|by Kent Aitken|
While reading Paul Wells' The Longer I’m Prime Minister, a few of us debated whether or not we’d be able to post a reflection this time. A portrait of a current Prime Minister is distinctly political, no matter how fairly written or read. There are risks of either veering too deeply into political territory, or avoiding it so thoroughly that we water down our thoughts. As an aside, in discussions about a non-partisan public service, it's easy conflate “political” and “partisan”. In reality, understanding the political environment is crucial for public servants.
Wells joined us in Ottawa for the discussion and both reinforced and assuaged those concerns. On one hand, he agreed that people would view even the fact-iest facts of the story through their personal lenses. On the other, his approach to the book was simply to understand why things are the way they are. In that light, it seems like a worthwhile exploration, and it’s disingenuous to pretend this isn’t part of the context for public service careers.
‘Why things are the way they are’ is also a reasonable summary of the book’s approach. It's a thorough walk through the major events in (mostly recent) Canadian political history with a focus on the influences, drivers, and context for the decisions that were made along the way. For Canadian public servants, Wells provides a plausible perspective of your operating context - or at the very least, the perspective of a trusted and influential observer. It's also a solid read; Wells is an excellent writer full of creative metaphors and turns of phrase that making the read enjoyable, and has written a book full of insight and detail.
Let me start by saying that this book is worth reading if you are at all interested in Canadian Politics as the book paints a fairly detailed picture of the Prime Minister and many of the major political developments under his tenure.
One of the things I was curious about – and something that I asked Paul about during our conversation – was if he had any insight into the PM’s view of the civil service. I asked the question because, much like Loat’s Tragedy in the Commons, the book didn’t speak directly to the issue. My interest in the question is rooted in my curiosity about the degree to which elected officials are actively thinking about the role of the civil service in this country. The sense I get from reading both Loat and Wells, and subsequently speaking to Paul at book club, was that elected officials value their relationships with the senior folks they deal with but are far less inclined to be thinking critically about the role of the civil service. I find this incredibly interesting as the evolving role of the civil service is very much something that civil servants are interested in, give a lot of thought to, and as a result probably represents an opportunity for politicians looking to secure the civil service vote (if such a thing exists).
A core tension that we discussed was that between those who would build the state and those who would pare it back; it’s a thread that’s likely too political to discuss but worth at least putting a marker down on. That said, in our discussion we noted that talking about a “better” or “more effective” public service was entirely separate from any debate between “smaller” or “larger” government.
One of the key insights for me was when Wells made an argument around the massive impact a PM can have across the country by way of simply making hundreds of small small decisions on a daily basis. We often look to the large decisions and try to judge their impact, but sheer volume over time can also have tremendous impact. It’s something worth remembering, especially for senior folks in organizations who help set the tone of their departments as they plow through all the little decision points.
Finally, I just wanted to again thank Paul for taking the time to come by and discuss the book with us. We’ve been fortunate to have a number of authors participate in the conversations thus far and we always appreciate their time and insight.
Who is Stephen Harper, and what leads him to run the country as he does? This is the central question of Wells’ book. In our conversation, Wells let us know that he wrote the book for anybody interested in Harper, regardless of political stripe. Wells’ purpose was to help you understand him.
I’m encouraged by the commercial success of Wells’ book, primarily because many Canadians form their political opinions based on limited information. Especially outside of Ottawa, many Canadians view the federal government with some level of disdain, regardless of who is in office. The office of the Prime Minister has incredible impacts upon the country, and Canadians should understand the motives of both the individuals and the political parties that seek to occupy that office.
Wells largely achieved his purpose — I came away from the book understanding Harper in a more nuanced way.
Having sat on this review for a few weeks, I’m reflecting pre-posting that we definitely talked more about the nature of the book than the ideas discussed within - somewhat of a departure for this series, and a fairly understandable one. Wells’ book is full of political philosophy, motivations, and lenses with which one could view Canada’s political world - and to avoid even the perception of partisanship, it’s not for us to publicly dissect. But public servants would be well served by reading, reflecting, and dissecting themselves.