Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford has seen some mixed reviews lately but nailed it in announcing the appointment of Michelle DiEmanuele as cabinet secretary and head of Ontario’s Public Service (OPS). It is a superb move for both the government and the OPS.
It’s an important moment in the life of the province as the government struggles to manage the third wave of the pandemic and prevent or minimize a fourth wave. There are hopes of continued relaxing of restrictions, an economic recovery around the corner and a provincial election just a year away.
The government will need to put the province’s long-term care system on a more solid and defensible footing and determine the nature of its relationship with the federal government as each enters pre-election territory. Climate change initiatives remain complex, but the Ford government will be mulling additional measures to promote and take advantage of the burgeoning green economy and associated federal incentives.
In the face of this, strong public service leadership will be essential and DiEmanuele’s arrival in June is good news for the provincial government and for Ontarians. We can also expect to see both a necessary refresh and reset of Ontario’s Public Service.
The OPS is Canada’s largest provincial public service with approximately 60,000 employees and far-flung operations from Toronto’s Queen’s Park headquarters to the remote far north. It is supporting the Ford government through the Covid crisis, including the aftermath of the Long Term Care tragedy, managing ongoing tensions in the education system, offering advice on post-COVID financial recovery, and turning its attention to supporting a government heading into an election twelve months from now. All in a context in which there are deep rural-urban divisions in the cabinet.
As cabinet secretary, DiEmanuele will support the premier in managing the operations of cabinet, act as his chief public service policy adviser and will be the chief executive officer of the OPS. A number of seasoned public servants could take on the first two parts of the job, but senior executive leadership and organizational transformation skills are much harder to find. DiEmanuele brings unparalleled experience in this area having held senior executive positions in both the public and private sector. She understands the role of government, the importance of engaging with key stakeholder and community leaders and providing strategic advice to achieve desired outcomes. She is decisive and unafraid to make tough decisions and provide principled non-partisan advice on policy, delivery, and organizational matters
DiEmanuele will take a leave from her current post as President and CEO of Trillium Health Partners, an amalgamation of three previously stand-alone hospital sites. With then Hazel McCallion’s support she led Canada’s largest and uniquely voluntary merger of the Credit Valley Hospital with Trillium Health Centre (the Mississauga and Queensway Hospitals). Trillium serves 1.7 million people annually and spans Peel region, including Mississauga and Brampton.
Early in her career, DiEmanuele held critical roles at the Ministries of Labour, Citizenship, Community and Social Services and Health. She then took her talents to the private sector holding senior leadership positions at CIBC and Brookfield Properties. In 2004, she was recruited back into the OPS to support the McGuinty government’s ambitious plans to improve Ontario’s public services and to drive the delivery of tangible results for all Ontarians.
DiEmanuele took on a large portfolio as Associate Secretary of Cabinet and Deputy Minister and Secretary to Management Board which included the renewal of "Service Ontario" and the introduction of the first-ever "Money Back Guarantee" for government services (birth certificates) in North America. In addition, she led the reform of the OPS human resources strategy and the information technology services both critical to modernizing services. Her laser focus on tackling issues and highlighting opportunities for renewal produced significant results and created a high-performance culture focused on people.
The pandemic has highlighted the important role of government in responding to unprecedented crises to support and protect citizens’ health and economic welfare. This requires top-performing leaders, attracting new diverse talent, leveraging new technologies, and building strong relationships with different levels of government, the private sector, unions, and community organizations — as well as executing government policy decisions in a timely, responsive, and cost-effective manner. The OPS does these things well but there is room for improvement. We are likely to see some changes in the OPS to ensure that government has the best advice and evidence available to develop smart policy and program decisions for the post-pandemic recovery. In this context, DiEmanuele is the right person to lead the public service.
With strategic intent, she will both shake up and energize the OPS and its senior leaders and make her presence and organizational priorities known to staff through regular communications and a focus on accountability.
The premier reportedly gets along with the new Secretary but she will nevertheless be earning trust one day at a time both inside and outside the Cabinet Chamber.
She won’t be easily pushed around, and it will be clear that she will be working for the premier and with his political staff as the most senior leader of the professional non-partisan public service.
A key part of the cabinet secretary’s job involves providing strategic advice to the premier on tough issues — occasionally including advice that he might not want to hear, but that might well keep him out of trouble. While it’s always the premier’s call at the end of the day, Mr. Ford would do well to listen very carefully. Given DiEmanuele’s role at one of the COVID-19 command tables I suspect he might have learned that already.
Michelle DiEmanuele will replace Steven Davidson who will retire in June after 30 years’ service in the OPS, including two and a half years as cabinet secretary.
(Photo by Tara Walton / Torstar)
Tony Dean is an independent senator representing Ontario. He is a former head of Ontario’s public service and former public policy professor at the University of Toronto