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.