What Munir's Resignation means to Public Servants

This came to me from an anonymous email address, but the author claims to be a public servant. No inside gossip or revelation here, but a serious question about how the public service will react to a critical moment.

The independence of Canada’s public service has been a key part of our governing system. It has its advantages and its drawbacks (discussed in some detail most recently by John Ibbitson in Open and Shut) but it has been important. Munir’s resignation reaffirms this system, how his boss and colleagues react will say a lot about whether other public servants feel the value of independence is still core to the public service.

Read on – it’s thoughtful:

Defining moments. For some individuals these are easy to identify, like when a promising young athlete suffers a career-limiting injury.  For others, such moments come later in life, but are no less real or significant.

The resignation of Munir Sheikh from his position as Chief Statistician of Canada is clearly a defining moment for him personally.  He ends a full career in the Public Service on a point of principle.  This principled stance, necessary in his view to protect the integrity of his organization, has brought pride to many public servants, including this author.

But this act may not only be defining for Mr. Sheikh; it also has the potential to impact on the broader public service.  The Public Service mantra is fearless advice and loyal implementation and we tend to be very good at this.  However, it has always been recognized that this only goes so far.  There are limits to loyal implementation.  Clear examples are when a government attempts to unduly benefit either themselves or their friends through government funds.

Deputy ministers (the position of Chief Statistician is one) are often faced with limit-pushing situations, their ability to manage the delicate political-Public Service relationship is key to their success (and survival) as senior public servants.  When these limits are in danger of being exceeded, the deputy minister can rely on delay to allow time to change the ministers’ mind, and/or intervention from the Prime Minister, via the Privy Council Office.  When these fail, the deputy can either acquiesce (partially or fully) or resign.  This is the theory.  However, in practice I cannot recall the last time a deputy resigned on a point of principle (leaving aside the potential reasons for the former Clerk, Kevin Lynch’s retirement).

Mr. Sheikh has attempted to set a new standard – disregarding the advice of a department is fine – publicly undermining the integrity of that advice is not.  It remains to be seen whether this standard will stick or whether it will in future be seen as a high-water mark for deputy integrity that will never be seen again.

The public and private reactions of the Clerk of the Privy Council will have a significant impact on how others view this resignation.  He is the Prime Minister’s deputy minister, who sets the tone and expectation for all other deputies.  He is also the Head of the Public Service, and helps set the tone for all public servants.  What, if anything, will he say about this issue, to the Prime Minister, deputies and ordinary public servants?  How should we comport ourselves when faced with such issues?

Wayne Wouters, this is your opportunity.  Tell us what you think, this can be your defining moment too.

26 thoughts on “What Munir's Resignation means to Public Servants

  1. Max

    The god-awful writing hints strongly at the fact that this is, indeed, a loyal and longtime public servant.

    Reply
  2. Lornacr

    Oh Max, your cynicism is misplaced. This was a brave and principled action, however expressed. I've added Sheikh to my list of heroes in the Public Service

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention What Munir’s Resignation means to Public Servants | eaves.ca -- Topsy.com

  4. Ron_b

    Well said Anonymous. I am a public servant. And proud to say so. Now (under this government) more than ever Deputy Ministers are being pushed into this kind of limit-pushing situation. This government is intent in trying to bully the public service into catering to every whim and fancy they happen to dream up – however ill-conceived and illogical it may be.I spoke to a lot of folks today inside and outside the Public Service and everyone agreed that this was the right thing to do. A stand on principle with great personal sacrifice. Thank you from all of us.

    Reply
  5. Mark Kuznicki

    So let me be clear about the standard the email author is describing.If a Minister publicly misrepresents the advice given to him/her by the professional Public Service, then the professional Public Service (in the person of the Deputy) has a duty to defend the reputation and integrity of the specific department and/or the Public Service in general even if one is forced to resign one's post in order to do so.First, am I reading this right? Second, is there precedent for such a standard?It's wonderfully heroic, and I can only dream that there are many such heroes that would do something similar. If such a standard were to be reinforced by other Deputies following Munir Sheikh's lead, it would open up a tremendous window into the critical interface between the Public Service and the political level.

    Reply
  6. Nina Ilnyckyj

    1. Why did the person who sent this to you feel the need to do it anonymously?2. Why must we wait for people at the top to provide direction for how the public service in Canada is shifting, in this case the request for Wayne Wouters to provide commentary? While it's important for change to come from the top (as perhaps inspired by Munir Shiekh), the community of public servants as a whole, supported by citizens, can create new norms and forge a new direction.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: RobCottingham sent a grammar edit. | Editz

  8. Pingback: Wednesday-Night - » Canada 2010: The census debate

  9. Mike S

    You've got to admire a boss who falls on his sword to defend his organization against political meddling. That's what I call taking one for the team.

    Reply
  10. SL

    So, if I understand this correctly, we managed to elect a minister of Finance with a stunning lack of basic knowledge in statistical research/analysis and survey methods, thus leading to a situation in which a respected statistician had to resign his position in protest of an absolutely idiotic government decision?Noble on Munir Sheikh's part? Yes. But it seems like there's a big floating hand with a finger pointing at something important, and we're all too busy looking at the floating hand to clue in to what it's pointing at. This government isn't just attacking a census or Stats Can, it's attacking evidence-based decision-making, proper research, and quite possibly science in its entirety, in a bid to completely eradicate these “annoyances” in favour of ideology-based decisions and policy.Without going through a comprehensive review of recent Tory legislation, the most glaring recent example is the law and order stuff Harper and Vic Toews are pushing through right now. More and longer prison sentences because there's more crime than ever. Except that there isn't and crime rates have been dropping for the past decade, as reported by Stats Can with reliable, reproducible numbers. A fact that time and time again has been pointed out, by numerous media sources, which has led to a lot of difficulty in having this “law and order” legislation get anywhere.But if Stats Can numbers were demonstrably unreliable, they could just simply be ignored, making annoying problems like the one briefly described above no longer an issue.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: Waroeng Internet

  12. kkrisfalusi

    It would be easier fully comprehend what Munir Shiek's resignation signifies if we knew more about what has been going on. Has Harper decided to replace census taking with data mining? If so, have the discussions toward reorganization in this direction been unilateral on the government's part? Obviously there would be alot to do in that project and David Eave's cause is one issue that would be forefront in the government's mind. Mined data could be more easily secreted from the public in contrast to the transparency of census data. So it follows that Harper may, as usual, have alot of balls up in the air and we know a fraction of the story.

    Reply
  13. dbhume

    I do think his resignation will be an important lesson for the latest generation of public servants, especially as they begin to step into leadership roles. It shows that it is okay to be ignored, but not to be bullied.Alex Himmlefarb's piece in the Mark (http://www.themarknews.com/articles/1921-a-prof…) is also really instructive about the dynamics around Munir Sheik's resignation.

    Reply
  14. fishtron

    1. Because not everyone's as brave as Munir Sheikh. Strictly speaking, we're not allowed to speak to the public; only the media relations branches/departments are. If we do it anyway, unfavourable comments are picked up by the media relations groups, our managers notified, and we get a talking-to (I'm speaking from experience… I received a verbal warning after some unguarded twittering a few months ago, and was forced to take those tweets down).

    Reply
  15. Nika753

    Fearless advice and loyal implementation – the core principles of public service.To me it seems that by resigning (after giving fearless advice, being ignored by the government and asked to go ahead with the implementation of something that Munir Sheikh could never agree to) sends a powerful message to the public about what is at stake (losing transparency in our statistical data) and draws our attention to what our elected representatives are trying to do.It shows that the Chief Statistician of Canada is fundamentally opposed to the new policy direction being pushed by the Harper government (data mining). His resignation is a powerful way to show dissent. If, as a public servant, he is completely opposed to the government policy he is being asked to implement – it is honorable to resign as a sign of protest. It shows his integrity and commitment to the transparent and accurate statistical data gathering.

    Reply
  16. Nika753

    and one more thing… continuing in his position as before would have been hypocritical on his part.

    Reply
  17. grant

    The Conservatives know full well the value of undermining the civil service; their decisions are not “ill-conceived and illogical”. Their full purpose is to weaken the civil service so that their free-market (and religious) agendas can be accomplished. By forcing the Chief Statistician out, they can set the stage for a more compliant form of civil servant who will obsequiously serve his political masters. Witness the recent appointment of Paul Boothe as DM of Environment Canada. Dr. Boothe has occupied several senior posts at Industry Canada and was an EnCana Scholar at the CD Howe Institute. Debate on climate change? Scientists willing (or able) to speak about facts and science? Not likely! Ignorance is strength.

    Reply
  18. Pingback: This Blog Sucks

  19. Pingback: Jeff Jedras: Does Tony Clement love the census? | Full Comment | National Post

  20. Jim

    Ministers speak for departments. Low-level and mid-level officers do not, and in many cases even deputy ministers are not permitted to speak for a decision made by his/her department. The idea of the “faceless civil servant” is alive and well in Canada. But at some point, in cases like this, a person must stand up for themselves and do what is necessary to protect their integrity. Minister Clement went around for an extended period talking as if his deputy was falling over himself to advocate this choice, when any person who's ever worked for government knew the Minister was talking pure crap. Munir Shiekh has my undying respect for what he did, and it is this act which will eventually force the Tories to back down from this wrong-headed decision on the census.

    Reply
  21. Jim

    Ministers speak for departments. Low-level and mid-level officers do not, and in many cases even deputy ministers are not permitted to speak for a decision made by his/her department. The idea of the “faceless civil servant” is alive and well in Canada. But at some point, in cases like this, a person must stand up for themselves and do what is necessary to protect their integrity. Minister Clement went around for an extended period talking as if his deputy was falling over himself to advocate this choice, when any person who's ever worked for government knew the Minister was talking pure crap. Munir Shiekh has my undying respect for what he did, and it is this act which will eventually force the Tories to back down from this wrong-headed decision on the census.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s