One of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first responsibilities, even before assuming office last week, was to choose his cabinet ministers and assign them portfolios — a task that garnered a lot of attention given the calibre of the individuals vying for a seat at the cabinet table and the prime minister’s historic commitment to achieving gender parity in cabinet.
In making these decisions, the incoming prime minister would have been supported by the federal public service — led by Clerk Janice Charette — which will have spent several months working on options associated with the architecture and decision-making processes of government.
Reports suggest that Trudeau’s next step will be to issue public mandate letters to his ministers. While mandate letters have been issued at the federal level in the past, this is the first time they are being released publicly. The decision to release these letters is consistent with the new prime minister’s commitment to greater transparency.
The letters will likely identify what the new ministers are expected to contribute to departmental and government-wide priorities, reinforcing the prime minister’s stated desire to return to cabinet governance and to a more inclusive, consultative approach.
Mandate letters are already publicly released in many provinces, including B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Ontario. There are benefits to publicly releasing these letters, both to citizens and the government.
Externally, releasing the letters is an important first step towards realizing “open government.” The letters help translate platform commitments into policy directions and signal what is being prioritized. This significantly increases transparency. These letters are analyzed by the media, interest groups, other levels of government and political opponents.
Public mandate letters also increase political accountability. By laying bare who is responsible for what — including what roles ministers play in shared responsibilities — the public, parliamentarians and the media can pinpoint exactly who is accountable when commitments fall short. These ministers will not benefit from the ambiguity their predecessors enjoyed.
Internally, the letters have at least as much, if not more, value. While critics argue that they can stifle evolution in a government’s thinking and agenda, the letters can send a clear message to ministers — and by extension to political staff and public servants — about what is expected of them. This is important for two reasons.
First, with changes in ministerial portfolios and the names of government departments, if not structures, they help to clarify who is responsible for what. Without clearly delineated responsibilities, turf struggles can arise. These letters offer an important opportunity to sort that out — provided tough calls are made up-front about who is in charge.
Second, it helps to clarify responsibilities for policies and projects that are handled by multiple departments. There is growing recognition that efficiently and effectively addressing public policy problems demands cooperation, both within and outside of government.
Alongside the mandate letters, the “ministers’ handbook” will likely also be updated, as regularly occurs with a change in government. The handbook, which is written by the Privy Council Office, is a fairly comprehensive overview of the principles guiding power, ethics and accountability within the executive. Past experience suggests that changes will reflect the new government’s interpretation of the requirements and importance of responsible government in the context of a return to “cabinet government.”
The handbook will likely flesh out what is meant by a shift towards a more inclusive form of policy development, more engagement of parliament, collaboration with those outside government and a more evidence-informed approach to the design of policy and delivery. In other words, it will act as a how-to guide for enacting the government’s commitments.
Overall, the content of the new cabinet structure, the mandate letters and the updated ministerial guidance also present an opportunity to reflect on the organization of the public service and how well suited it is to this new approach to governing.
The public service is coming out of a period in which it was maligned and its morale eroded. At the same time, the public service has at times crossed the line by being what the late scholar Peter Aucoin referred to as “promiscuously partisan.”
Ensuring it has the tools, culture and structure it needs to do its job properly is essential to achieving a better balance between being responsive and serving the government of the day effectively with the best possible advice.
We should be absolutely clear: publicly releasing mandate letters in no way guarantees any change to how government actually functions. Experience tells us that if this stuff — as important as it is — is going to stick, it will take more than a one-time message.
Moving the yardsticks will require sustained leadership from the top on both the political and public service sides. The prime minister could bring some real change to government and the public service with that sort of sustained leadership.
We’ll see what happens.
November 13, 2015
Mark D. Jarvis and Tony Dean