CARPE DIEM: The Public Service and the Minority Government

3 minute read

By Toby Fyfe, President, Institute on Governance

"The public service needs to be asking itself some serious questions to make sure that in the 21st Century world of significant social and economic upheaval, disruption and division, the public sector of the future is up to the task of serving the Canadian public."

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There is no shortage of analysis, conjecture and punditry assessing the outcome of the federal election and the challenges the Prime Minister will face forming and running a minority government.

What should the public service do in this situation?

Minority governments can accomplish great things. This one will have to: as the Prime Minister noted, Canadians expect action from all our politicians on key social and economic issues. They will not accept the political difficulties of a minority government as an excuse for failure.

From a governance perspective, the challenge can be articulated this way: citizens remain cynical about the ability of government – of all governments - to deliver, but nonetheless expect action. If this minority government does not succeed in meeting those expectations, trust in the ability of the public sector to accomplish things will continue to fall, with possible long-term implications for democratic stability.

This should matter to the public service. It is also an opportunity for it.

In the business-as-usual category, the public service will be working hard to ensure a smooth transition, editing materials and informing new ministers on their portfolios.

It should do more.

In the medium term, whether the issue is climate change, pipelines, federal-provincial relations, the Arctic, reconciliation or countless other divisive yet critical issues, the public service should take a leadership role in developing new, inventive, innovative, out-of-the-box options to help the new government find the common ground necessary for moving forward in this divisive and changing environment.

In the long-term, the public service needs to prepare a robust reform initiative to save its own relevance. This is more than about being better and faster. It is about asking some fundamental questions such as: what is the public policy role of a 21stcentury public service? How should risk be defined in and by a 21stcentury public service? How will a 21stcentury public service convince Canadians and politicians that it matters?

In short, the public service needs to be asking itself some serious questions to make sure that in the 21stcentury world of significant social and economic upheaval, disruption and division, the public sector of the future is up to the task of serving the Canadian public.

The then-Clerk of the Privy Council bragged in his 26thAnnual Report of March 2019 that “Canada’s federal public servants have been working hard to support their ministers in addressing…important shifts.” The challenge for the public service is to make sure it can continue to do so.

About the author

Toby Fyfe

Toby Fyfe

President

Toby Fyfe is President of the Institute on Governance in Ottawa.

For the last seven years he has led the IOG’s public sector leadership and capacity-building programs and courses aimed at providing tools and insights to enhance the skills of executives and officers at all levels of government.

He has led the design, curriculum development and delivery of multiple federal government year-long Executive Leadership Programs and Inter-Jurisdictional Executive Leadership Programs in Toronto and Nova Scotia, the latter in partnership with the Dalhousie School of Management. He also is responsible at the IOG for multi-year programs with the Government of Nunavut that build both leadership capacity and policy expertise.

Toby spent over twenty years with the government of Canada in central agencies (Privy Council Office, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat) and government departments. His last post was as Assistant Commissioner, Corporate Services at the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.

Before he joined the Institute, he worked with the Commissioner of the RCMP on a change initiative.

Toby is an Adjunct Professor of Communication at the University of Ottawa and was

editor-in-chief of Canadian Government Executive magazine for five years.

He was a broadcaster with CBC radio and television where he produced programs such as The House, Cross Country Checkup, and the first commercial-free version of Ottawa Morning.

He has an MA from the University of Ottawa and has attended the Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education program.

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