Open Mandate Letters

The newly elected Government of Canada made its ministerial mandate letters available to the public last week. They are absolutely worth checking out both for their content and as a example of public disclosure/communication. I’ll talk about that latter part in a second, but let me first let’s discuss some background information and context.

From a content perspective the mandate letters are filled with a number of ambitious goals. Tzeporah Berman outlines a range of initiatives Ministers have been tasked to attend to from an environmental perspective (this may require access to Facebook). There are other goals to be excited by beyond the environment – the Justice Minister’s mandate letter in particular is worth looking at in detail. Again, it is an ambitious and exciting set of goals.

Some of you may ask: What IS a ministerial mandate letter? In Canada’s parliamentary system they have been how the Prime Minister and the Premier formally articulate the goals, priorities, specific task as well as general tone, for their ministers. In other words, they’re a way for the leader to tell cabinet ministers what he or she expects them to do (and presumably, how they will evaluate their performance).

Interestingly, while this is the first time I’m aware of that the federal government has made mandate letters open, it is actually part of an emerging trend. I believe this first happened in British Columbia under the current Premier (Premier Clark). They also formed part of the recommendations my colleagues and I proposed as part of the Open By Default report I helped draft at the request of Premier Wynn of Ontario. Premier Wynn, after winning the subsequent election, made her ministerial mandate letters public as well.

What I find fascinating is that mandate letters have not been made public before. Making them public has a number of advantages, both to the government, but also for more effective governance in general.

Making them public should help focus the government. It makes everybody, from the Minister, their advisors, down to every employee in the department that minister oversees aware of the minister’s goals. Such clarity is likely quite helpful and probably the most compelling reason for making them open. Governments are super tankers. The more the crew knows which way the ship is supposed to be going, the more individual decisions can be made to help ensure it’s course is accurate. And of course, any crew members that were planning on trying to push a ship in the direction they wanted to go, were likely to do so with or without seeing the mandate letters. At least now they can’t plead ignorance.

It also effectively communicates the government’s goals to the public. This makes it easier for actors outside of government – individual voters, NGO’s, industry groups and others – to better see where their priorities fit into the governments priorities. Some will be happy, others will be frustrated, but at least they know where they stand in a specific tangible and reference-able document.

Finally, mandate letters matters from a governance perspective. Mandate letters that veer far from campaign promises or from the political mandate the government received from voters will make for good fodder by opposition leaders. In addition, Ministers ability to execute against the goals and tasks laid out in their mandate letters are more visible to the public and, of course, the opposition. This form of accountability is likely to be helpful, spurring ministers to be more effective and on task while also granting opposition parties greater ability to point out problems.

Is it possible that a Minister could receive an additional “secret” mandate letter? Absolutely. But having mandate letters be completely secret strikes me as little better. And if a minister is working to complete some of their “secret” tasks, at least the public and opposition can hammer away at the minister asking them why they are not working on completing their stated “public” goals as outlined in the public mandate letter.

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