Ottawa positively hummed with speculation about a major shuffle in the upper reaches of the public service Monday — a story I suggested on Twitter was important because “these are the people who really run the country.”
Not so, responded Ian Brodie, Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff : “I’m pretty sure the guy who moves them is the one who really runs the country.”
The tension between bureaucrats and their political bosses is legendary, inspiring some comedy gold. “The Opposition aren’t really the opposition.
They are only the government in exile. The civil service are the opposition in residence,” said Jim Hacker, in the fictional, yet eerily authentic, Yes Minister.
Life imitated art in the U.K. this week when Francis Maude, the Conservative Cabinet Office minister, condemned the behaviour of some public service mandarins as “unacceptable,” for covertly refusing to carry out the orders of their ministers.
Relations have not broken down as openly in this country but senior political aides complain bitterly that the system in Canada, as in the U.K., is too dependent on unelected officials. “While we needn’t become the U.S. system, there is definitely room for more political ownership of government operations,” he said.
The Prime Minister appears to agree, given the nature of the shuffle that duly followed late Monday. It saw eight government departments get new bosses, the most significant of which was the move to replace Michelle d’Auray with Yaprak Baltacioglu as Secretary of the Treasury Board. Ms. d’Auray becomes the new deputy minister of Public Works.
In his typically blunt style, Mr. Harper was telling the bureaucracy that he is taking back government and they had best not get in his way.
In her previous portfolio at Transport, Ms. Baltacioglu’s built a reputation for getting things done, by shovelling billions of dollars in stimulus spending out of the door with minimal fuss, beyond one minister being accused of spreading $50-million of pork around his riding.
Now she will be asked to steer through reforms geared to ending age-old entitlements marbled throughout the system.
There is an element of Yes Minister to the fact she is being asked to do so at the behest of Tony Clement, the “Muskoka minister” at the centre of pork-barreling allegations.
The Treasury Board minister is now re-applying for admission to the league of conservative gentlemen by prosecuting, with some vigour, a campaign to weed out Spanish practices and waste in government operations.
He has been named head of a Cabinet sub-committee looking at further efficiencies across all departments, described as “a strategic review on steroids” by one senior Conservative.
In recent months, Treasury Board has introduced new rules that will see ministers required to approve spending for all departmental events that cost more than $25,000; eliminated overtime for ministerial drivers; ended parking subsidies for federal executives; brought thousands more public servants under the authority of the Lobbying Act; banned March Madness, when departments rush to spend their operating budgets before the fiscal year end; and, required public servants to get ministerial approval before sub-contracting to former bureaucrats.
Every one of these welcome initiatives is said to have been resisted in some form by senior public servants. When it came to including more bureaucrats under the Lobbying Act, a move aimed at making sure there is fairness in the awarding of lucrative government contracts, it is understood the Prime
Minister had to step in to push through the reform.
There is some surprise in Ottawa that Wayne Wouters, Ottawa’s most senior public servant, has decided to hang around, given the prospect for further cuts in the bureaucracy. He has been Clerk of the Privy Council for three years, which is about the average tenure for the position. One suggestion is that he is staying to oversee the beauty pageant, as his potential successors vie for the job. Ms. Baltacioglu, his current deputy Janice Charette, Foreign Affairs deputy minister Morris Rosenberg and Industry deputy John Knubley are all considered possible future clerks.
But whoever gets the job, they seem destined to inherit a very different, and likely much reduced, public service. The Conservatives now have a three year window before the next election to make significant cuts in the size and style of government.
The old Yes Minister joke was that civil servants had to fight for the budgets of their departments or they could become so small even politicians could run them. That seems to be exactly Mr. Harper’s intent.