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Inside a Cabinet Shuffle – a Deputy Minister’s Perspective

The ceremony is over. The ministers – new ones as well as veterans in new portfolios – have sworn their oaths and made perfunctory comments to the press. They’ll need to learn their files before saying more, they invariably say.

But how do they learn those files? The Minister will be greeted, once escorted to his or her new offices, by the ministry’s Deputy Minister (DM), who’ll be ready with briefing materials hundreds of pages long. (Or this would have happened pre-COVID, instead of doing it online.)

Government 101: There are elected members who, if lucky, make it into Cabinet, and their political aides; and there’s the much larger and lower-profile public service. The former is partisan and thinks short-term, in election cycles; the latter is non-partisan and thinks long-term, in decades. Ideally, they’re yin and yang. Sometimes, they’re oil and water.

It’s likely that the DM – the senior public service official — only was told of the new minister an hour or two beforehand, and told not to tell anyone else.

And those briefing materials, whether between vinyl or paperless? The DM and ministry staff should have been keeping them evergreen so that they’ll just slap a new name on the cover. The materials detail ministry plumbing, including the programs on which money is spent and the means by which revenue is raised (if applicable). They’ll include a prioritized list of stakeholders for the minister to call to get acquainted. Every stakeholder will ask for a meeting soon.

Do the materials get read? Almost never fully, though they’re left behind for reference anytime. What always does get read is the “hot issues” section – put at the front — which lays out in detail the kind of issues asked about by the media after the swearing-in. 

The next step is the systematic briefing of the minister, deck by deck, and likely in this order:  those “front page” issues, rumbling major topics and more minor matters.    

Decision-oriented briefings are different than background briefings. The latter should lead to a decision eventually; the former demands one now, or quickly. Decision decks typically put three options in front of the minister – from soft to hard in terms of intervention – with the pros and cons laid out for each. Bureaucrats propose, ministers dispose (or so the saying goes). These decks will include “talking points” under each scenario, specifying how the minister might explain and defend the path he or she has chosen. The media is likely to get more than non-committal answers soon enough.

As the briefings continue, ministry staff led by the DM will adapt to the new minister’s proclivities. Big-picture person or details-oriented? Comfortable with charts and graphs or flummoxed by them? Do they stick to the material presented or want to choose their own adventure? Word filters through the ministry quickly; decks and other briefing materials get adjusted accordingly.

(It’s been said that public servants are like dogs; they adapt to their master. It’s true, up to a point. But the public service is also meant to challenge the minister in the public interest; to speak truth to power.)

One other key cause for adjustment, and on subject rather than style: What’s in the new minister’s mandate letter? This document – and it is in the form of a letter – lays out what the premier (or prime minister) expects the new minister to achieve. Mandate letters are sometimes made public, sometimes not. If the Cabinet shuffle was in the works for some time, the letters may be ready for the swearing-in. More likely, they’ll come some weeks later.

(Mandate letters are part of “new public management” reforms borrowed from the private sector, where clean lines of accountability and authority seldom run up against the hurly-burly of politics. Their usefulness is debated in government circles.)

Soon enough, the minister, his or her political staff, and the public service, will have gotten to know each other and reached a modus operandi.  

In decades past, respective roles were relatively simple and clear. The minister would set priorities, sign off on all key decisions before getting Cabinet approval, and handle public engagement virtually alone. The DM, more likely than not, would have proposed those priorities up-front, and would ensure that the ministry ticked over so that the minister wasn’t sideswiped by internal scandal. This came to be known simply as “the bargain.”

Now, it’s more complicated. Public servants increasingly are in the public eye due to the demands of the 24/7 news cycle. Stakeholders play an influential role and make their case directly to both the partisan and non-partisan arms of government, including suggesting language for government documents, ministerial speeches or mandate letters. Responsibility for screw-ups can ricochet around the system among elected and unelected leaders, in what is called by one prominent academic “the blame game.”  

Still, the fundamentals remain. A Cabinet shuffle just marks the start of a new cycle.

by Drew Fagan, Senior Advisor at McMillan Vantage and former Ontario Deputy Minister. 



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