Dean: The Ford government's future success depends on building a trusting relationship with the civil service

Dean: The Ford government’s future success depends on building a trusting relationship with the civil service

Doug Ford’s provincial election victory shook up both the political and public service landscape in Ontario. Today, one of most critical things he can do to underpin a successful four years is build a relationship with the public service marked by trust on both sides.

Eight months in, Ford has had both success and stumbles in building the relationship between the new administration and provincial public service and in effectively launching his policy agenda. There is likely a connection between the two.

I’ve managed political transitions on the public service side. It’s a situation in which new political administrations and the public servants who will serve them both want to be at the top of their game, while at the same time sizing one another up.

Democratically elected premiers have earned the privilege of bringing their own managerial style and personality into government, and this is often reflected in choices of political staff, the operating style of the premier’s office and the administration’s relationship with the public service. Key players on both sides, including ministers and the caucus, must adapt to this. Over time, premiers must sometimes adapt too, in the interest of keeping their caucus onside.

For an incoming premier this means an early demonstration of managerial competence and action in moving quickly on key campaign commitments. The public service works hard to prepare the ground for transition well in advance of elections by, among other things, staying on top of campaign commitments. The most critical job of public servants comes after the election in working hard to build a relationship of trust with the new administration — a trust that must be earned and re-earned one step at a time seven days a week.

Having an environment where senior public servants can speak truth to power is both important and immensely helpful to the government. But this is not helped by breaches of confidentiality which obviously shatters carefully accumulated trust. The leak of confidential health documents, and the firing of an unnamed public servant believed responsible for the leak, is not helpful to the public service. But neither is a culture of secrecy in the political realm.

Former cabinet secretary Steven Orsini and his team of senior officials prepared the transition ground well and competently supported Premier Ford in taking the reins of power in Canada’s largest province. Orsini recently announced his departure from the OPS after a long and successful public service career.

So things went smoothly in the early days, especially given Ford’s late entry into the election race and some odd choices in a mixed bag of political advisers. The Ford government’s focus was clear from the outset, to get the province’s fiscal house in order — a common rallying cry for politicians in campaign mode and not unexpected in view of the province’s growing debt.

Beyond the transition to power though, Ford’s sometimes mercurial performance has seemed middling at best and it has been hard to tell when, how, or if, the public service has been asked for support.

For example, unlike the Mike Harris administration’s finely tuned preparations for assuming power — including large policy binders provided to ministers and their deputy ministers outlining the fine points of campaign commitments — it looks like the Ford crew mostly arrived empty-handed.

Similarly, it has been hard to square Ford’s commitment to transparent government with his decision to keep ministerial mandate letters confidential to the point of not sharing them with senior public service officials charged with supporting the implementation of the government’s agenda.

The new administration’s performance following transition has been mixed. On the plus side, in the realm of “doing what we said we would do,” we have seen the fast repeal of Liberal labour reforms, the cap and trade program and the planned move to $15 minimum wage, as well as the launch of an austerity program together with a seemingly random series of spending cuts, with the promise of more to follow. This will all be attractive to Ford voters and, in a more general sense, it connotes an activist government.

But there have also been some early casualties resulting from moving too quickly and in the absence of stakeholder consultations or perhaps public service advice. The cuts to French language services caught everyone by surprise, including the Conservative caucus. Public reactions to this move obviously caught the new administration off-guard and saw the defection of one of its MPPs.

The new administration’s imprudent intervention into the governance structure of Hydro One resulted in a damaging rebuke from U.S. state regulators who rejected Hydro One’s proposed takeover of U.S.-based Avista due to political interference on the part of Ontario’s government. This resulted in penalty payments from Hydro One of $103 million and a bruising rebuke of efforts to refresh the province’s “Open for Business” campaign.

And there was also an inept effort to hire a respected but seemingly underqualified Etobicoke police superintendent into the role of OPP commissioner — a matter that is now the subject of an integrity inquiry.

On the bright side, there are obviously some smart people in the new premier’s office, as well as some new ministers and their staff, who understand the role of the public service and its readiness and commitment to support the elected government of the day regardless of its political stripe. I expect the recognition of the importance and positive role of the public service to grow over time. It has to because the government’s longer term success will depend on support and advice from the public service — a committed group of professionals who are currently dependent on reading political tea leaves while fearful of losing their jobs.

I’ve seen versions of this dynamic before. The new political administration, like any other, is driving its agenda and the stakes are high as it develops its first, and reportedly transformative, budget which is likely to have a dramatic impact on public services in the broader public sector, including the big-spending areas of health, social services and education.

A primary question for the premier and his key advisers will be whether the public service will be asked to deliver evidence-informed advice to ensure the best possible mix of outcomes that are in the public interest in view of the fiscal challenges confronting the province. Or, alternatively, whether the public service will just be asked to implement decisions made predominantly behind closed political doors by a small cadre of advisers. Challenges also arise when public servants are asked for research or to consult without being given contextual information on the government’s overall goals and objectives.

I’m optimistic that more trust will grow over time. There is a mutual interdependence in the political-public service relationship — our system of democratic governance depends on it and so do citizens.

My final thoughts are for the incoming cabinet secretary who will also be the CEO of the public service.

Ontario’s public service, which on a per-capita basis already has the lowest number of public servants in Canada’s federation, is about to become smaller as programs are curtailed and the window on a voluntary exit incentive package starts to close.

This should move hand-in-hand with a carefully considered recruitment, retention and succession planning strategy which focuses on the skills required for a future public service to be equipped to respond to increasing demands and levels of complexity in areas such as fiscal management, international trade, climate change and burgeoning demands for human services. This is big stuff and won’t be done well in the absence of a stronger partnership. We always work better when we work together. In today’s complex world, Premier Ford would do well to ensure that the relationship and respect for the public service is valued so that the best interests of the citizens is properly served.

Tony Dean is a Senior Distinguished Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He is a former Head of Ontario’s Public Service and was appointed to the Senate of Canada in November 2016.

Tony Dean

Tony Dean is a former Secretary of the Cabinet and head of the Ontario Public Service. He is currently a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance and continues to advise governments on public policy.

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