Friday, May 6, 2011

On Minorities, Majorities and Years of Experience

I attended the President's Breakfast for the Public Service yesterday (a fund raising event for the Ottawa Hospital), the Clerk gave the opening remarks. After the event I happened to run into him on the escalator. I had literally 240 seconds alone to speak with him. I asked him what he thought a majority parliament meant for the public service, his response was decidedly straightforward.

"It is going to be different"

The Clerk wasn't making a values statement, but a factual one, and you know what, he's right: it is going to be different.

A (Non-Partisan) Personal History Lesson

I joined the public service back in 2007. Since then my work has been concentrated in the field of public policy and over time has become specialized at the intersection of people, public policy and technology.

During that time - and here is where I combine politics and public service - I have only ever worked under a minority government; and I'm not alone. Any public servant hired after the 2004 election has the same shared experience. Take the Clerk of the Privy Council for example, despite the depth of his experience, he has yet to serve as Clerk under a majority government.

I can't help but wonder how widespread this phenomenon is

I put together the following timeline to try to help shed some light on the situation. I gathered historical election data from Wikipedia and mashed it up with the projected number of years of experience of public servants as published by Treasury Board in the 2010 Demographic Snapshot of the Public Service. Here is what I found (hint: click to enlarge):

We often don't talk about how our political system impacts our bureaucracies. When we do, we invoke the urban legend of an accidental remark, judged as partisan, met with strict punishment. It is a story that perpetuates itself through the generations like the one of the boy who cried wolf.

But at what cost?

Is it possible that we have done our democracy a disservice by purposely ignoring the impact of the political system on our public service. Surely the nature of the relationship between the two is an important subject for study given the magnitude of some of the public policy challenges we face as a nation?

Maybe it is time we start telling a different story?

Am I wrong?

originally published by Nick Charney at

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