REACTION: Graham Flack named Treasury Board Secretary

The Treasury Board got a new Secretary.

Graham Flack comes to Treasury Board via Employment and Social Development Canada, where he’d been Deputy Minister since 2018. Flack was previously DM of Canadian Heritage, following a career that included several senior positions in the Privy Council Office, and is widely considered one of the more thoughtful members of the senior public service.

He will need to put that thoughtfulness to use to support the many demands the Prime Minister has made of Treasury Board President Mona Fortier in his December 2021 mandate letter. Many of these expectations – and many more challenges besides – relate to the governance issues under TB’s purview.

Treasury Board has several key responsibilities, including its roles as the government’s management board and as the employer for most of the public service.

In those capacities, it has a lead role for both how the government operates and how the public service does its job. You can’t effect vast change in a rapidly evolving landscape with a static public service.

The good news begins with what sounds like a positive tone with public sector unions, as Minister Fortier is called upon to negotiate with unions in good faith and to work with them on a coordinated plan for the future of work within the public service.

This would include a Public Service Skills Strategy, among other efforts to modernize the public service for the 21st century. What that workforce will look like is not specified, although there will be heavy emphasis on diversity and inclusion as well as improved data, IT, and digital capacity. This meshes well with the Clerk of the Privy Council’s recent report on the public service, which called for precisely such a skills strategy, as well as “flexible and equitable” post-pandemic work arrangements.

All this is fine and needful, but it doesn’t amount to much more than a start on public service reform and the broader matter of better public sector governance for the 21st century.

First, we might ask what is meant by flexible and equitable work arrangements.

So far, TB has opted against a one size fits all approach, leaving individual organizations to sort out what works for their mandates and needs. That is at least a little shrewd, since TB would hardly want to own a definitive model at this point in the game.

But this is the Government of Canada we’re talking about: TB will certainly keep a close eye on what is going on and won’t hesitate to intervene if it doesn’t like what it sees.

Frankly, the country’s industrial age, hierarchical, and rules bound work force needs a lot more than the capacity to work virtually. The normative mindset of the public service is still defined by the culture of compliance that was denounced by, of all people, the late Auditor General Michael Ferguson.

Ferguson wasn’t against compliance – what accountant is? He was referring to a culture of sticking to the blame-avoiding safe harbor of following rules rather than innovating and taking rational risks. This culture was epitomized by the Federal Accountability Act, which addressed a host of behavioral problems that didn’t exist, and which the Trudeau government has never lifted a finger to dismantle.

It is a culture reinforced by inadequate performance metrics and the fact that public servants are not accountable for results, nor could they be given the limited trust and authority that’s given to most of them.

Remote working arrangements may help to push long-overdue changes, like faster, flattened decision making and performance assessment that turns more on genuine productivity as opposed to just showing up and participating in processes.

Significant governance changes are also needed to fully unleash the capacity of digital technology to meet evolving citizen expectations.

Politicians and public servants have been talking about improved horizontality and “whole-of-government” approaches for decades, but we still struggle to dismantle or work around the silos of the classic Westminster system.

This is not to be dismissive of the rules around reporting and accounting to Parliament, or the broader principle of ministerial responsibility. And digital and data governance raise privacy and security issues that aren’t easy to address. While successive governments have made progress, including through the appointment in multiple departments of chief data officers, there is a long way to go.

In practice, horizontality has been approached largely through a more powerful center. And the impact of 24/7 media and a hostile twitter mob have gotten in the way of efforts to be more open with information and less hierarchical in decision making.

The bottom line is that for government to evolve it needs to be less self-regarding and more focused on the citizens it is supposed to serve.

It’s a tall order, Mr. Flack, and we wish you and Minister Fortier the very best.

Government of Canada office building

REACTION: 2021 Mandate Letters

Governing Liberal Style

In late December 2021, the Prime Minister’s Office released the collection of ministerial Mandate Letters. These documents outline departmental and ministerial priorities for the mandate ahead.

The letters reflect the government that produced them. There is no shortage of ambition, even audacity.

The prime minister has remained true to the focus of his election campaign and Throne Speech, focusing on pandemic management and recovery, reconciliation and social equity issues, climate change and the environment, and improved access to housing.

The mandate letters set out an agenda that is heavily oriented towards social rather than economic policy; even the equity the government seeks to deliver is more social than economic.

Spending to Fix

A good portion of the economic policy in the letters relates to transitioning a net-zero emissions economy – albeit with a respectable measure of pro-innovation and technology initiatives in the mix.

The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance is admonished to keep an eye on the government’s fiscal health. There are few measures to significantly raise revenues and even fewer to reduce expenditures.

This is not an austerity agenda: many initiatives explicitly call for additional spending and even those that don’t will in many cases require it. Presumably a day of fiscal reckoning will come, but this is not that day.

A Reworked Rewind

Even aside from the fiscal mindset, we see multiple inversions of a conservative agenda, at least as manifest by the previous government.  Net-zero has plainly supplanted the ambition to become an “energy superpower”.  Law-and-order, pro-gun policies have yielded to “justice strategies” aimed at removing cultural and gender biases in the police and courts, increased funding for the Court Challenges Program, and confiscation of guns where “red flags” arise.

Efforts to keep the public service, and its scientists, focused on operations and implementation have yielded to a supposedly science and data driven approach to analysis by a diverse, digitalized workforce that benefits from flexible and equitable working arrangements.

A Renewed Public Service Relationship

While directed at their political leaders, these mandate letters direct Deputy Ministers, Assistant Deputy Ministers, Directors General, and the rest of the public service in, well – their direction. Coupled with fiscal updates, these are the marching orders of the public service.

However, how do you implement vast change, in a changing landscape, with a static public service? 

You don’t. 

The public service must constantly renew itself – a notion which has been evoked in throne speeches for years to help Canadians enjoy a quality of life envied by other countries.

Surely, there are nods to this within the letters. Striking a cooperative tone is a start, as is the recent report by the Clerk of the Privy Council [HYPERLINK] and its focus on the future of work.

Digital efficacy, replacing systems, improved service capacity – all of these remain components of a renewed public service.

But is this enough? Is it a complete vision of a 21st century public service? Arguably, it misses the mark. 

To meet the challenges of declining trust in government and colliding forces of globalization and disruption, a responsive public service requires structural changes that are far more reaching than outlined in this batch of letters.

Our Problem or Theirs?

Much of this agenda has been in place, with mixed success, since 2015 – but a few things seem to have gone by the wayside.

Direct links to the infamous “deliverology” approach have been quietly dropped. Not much remains of the democratic reform agenda – although the Intergovernmental Affairs Minister is tasked with some open-ended efforts to improve the electoral system.

The enhancement of Canada’s parliamentary democracy looks to be limited to better digital connectedness by parliamentarians, renewal of the perennial promise of more free votes, and undisclosed updates to the Parliament of Canada Act to reflect the Senate’s non-partisan role.

Overall, the government appears more concerned with the democratic shortcomings of others than of itself.