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National Opinion Centre

Remember when Elizabeth May called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to dismiss his top tier of public servants? She worried they’d been contaminated by Stephen Harper and couldn’t be trusted to carry out Trudeau’s agenda.

While I see no reason to question these officials’ integrity, it is fair to ask if they have the right skills for the job. After all, Trudeau and Harper have very different ideas about governing.

To get a better fix on this, let’s start with a bit of context.

The ’90s and early 2000s were a watershed for governments everywhere. The digital revolution spawned a new vision of government and the challenge for public servants was to transform a loose collection of policy silos into an integrated information system.

One benefit was to policymaking. Sharing information across the silos allowed officials to connect the dots between different sets of issues, which, in turn, exposed all kinds of new links between them.

For example, policymakers got new insights into the complex relationship between health, on one hand, and factors like culture, gender, and income, on the other. They also learned about how the economy was affecting the environment—and a lot of other things.

These were heady days for Ottawa. Liberal governments invested hundreds of millions of dollars in new information systems to help connect and integrate the federal silos. Officials enjoyed an international reputation as leaders of this digitally-enabled, holistic revolution.

It didn’t last. The arrival of the Harper government in 2006 signaled the beginning of the end. Harper, a skeptic, mocked the fuzziness of holistic thinking (recall his attack on Trudeau for “committing sociology”) and was in no hurry to transform government.

Indeed, the old system of silos had a clarity he found appealing. It fit well with his policy ideas, which assumed causal links that were simple, direct and uniform: natural resource exports create jobs, crime can be controlled by rigorous enforcement, and federal and provincial governments get along best when they stay in their silos. Unsurprisingly, federal leadership on holistic policy all but disappeared under his leadership.

Most senior public servants today are eager to relaunch the discussion. Few would deny that finding and exploring holistic links is essential to the solution of many policy issues. But there is a division of opinion over just how far the government should go in this direction.

In Ottawa’s heyday, the debate was mainly about how best to coordinate policy across government departments. Holistic thinkers today want to go further. In their view, solutions to issues like innovation, climate change or public safety often require greater public involvement.

Ontario, for example, is asking each community to develop its own safety plan. These plans will be drawn up and implemented by local governments, community organizations and citizens. The guiding principle is that everyone has a role to play in helping make their community safe.

Lots of senior officials in Ottawa worry about this kind of engagement. It is big, messy and moves policymaking outside government, and that, they say, is a bridge too far. (Collaborative initiatives are not all big and messy.)

Others reply that collaboration is sometimes the only way to get real results and, where it is, government has to give the partners a meaningful say in developing the plan or they’ll never accept responsibility for helping to deliver it.

I would add that, far from destabilizing the policy process, collaboration actually increases policy cohesion. What the critics often miss is that, in this new world, policymakers must be more than just ideas people. They must be equally skilled at getting communities and organizations to work together in ways that help the government achieve its goals. Relationship-building is at the heart of collaboration.

I think Trudeau’s goal of making politics a “movement” is on the same track. It suggests that governance is increasingly a team sport that requires participation and buy-in at all kinds of levels and from a critical mass of stakeholders and citizens. Holding the reins of power is no guarantee that a government can deliver its agenda. Public buy-in is often critical.

So is the public service ready for this?

Shortly after the government was sworn in last November, Trudeau’s new cabinet gathered at the Pearson Building in Ottawa for a meeting. On his way in, the new PM was mobbed by a cheering crowd of admiring public servants. Many were young.

I’ve worked closely with hundreds of young public servants across the country and I doubt many of them would be cheering Trudeau because he is a policy wonk. Rather, they believe he represents generational change and they know instinctively what that means for them as public servants.

They have grown up in a world where complexity and change are the norm; they know that relationships are the key to stability and cohesion. When it comes to public service, they want leadership that will send them to the front lines, in person and online, to build these relationships. They are inherently networkers and activists who are as at ease with holistic policymaking as they are with digital tools. I think Trudeau gets this. He is that way himself.

As for the deputy ministers, some will never see policymaking as anything other than a rigorous search for the best ideas. Others are more than ready to combine ideas-generation with relationship-building. And that brings us back to Elizabeth May.

She shouldn’t worry about the integrity of the public service. Key values such as neutrality, fairness and respect remain strong.

Nevertheless, the skills sets do change over time. And change is coming. Those who can’t adapt will quietly move on. After all, if our political leadership is already in the throes of generational change, how far behind can the public service be?


Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. He is currently the Government of Ontario’s principal advisor on its Open Dialogue Initiative. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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