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Elections and the public service: What do they do when the race is on, anyway?

In this installment of McMillan Vantage’s regular spotlight on the federal election, Vantage Senior Advisor Drew Fagan speaks to the operations of the public service during elections: 

What does the public service do during an election? If I heard that question once I heard it 50 times during my own dozen years in the federal and provincial bureaucracy. More often than not, the questioner would answer for me, and with a smile: Even less than normal.

In fact, the non-partisan public service is as busy as ever (and it almost invariably is busy). It’s just focused on different things.

  • It’s analyzing the platforms of the parties, including modelling the fiscal impacts of policy initiatives that might occur depending on the election night outcome. (This is done less than in the past, or more furtively, for fear that freedom of information legislation may expose to public view results that contradict what might be optimistic election platform arithmetic.)
  • It’s thinking through potential policy reforms, generally regarding “wicked” multi-ministry challenges — think streamlined government services or welfare programs simplification — that might be presented to the next government, regardless of political stripe, as a “good government” initiative.
  • It’s preparing transition books on every-day workings — from hot issues to key stakeholders to government plumbing like organizational charts — so that every ministry is ready to brief a new minister when the new government is sworn in, whether of the same party or a different one.

It’s seems to be in the nature of the Parliamentary system that this is done largely in isolation. Because of the age-old impartiality of the public service, party platforms are built largely without the benefit of an “art of the possible” analysis from bureaucrats, though the party that calls the election does have an advantage here from the osmosis that comes from being in power. And the public service, in any case, is scrupulous in not wanting to be seen as playing favourites in the run-up to a campaign or when it’s underway.

This is a paradox: more cross-pollination actually might produce better government, but our system of government requires little cross-pollination. In fact, though, other countries to which we compare ourselves — the UK, Australia, New Zealand — have found a way to square this circle, at least in terms of early public service/political party engagement on critical machinery of government and administration issues.

In Canada, there are no clear rules on when the major political parties, which invariably appoint transition teams regardless of whether they have a chance of election victory, can sit down with the head of the public service — the Clerk of the Privy Council in Ottawa and the Secretary of Cabinet in the provinces and territories. Sometimes, it hasn’t happened until the election is over and a new party is preparing to be sworn in within days.

In the UK, by contrast, a convention that goes back to the 1960s presumes such contacts will occur, and as much as 16 months before an election. In Australia, similar guidelines set out the kinds of issues that can be covered — generally, process as opposed to policy — as much as three months before the election writ. New Zealand is similar.

“During these meetings, public servants are not authorized to discuss government policies or to give opinions on political matters,” noted retired professor David Zussman in his 2013 book on the workings of transitions. (Zussman led the transition process for Jean Chretien’s Liberal government in 1993.)   

Canada is overdue for this practice. Such meetings don’t politicize the public service; quite the opposite, they provide political parties with the kind of non-political grounding they need to be “off and running” (which also happened to be the title of Zussman’s book).

Political parties sometimes take power, usually when they’ve been far from it for an extended period, convinced that the public service is against them. Or they take power confident that they’ll mold the public service to their will. Neither is the right assumption or approach. A lack of early engagement just encourages such thinking. Demystification — early and as often as useful — should be the order of the day.



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