Impossible Conversations: Off and Running: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Government Transitions in Canada

Thursday, November 26, 2015
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

David Zussman’s Off and Running: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Government Transitions in Canada is written as a playbook for politicians and public servants going through government transitions, down to the length and nature of briefing material required, when to schedule particular meetings (e.g., between the Prime Minister-designate and the head of the federal public service), and how to prepare for them.

However, there’s a bit more to it: because he explains government transitions through real-world, recent examples, it also serves as a bit of a history book on the political-public service interface, an element of the literature we’ve felt missing from any other book we’ve read on Canadian politics. We’ve been through a few:

And with the exception of Savoie’s book, the role of the public service came up only occasionally. I suppose a book on government transitions affords a unique lens, as one of the key functions the public service plays in the larger governance ecosystem is shoring up the long game and providing continuity throughout successive elected governments.

Which is the theme, as in this quote from Jean Carle, Jean Chrétien’s first head of operations: “The day after the election you are the government, and the old government is gone.”

What happens then? Well, what’s already in the works? Can parts of party platforms be implemented in the short or long term term? With ease or with difficulty? Is the public service organized and geared to deliver what’s being asked? These are the kinds of questions that form the public service-political interface during transition.

On non-partisanship 

Are bureaucracies non-partisan, or promiscuously partisan? (See: Nick’s post on the topic.) Rock steady, or a bit too quick to play nice with incoming governments?

We make a lot of hay about the non-partisan idea, which is a central concept to Zussman’s book. Zussman collected a variety of views in the course of interviewing former members of transition teams. Some of these takes on non-partisanship are illustrative, such as that bureaucracies essentially learn to function under a certain government, or that bureaucracies can be too cozy or friendly to party interests. But Zussman mostly paints a portrait of a new normal emerging at each transition: each new leader and each new minister having a different style of accepting and considering public service advice, and different ideas on how to deliberate - and who to deliberate with.

“In my experience, most federal ministers don’t worry about partisanship. They recognize that public servants, like everyone else, have biases, they vote, and they believe.”
- David Zussman

“It doesn't mean you’re an empty vessel. There’s nobody I worked with who didn’t know where my biases were. And no one I worked with shared my bias entirely. I would give the best advice I had based on what I learned from the public service, what I learned from research, and from my own experiences, which included my biases. It was there, laid out honestly. That’s the advice portion. And then the democracy portion is when you implement the business of government. You build trust by demonstrating what the public service is all about.”
- former Clerk of the Privy Council Alex Himelfarb

As for reading

Be warned: this really is a playbook, primarily designed to be a step-by-step guide for the people wearing transition shoes. That said, it’s an interesting walk back through the last few elections’ transition periods, working through narratives and insightful stories from interviews with the people behind Canadian governance. These parts are impressive - Zussman has a deft hand balancing interesting detail without playing insider baseball. After all, he’s still in this space as an academic, working with the Ottawa scene.

Long  story short: if you’re in the federal public service and have been wondering what your senior executives have been up to lately? This is it.

by Nick CharneyRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

There’s really only one thing I’d add to Kent’s review is that reading the book when we did was timely, reading it now (post-transition) less so. That said, it’s likely to be required reading every 4 years (or less) by those working on or managing through government transitions.