Excerpt: Introduction

One of the tests of any parliamentary democracy is the professionalism, responsiveness, and loyalty of the public service in adjusting to the different priorities and perspectives of a new government. This book examines what happens when the public service is challenged in these aspects, from the perspective of someone who lived it in citizenship and multiculturalism policy from fall 2007 to spring 2011.

Public service professionalism and loyalty in this respect is formally defined by the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector, in the section on Respect for Democracy:

Public servants shall uphold the Canadian parliamentary democracy and its institutions by:

1.1 Respecting the rule of law and carrying out their duties in accordance with legislation, policies and directives in a non-partisan and impartial manner.

1.2 Loyally carrying out the lawful decisions of their leaders and supporting ministers in their accountability to Parliament and Canadians.

1.3 Providing decision makers with all the information, analysis and advice they need, always striving to be open, candid and impartial.[1]

These behaviours were severely tested following the election of the Conservative government in 2006, and the appointment of Jason Kenney as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism in early 2007 (he subsequently became Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism), given the break with the high degree of policy continuity between previous Liberal and Conservative governments on citizenship and multiculturalism policies.

As noted by Prime Minister Harper in 2008, one of the main challenges for an incoming government, especially one with limited governing experience, is learning how to manage the relationship between the political sphere and the bureaucratic one, and particularly when implementing a significantly different policy agenda:

Probably the most difficult job, you know, practical difficult thing you have to learn as a prime minister and ministers, our ministers as well, is dealing with the federal bureaucracy. … It’s walking that fine line of, of being a positive leader of the federal public service, but at the same time pushing them and not becoming captive to them. … I could write a book on that one.[2]

This “fine line” was further stressed as the government pushed its agenda of citizenship that was more meaningful and exacting, and multiculturalism that focused on integration over accommodation. Public servants had internalized the previous policy of continuity and consensus; the Minister’s direction posed an almost existentialist challenge to the role and expertise of the public service, as he and his officials constantly — and fundamentally — challenged prevailing policies, programs, and perspectives. The emphasis was more on pushing than positive leadership, necessary given the entrenched “conventional wisdom” and inertia of the bureaucracy.[3]

The depth of the desired policy change challenged in turn the “mantra” of the relationship between the political and official levels. Whether referred to as “truth to power” or the preferable, “fearless advice and loyal implementation,” the respective roles had been generally understood. Public servants have the obligation to tell the political level directly what public service expertise and advice suggested, while Ministers have the obligation to listen and consider that advice.[4] Ministers have the “right to be wrong”; officials have the obligation to implement decisions, irrespective of their views.  But as Donald Savoie, among others, has noted, the long-term trend has been towards a reduced policy role for the public service:

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to write that the policy advisory role of public servants in Anglo-American democracies has been turned on its head. Multiple sources of information and evidence-based policy advice no longer matter as they once did. Today, if policy-making in a post-positivism world is a matter of opinion, where 2 + 2 can equal 5, then Google searches, focus groups, public opinion surveys and a well-connected lobbyist can provide any policy answer that politicians wish to hear.[5]

In line with the more active policy role of the Conservative Party, this trend has resulted in a narrowing of public servant advice to issues of implementation, rather than broader ones of policy direction.[6] Within this context, perhaps the better question for practitioners is the degree to which the advice can be independent and “fearless.” Public servants need to strike a balance in framing and timing their advice so that it will be considered, rather than dismissed. Herein lies the dilemma for public servants when a government has a radically different world view and evidence-base of issues and approaches. After all, it is not realistic to keep on giving advice contrary to the government’s stated direction, even if that is what public service “expertise” suggests. “Fearless” is not the same as foolish, and therein lies the art and subtlety of the “considerations” section of most advice, whether oral or written, in signaling potential issues.[7]

As time goes on, this dilemma becomes less acute, as the policy parameters become clear when decisions are taken and the “loyal implementation” aspect comes into play. Part of this reflects a natural and healthy focus on implementation. Public servants cannot and should not continue to challenge (“re-litigate”) once decisions are made, irrespective of the merits or weaknesses of those decisions. However, the political level with its understandable focus on implementation also needs to take care to preserve the space for “fearless advice” to ensure that decisions are as well informed as possible, including being aware of uncomfortable views and risks. In the end, of course, ministers and the government are responsible for their decisions.

But herein arises another dilemma: public servants risk internalizing the new orientation (“Stockholm syndrome”), and the quality of advice weakens as public servants, consciously or not, increasingly shape policy advice to be in line with what the political level wants to hear. Efforts to keep independent policy capacity and thinking are invariably diverted towards meeting deliverables, space for contrary views shrinks, and structural and personnel changes reinforce this internalization. After all, part of the challenge facing the Harper government was the resistance of public servants to its challenging of the previous bipartisan consensus on citizenship and multiculturalism, dating from the Trudeau years. As a result, public servants risked being perceived as neither professional nor impartial; opposition critics may view public servants as sycophants, and the handling of some files, such as the F-35 procurement, suggest the critics may be right.[8]

Of course, as Preston Manning has noted, a similar risk exists for political parties relying too much on the public service for policy ideas and initiatives, making it important that parties ensure they have independent intellectual capital and capacity:

Build and maintain your “democratic political infrastructure” — the intellectual capital generators for politicians, the training programs for political activists, and the political communications vehicles — when in opposition but continue to build and maintain it, outside of the civil service and through private donations, even after becoming the governing party.

To fail to do so is to court eventual political collapse and impotence from which it may take years, even decades, to recover …[9]

However, the Conservative Party may have a higher degree of “inoculation” against this risk, given its general suspicion of the public service and the Reform Party’s roots as a protest against previous policy continuity. The July 2013 post-Cabinet shuffle controversy about a “friends and enemies” list, and the guide titled “Who to avoid: bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer”, suggests ongoing suspicion regarding the loyalty of public servants, after some seven years of being in power.[10]

In many of the citizenship and multiculturalism issues, the evidence-based recommendations of public servants were discounted in relation to what the Minister and his staff were hearing from extensive outreach with a wide range of communities, in addition to their political priorities and principles. At times, public service expertise was challenged (sometimes correctly) as not addressing some issues; at other times, public service advice may have been perceived as arrogant (“truth to power”) or even disloyal.

While differences of opinion between the bureaucratic and political levels are normal, reflecting different perspectives, evidence sets, time frames, and networks, the gap in some of the citizenship and multiculturalism files was particularly large given the government’s overall distrust of formal research-based approaches in favor of a “principled approach” to policy priorities.[11]

As both the political and bureaucratic levels worked through policy and program options in citizenship and multiculturalism, they learnt about each other’s policy perspectives, evidence-bases, and sensitivities. A number of aspects presented themselves:

  • Contrasting ideologies and perspectives: The Minister and his staff had very different approaches from the public servants on issues as diverse as racism, equality and accommodation. This reflected different evidence sets, personal experience and preferences, in addition to the normal bureaucratic inertia of sticking to previous approaches;
  • Evidence versus anecdote: Officials relied excessively on large-scale surveys and other evidence that did not take into account, and effectively ignored, any input from the Minister’s extensive outreach to the various ethnic communities. The bureaucracy’s existing stakeholders were favoured, rather than including new ones identified at the political level;
  • Different perceptions of risk: Practical assessments of the risks, or perceived risks, involved in different options. In general, officials were, appropriately, more cautious about potential risks, flagging possible unintended consequences; the political level questioned what they viewed as an overly risk-averse approach that in many cases left out political risks; and,
  • Particularly in multiculturalism, a number of areas were viewed as either too sensitive or too complex for the government to address.

None of these were exclusive. Ideology influences which evidence is chosen, which evidence is considered valid, and different perceptions of risk. However, looking at a number of case studies under each aspect provides a useful framework to assess how the dynamic between the political and bureaucratic levels played out.

In addition, the transfer of the multiculturalism program from Canadian Heritage to Citizenship and Immigration further changed the dynamics and focus. Having one minister responsible for citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, rather than separate ministers, has and will continue to reduce the attention paid to the long-term integration issues related to multiculturalism. Other factors included the dispersal of multiculturalism functions across the functional model of CIC, rather than the vertical, business line model of Canadian Heritage (PCH); and the reality of CIC’s “centre of gravity” of immigration selection and visitor admissibility.

This book tracks this dynamic between the political and bureaucratic levels, and within the bureaucracy itself, through a number of key citizenship and multiculturalism files, as well as some files where political-level interest was limited or cautious. Officials in many cases were overly confident in their expertise, unaware of the extent of their biases, and were consequently not prepared for this challenge. By working through each file, officials had to learn how to strike the appropriate balance between “fearless” advice on what research, evidence, and analysis suggested, and “loyal implementation” of the government’s priorities. In some cases, officials needed to be reminded of the requirement to be professional and implement government policy direction, whether or not they agreed with it; the alternative, if they could not live with their advice and expertise being ignored, was resignation. In the early days, when multiculturalism was part of Canadian Heritage, signals from the “centre” (particularly, the Privy Council Office) overly reinforced this tendency to question government policy direction, further complicating relations between the political and official levels.[12]

These dynamics are explored in the following chapters:

Chapter 2: Which Ideology Will That Be? looks at how the Conservative government applied its worldview to creating the new national narrative in its citizenship guide, Discover Canada, and related changes to citizenship ceremonies. The multiculturalism program was reshaped towards greater emphasis on integration among and between all communities, not just mainstream/visible minority relations, and finding ways to deliver grants and contributions (G&C) funding that met Ministerial requirements.

Chapter 3: Would that be Evidence or Anecdote? captures the different perspectives on evidence between officials, who tend to rely more on social science and broad surveys, and the political level, where anecdotes, through a wide range of encounters with Canadians, have more of an influence. At the macro level, citizenship behaviours between Canadians and the foreign-born show no significant differences, yet anecdotes highlighted a number of issues. Racism and discrimination, while at one level overshadowed by the government focus on antisemitism, remained an issue, and drawing on extensive ministerial anecdotes and finding more persuasive practical evidence was a challenge.

Chapter 4: What is at Risk? And for whom? examines the different perspectives on risk between officials and the political level. For citizenship, the development of the new test to accompany Discover Canada, the lack of sound data, and tight timelines meant a considerable degree of risk in implementation. In the case of multiculturalism, the historical recognition program’s differential treatment of various affected communities posed a number of potential legal and political risks.

Chapter 5: Some Gaps and Omissions focuses on two multiculturalism issues that were pursued more at the bureaucratic than at the political level: the Quebec model of multiculturalism, interculturalisme, and radicalization/extremism. Both issues involve a number of sensitivities at the official and the political levels.

Chapter 6: Machinery Change outlines the process and impact of the transfer of the multiculturalism program from Canadian Heritage to CIC in October 2008 from both political and bureaucratic perspectives.

Lastly, Chapter 7: So What Kind of “Yes Minister” Shall That Be?, summarizes managing, and learning from, the interface between the political and bureaucratic levels, with emphasis on the need for policy modesty.

Ironically, one aspect shared by both the political and bureaucratic levels is over-confidence and a lack of policy modesty. Just as the political level is certain about its policies and priorities, the bureaucracy is equally certain about its evidence and expertise. Such mutual certainty is an inherent part of the relationship, where the right of a democratically elected government to implement its policies clashes with the belief (some would say arrogance) of public service experts that they know best. In the end, of course, the public service has to respond to the policy certainty of the political level as part of loyal implementation. This lack of policy modesty happens on a number of levels:

  • Inherent complexity: Neither level fully appreciated the degree of complexity of society, social issues, and social policy. In social policy — in particular the complexity of society, communities and individuals — the large number of factors at play and the wide variety of institutions where many of the issues play out make it hard to identify issues precisely and understand fully what the most effective policy and program levers may be.
  • Incomplete evidence bases: At the political level, no matter how extensive the outreach, the range of anecdotes will invariably reflect the fact that some communities, and some individuals, are listened to or engaged more than others. For officials, social sciences and related research are inherently imprecise, and reliance on large scale surveys misses some of the more granular detail that emerges in political encounters with Canadians. Just as the political level’s insights were incomplete, so too was the expertise of the public service experts.
  • Over-confidence in forecasting: Despite unavoidable complexity and uncertainty, both levels tend to be over-confident in their ability to forecast the medium- and long-term impact of policy and program changes, as well as to be able to anticipate all the potential side effects of such changes. People may respond to policy changes in ways that surprise, given their assessment of incentives for following or breaking the rules.

This policy arrogance is particularly problematic in citizenship and multiculturalism, where the federal government is but a minor player in relation to other levels of government, and a wide range of public and private institutions influence how different groups interact in society. The federal government has a limited number of touch points with Canadians, given the role of provincial governments. These touch points are largely limited to the following:

  • Citizenship and naturalization (namely the study guide, test and citizenship ceremony), after which the department had little to no interaction with Canadians, compounded by the absence of a federal role in education and thus civics and history education; and,
  • Multiculturalism, the limited reach of public education programming, modest funding for grants and contributions projects, limited impact on other government departments, and in general the minuscule size in relation to other federal and provincial programming meant that results would always be modest.

In other words, many of the changes made, while significant in the context of the particular policy, were also subject to many other forces and influences that would limit their impact.


[2] Quoted in Susan Delacourt, Tory government takes aim at bureaucracy, The Toronto Star, 17 January 2008

[3] This is not to excuse the numerous and well-documented examples of excesses by the Harper Government, but any major change of policy requires major pushing by the political level.

[4] “Truth to power” has the connotation that only public servants have the “truth,” hence it is less used. The formal iteration in the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service has undergone an evolution from “professional, candid and frank advice” (previous code) to the somewhat softer “open, candid and impartial” (current code), although the latter also makes reference to Ministers’ responsibility to “supporting public servants’ responsibility to provide professional and frank advice.”

[5] Donald Savoie, Running government like a business has been a dismal failure, The Globe and Mail, 7 January 2013. The Yes Prime Minister series provides some examples too, albeit from a different take, my favorite being Leading Questions – Yes Prime Minister – YouTube.

[6] See Lawrence Martin, The descent of democracy: A country under one man’s thumb, iPolitics, 27 April 2011, and Donald Savoie (ibid), among others.

[7] One deputy minister characterized his approach to advice as follows: “while we have views, as long as it’s legal, we will do it.” In providing advice, there is a degree of truth to the Yes Minister dynamic. Bureaucratic writing tends to break most, if not all, of George Orwell’s six rules on clear writing in his Politics and the English Language essay.

[8] See former Department of National Defence Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) Allan Williams’ comments in F-35 procurement process ‘manipulated’, CBC, 5 May 2012. The contrary example is the resignation of Munir Sheikh, former Deputy Minister of Statistics Canada, who resigned when the government misrepresented Statistics Canada’s advice on replacing the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary survey. Statistics Canada chief falls on sword over census, The Globe and Mail, 21 July 2010.

[9] Because one day, Tories, you’ll be out of office too, The Globe and Mail, 11 January 2012.

[11] For one of the better overviews and critiques, see Allan Gregg’s 1984 in 2012 – The Assault on Reason, 5 September 2012.

[12] After a while, departmental officials learned to discount some PCO advice, as both the general advice (“watch the Secretary of State”) and views on particular issues tended not to reflect where the political centre (i.e., Prime Minister’s Office) was.

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