Et tu, Trudeau, et tu?

……continues from May 21.

Our civil service is an important and crucial component in developing and executing the programs and policies laid out through the democratic legislative process our politicians have promised to deliver. As cumbersome as it often appears to be, its role is a fundamental necessity, and any criticism must be tempered with the gratitude it and our public servants are owed.

Why then does the work of governing a country like Canada most often move at such a glacial pace, and more, that outcomes are so frequently not what we want, expect and anticipate? Our politicians themselves are sometimes baffled by the difference between where they began with a proposition and what resulted at the end of the process.

On the one hand, Mr. Trudeau and his ministers are purposed to institute programs they believe are necessary and in the best public interest. On the other, the bureaucrats and mandarins who surround these elected representatives and people their staff, and have been a part of the civil service under different governments, know they will outlast current fashion. They have answered to other masters in the past and will be responsible to still more in the future. Their perspectives and priorities and biases may differ from the government of the day. What to do? What to do?

Within a set of parameters, the civil service is a power onto itself, a government within a government, ruled by dynamics and protocols developed over time to manage what it sees as the true calling of men and women dedicated to efficient governance. We’ll example the Minister of Public Safety, and the quandary around reforming the use of solitary confinement in our federal prisons.

Ralph Goodale tells Toronto’s Globe and Mail in its May 9th article, “Ottawa fails to act in time to stop lawsuit on segregation”, that the government is not stonewalling on segregation reform and is “hard at work at the various options that could serve to achieve the objective.” He further says legislation “may well be” part of the plan. Meanwhile, supporters of change have argued all along that legislation is the only path to reform, after years of recommendations by any number of sources that have been shunted aside.

A cabinet minister’s resources are under constant stress and in great demand. Mr. Goodale’s principal private secretary organizes his schedule, taking numerous priorities into account, often conflicting with the minister’s personal agenda. It is up to the PPS to keep his minister safely busy and away from interfering with the smooth operation of the department under the minister’s jurisdiction.

Mr. Goodale’s permanent secretary, the senior civil servant in his office, will meet at least daily with him when the House is in session, and perhaps occasionally when it is not, to review current agenda items, update their status, and make the recommendations ministry staff have determined will offer the best outcomes for the primary stakeholders……the civil service and the government.

Mr. Goodale will tell his staff what’s on his mind and the directions he’d like to take. He will always be encouraged to be forthright, and complimented on his insight. His permanent secretary will take the minister’s comments under advisement, tell him a committee will be struck to consider the question and report back in 90 days…..or so. What comes back will weigh every conceivable consideration, particularly if red flags are raised, and cautions advised.

Of course the minister is able to convene his own committees to study particular actions, exercise executive authority, and dictate his wishes. That, however, almost never happens. His senior staff will remind him that arbitrary decisions are ‘courageous’, something no ambitious or seasoned politician wants to hear.

The last thing the Ministry of Public Safety wants is a legislated solitary confinement policy. Law can take control out of the hands of people who abhor any infringements into their domains. It will take ‘courageous’ and determined politicians to change that. They need to be encouraged.

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