinery of government in the letters. Existing departments appear for the most part to have been renamed rather than reconfigured. Nor is there a lot of “virtual” machinery in the form of detailed directions to ministers about who leads, who supports, who collaborates and who gets consulted on particular initiatives. Instead, there are numerous references to “working with” named colleagues, without any specified hierarchy of engagement. Perhaps this is more egalitarian — perhaps it’s just about not wasting time on what ought to be obvious to the people concerned.

There is, however, more going on here in terms of integrated strategy and breaking down of silos than the formal machinery might suggest at first blush. For example, the configuration of portfolios and restructuring of the cabinet committee system entail significant changes in a number of areas, such as the pulling together of the regional development agencies under the minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, and naming the Foreign Affairs minister as chair of the Committee on Environment and Climate Change.

There is also an interesting range of ministers charged with developing single-window web-based access to services with new performance standards, including the minister of Democratic Institutions. There are also plans in the coming weeks for “four corners” meetings among PMO, PCO, responsible ministers and their deputies regarding the implementation plans for priority initiatives. That, incidentally, seems to signal that — however much individual ministers and deputies will be empowered to discharge their mandates — the politicians and the center remain in charge.

Finally, it needs to be said that, while the mandate letters are addressed to ministers, their implementation ultimately will be the work of the public service. This raises a critical question: After years in which it did not flex its muscles much in areas of policy-making, consultation and institution-building, is it up to the task?

More on this, and on the tasking of individual ministers, to come.

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About the Authors

  • Maryantonett Flumian

    Maryantonett Flumian

    President

    As the President of the Institute on Governance, Maryantonett Flumian is responsible for the development of the Institute’s vision and strategic direction, project and partnership development, and the fostering of programs to promote public discussion of governance issues.

    She is a seasoned senior executive at the Deputy Minister level in the Canadian federal Public Service with more than 20 years of large-scale operational experience in the economic, social and federal/provincial domains. She is internationally recognized for her work as a transformational leader across many complex areas of public policy and administration such as labour markets, firearms, fisheries, and environmental issues. She was the first Deputy Minister of Service Canada. Her current research focuses on leadership, collaboration, governance, and the transformational potential of technology primarily in the area of citizen-centered services. Maryantonett was at the University of Ottawa between 2006 and 2009 initiating programming for the development of senior public service leaders.

    Maryantonett holds a Master’s Degree in History and completed comprehensive exams towards a PhD in History at the University of Ottawa.


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