CARPE DIEM: The Public Service and the Minority Government - Institute on Governance

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.”

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.

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