Inside the Black Box: Public Servants and Managing a Transition

9 minute read

By Karl Salgo, Executive Director, Public Governance

First, a disclaimer: we’re talking about managing a transition because we at the IOG have absolutely no privileged access to this particular transition. However, some of us have at least been flies on the wall during other transitions.

Second, there actually is no transition. When a prime minister stays on after an election, with a majority or otherwise, his or her ministry continues uninterrupted so that what follows is technically just a Cabinet shuffle. It’s a really big, complex Cabinet shuffle, mind you, but whether Mr. Trudeau appoints a political team to oversee the process (as a new government certainly would have done) is his call.

In any case, it’s fair to say that Cabinet formation is at the center of the frenzy that undoubtedly prevails right now among both political staff and senior officials at 80 Wellington Street – the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council – in Our Nation’s Capital. Building a Cabinet is arguably the defining responsibility of a prime minister (Sir John A. Macdonald famously gave out his profession as “cabinet maker”).

The big news so far is that the government has announced that the new Cabinet won’t be sworn in until November 20 – fully four weeks after the election. Such a delay doesn’t present legal issues – a minister remains in place until he or she resigns or is replaced – but it will be unprecedented. A typical “transition” in Canada takes up to two weeks from election to swearing in. (Contrast that with the United Kingdom where, albeit in a different context, it has historically taken about 24 hours.)

We can be pretty sure the challenge is not booking time at Rideau Hall, but rather that the PM is wrestling with the thorny issue of whom to include. And, despite all the strides this PM has made in having a Cabinet that more closely resembles the true face of modern Canada, the thorniest issue right now will be the old-fashioned one of regional representation.

On the issue of composition, we can be fairly certain that Cabinet will be comprised purely of Liberals – that is, that there will be no coalition. Formal coalitions are rare in Canada and there has only ever been one at the federal level (and barely one at that, the so-called Union Government during WWI, when Prime Minister Borden took a few pro-conscription Liberals into his government). Prime Minister Trudeau has no obvious need of a coalition. All of the other three official parties would have to line up against him to bring down his government, something that’s not likely to happen any time soon given the financial positions of the parties and the mood of the electorate.

We also know – because we’ve been told, although we could have guessed – that the Cabinet will have gender parity. As in the past, that doesn’t mean that all ministers will preside over government departments (or be “full” or “senior” ministers in common parlance); some will be ministers of state (formally “ministers of state to assist”, or so-called junior ministers, without direct control over a government department). But they will all sit at the Cabinet table and have, in formal terms at least, an equal voice.

But while the current prime minister was the first to achieve gender parity in Cabinet and has demonstrated a distinctive commitment to diversity, we suspect he is struggling with the most time-honoured objective of Cabinet composition: regional representation. In this he faces a distinctive challenge (though not so distinctive that his father didn’t face essentially the same challenge decades ago) of having no caucus members from Alberta or Saskatchewan to draw upon (including for the critical Natural Resources and Environment portfolios). In the good old days a prime minister simply reached into his party’s Senate caucus; but Mr. Trudeau officially doesn’t have such a thing, and in any case, unelected members of Cabinet face a greater legitimacy problem than in the past. Still, our guess would be that, one way or another, the PM will ensure that there is a senior Western voice at the table.

Speaking of problems, the PM will also need to decide on senior staffers within PMO. For instance, will Mr. Butts make a second debut? Or will PMO opt for someone like Ralph Goodale as Chief of Staff or Principal Secretary in the interest of having a senior Western voice (assuming he doesn’t make it back to the Cabinet table)?

The prime minister will also need to decide how to structure the Cabinet committee system. In this, unlike his selection of ministers, he will have the benefit of public service advice, focused on what has worked, and not worked, in the past. The committee structure can tell you a lot about a prime ministerial governing style and policy agenda. For instance, to date, Prime Minister Trudeau has left ratification authority for committee recommendations to “full” Cabinet instead of a de facto inner Cabinet called Priorities and Planning, in the manner of Harper and other prime ministers.

Committee mandates can speak volumes too. For example, most recent prime ministers have chosen to place criminal justice matters with social policy committees, while Mr. Harper placed them with issues of national security. (And does anyone remember Mr. Harper’s Cabinet including a committee with “diversity and inclusion” in its title?) Officials will no doubt be waiting to see if there is once again a dedicated committee on delivery and results, such that the government is sticking to its not conspicuously successful “deliverology” approach. Nomenclature counts in how ministers and their departments are styled as well. For instance, it wasn’t hard to catch the drift when Industry Canada became Innovation, Science and Economic Development, especially given the previous government’s quarrels with the science community.

Portfolio composition is another important structural consideration. For example, will regional development agencies be clustered? Or will they go to regionally based ministers who “understand” their regions best?

By the way, for those who have concerns for the public service, be assured that all these appointments, portfolio combinations and updated stylings entail plenty of work for public servants. This work, like much of the work of the transition (er, shuffle) is done by a group known as Machinery of Government. (I believe it’s a metaphor.)

Of course the public service is now busy providing advice on a host of other matters. Typically, briefing books (now supplied virtually we are told) include a significant range of updates and policy proposals, including some form of highly respectful platform assessment. Usually just one set of books is prepared but it has happened, when the electoral outcome was particularly uncertain, that a second set was asked for. Particularly when there is a true transition, the PM will get a briefing focused on the urgent decisions or events of the first few weeks. Other things being equal, the briefing process is less complicated when there’s continuity, not just from the perspective of knowledge but from that of confidentiality, since a new government does not get access to the Cabinet confidences of its predecessor.

Policy direction is a huge issue, of course, and anyone with an interest in it will be waiting eagerly for the new batch of mandate letters that the PM will surely have to make public once again. There was a time when such letters were expected to be on a minister’s chair the day he or she was sworn in, with resulting 2:00 am adjustments between PMO and Machinery, but less priority seems to be given to such timing these days. The letters, which typically open with a general statement on the government’s priorities and planned approach (hint, they will be open and accountable), derive their content from multiple sources, starting with the party’s electoral platform.

And just as discretion is the better part of valour, strategy is the better part of policy. This is distinctively true in a minority situation, where legislation and agenda management – assisted by a dedicated secretariat in PCO – become the art of the possible. The pundits broadly agree that this government should be able to achieve majority support working with different parties on an issue-by-issue-basis, at least for the time being. But House committees will no longer automatically be dominated majorities from the government caucus, meaning that legislative committees (among others) will likely give the government a tougher ride.

Policy and legislative strategy come together in the decision around when to open Parliament and what to include in the Speech From the Throne (SFT). Canadian governments have tended to open Parliament (or rather, to ask the Governor General to do so) in pretty short order, even if only briefly before a recess. In principle at least, this will be especially important for demonstrating confidence for the minority government. But with a November 20 swearing-in, there will be a narrow window for an SFT before a typical Christmas recess. The government could wait longer: an extreme case of waiting by a minority was that of the Clark government, which delayed more than half a year, although this didn’t work out very well for them. Canadian SFTs, unlike their British counterparts, tend to be longwinded affairs (think 3,000 plus versus 800 words) and add a healthy dose of self-promotion to the outline of their legislative agendas.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the SFT says directly or indirectly about the situation in Quebec given the resurgent Bloc, and what it offers to the West. There will certainly be some commitments in the matter of pipelines, but what else can be done regarding issues like carbon pricing is hard to see, given that two-thirds of the country voted for parties that favour the “carbon tax” loathed in the West. The minority government may have a period of stability in power, but it will have no honeymoon and little tranquility.

About the author

Karl Salgo

Karl Salgo

Executive Director - Public Governance

As Executive Director of Public Governance, Karl provides advisory services to multiple levels of government (provincial, federal and international) on all aspects of public sector governance, including institutional capacity, the center of government, organizational design and effectiveness, accountability, oversight, and risk management. He also plays a lead role in the IOG's research initiatives, including the work of the Public Governance Exchange, a syndicated, multi-jurisdictional forum for developing and exchanging ideas on public sector governance. Additionally, Karl provides educational services to public servants and appointees on a broad range of subjects, ranging from policy development and MC preparation to political savvy and the operations of government, to the responsibilities of directors in a wide range of public institutions.

A career public servant, Karl has degrees in political science, history and law from the University of Toronto and in public administration from the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies.  He worked for many years in the federal Department of Finance, in areas as diverse as tax policy, communications and financial markets.  In the latter capacity, Karl helped to establish the governance framework for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and later served as Chief of Capital Markets Policy.

From 2004 to 2012, Karl worked in the Privy Council Office’s Machinery of Government Secretariat, where he provided advice to the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister on the organization and structure of the Government of Canada – the Cabinet, portfolios, and the creation, winding-up and governance of individual organizations.

As Director of Strategic Policy from 2007 to 2012, Karl was the secretariat’s lead authority on Crown corporation governance, the conventions of the Westminster system, and the conduct standards applicable to ministers and other senior public office holders.  Karl was the author/editor of numerous PCO publications, including Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State and Guidance for Deputy Ministers.  Actively involved in realizing the myriad governance and accountability changes that flowed from the Federal Accountability Act, Karl played a lead role in the design and implementation of the accounting officer mechanism of deputy minister accountability.

LinkedIn613-562-0090 ext. 239