Do it Like Canadians: Does Their Governing Structure Offer a Solution to Our Dysfunction?

May 30th, 2013 at 3:00 pm

A few months ago, I went to a conference in Ottawa, Canada where I interacted with members of their government.  I found myself chatting with the Prime Minister’s deputy minister, who I assumed was a “political appointee,” i.e., a member of leading party appointed by the Prime Minister.  In fact, he was a civil servant (as opposed to what they call “exempt” staff).

That took me by surprise.  In our government, the President’s top deputies are partisan appointments, part of a thick layer of political appointees that run every important council and agency in the government.  They are supported by “career staff” whose input is significant and important, but you’ve got to go down a few layers in the hierarchy before you get to them.

Over the course of the conference, I asked other Canadian officials about this structure of governance.  There are political appointees (exempt staff) as well—the PM actually has two chiefs of staff—but many high-level slots, including deputy ministers, which here would be political, are staffed by the public service (the UK system is similar).

How does it work?  How do political and civil staffs interact?  Do the politicals trump the civils?

They do not, I was told by various parties of different political stripes.  Not only is the non-political staff counted on to provide “non-partisan, expert advice” on policy matters, but such advice is ignored at a cost to elected officials.  The high-ranking civil staff can throw considerable sand in the gears of the policy process if that process does not reflect their guidance.  One exempt official told me, “you cannot blow them off.”

In fact, perusing a small bit of the literature on Canadian governance reveals considerable concern that the “fierce independence” of the civil staff must be protected from undue influence by the political appointees on a minister’s staff.  Not one, but two acts of government—the Public Service Employment Act and the Financial Administration Act—are “intended to insulate public servants from political pressure of all kinds – not just from political aides but from ministers as well.”

Here in the US, a member of the President’s cabinet, like the secretary of defense or the Treasury, surrounds herself with advisors whom she appoints.  These chiefs of staffs, policy and media advisors, speech writers, and so on, will sometimes interact with career staffers as needed, but many will just speak to their political counterparts across the government and their principals.

In Canada, a deputy minister who is a public staffer is appointed to each minister (equivalent to our cabinet officials).  Moreover, at least according to official documentation, deputy ministers “are the bridge between the department and the Minister. Although it is normal for ministerial staff to transmit instructions or gather information on behalf of the Minister, significant contact between the Minister’s office and departmental officials should take place through or with the knowledge of the deputy minister’s office.”  In other words, the civil service plays a gate-keeper role to the minister.  That’s not at all the case in our system.

Concretely, as it was explained to me, the exempt staff will write speeches, craft press releases, and handle their bosses’ political life.  They “share their [minister’s] political commitment, and…complement the professional, expert and non-partisan advice and support of the public service. Consequently, they contribute a particular expertise or point of view that the public service cannot provide.”

I spent the day exclusively with public staffers, so perhaps they spun me a bit, but they assured me that their influence on the highest levels of policy and process were, by statute and in practice, significant.  They were baked into the system at a level well above similar officials in the US.

So why am I bothering you with a blog post on Canadian governance, perhaps not the sexiest thing you’ve read today?  You’re probably thinking: great idea—let’s add another layer of civil servants to the government.

Well, here’s the punch line: my hosts corroborated my sense that this governance structure “strengthened the middle” in a way that’s been sorely lacking from our politics for a while now.  It supports continuity from one political regime to the next, by which I decidedly do no mean the same policy agenda—that would thwart the will of the electorate—but the process by which that agenda is analyzed, assessed, and implemented or rejected.  Their higher positioning of the public service relative to our system enforces a level of standards, of quality control, that our thick layer of political appointees precludes.

From where I sit, in economic and fiscal policy, it’s a bit like moving Congressional Budget Office analysts, who quite effectively play the role of non-partisan wonks, many steps up in the chain of command and decision making.  To make this more concrete, consider this.  The CBO, in reviewing Rep Paul Ryan’s budget, intimated in so many words that shrinking the government as much as he proposed in his budget was so outside the bounds of our history that is was highly unlikely to occur.

It might be the case that in a Canadian-style system, such a budget would not have been floated, as public staffers would have steered the process to a more realistic outcome.  I suspect this aspect of their governance architecture squeezes out this type of extremism in a way we could use right about now.

To really understand how complex systems like this work, you have to be part of them, so take all the above with a grain of salt.  I did, however, run this by a few Canadian insiders, and they vouched for it.  If you’ve been as frustrated as I have with the dysfunctionality of our system, with the inability and unwillingness to compromise, then I suspect this sounds pretty interesting to you as well.  If so, it might be worth thinking about how we get from here to there, or at least inject a bit more of this structure into our own benighted system.

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11 comments in reply to "Do it Like Canadians: Does Their Governing Structure Offer a Solution to Our Dysfunction?"

  1. smith says:

    I think you are in gross error of what ails America. The problem is not the lack of a strong center, but rather a too powerful center. Obama is a very strong and extremely effective centrist. He has passed healthcare, withdrawn from Iraq, and is moving towards immigration legislation, without upsetting the insurance industry, the military industrial complex, and the big-agri and high tech industries dependent on foreign workers with temporary visas. He’s restored corporate profits while also making the tax system more progressive. He’s passed modest consumer finance regulations while leaving banks too big to fail.

    Centrist policy is the problem not the solution. Democrats are not clamoring to help the unemployed and those still losing their homes. What’s lacking is actual advocacy for the lower 80%. No one is more career civil servant like than Geithner, first appointed by Bush to a government post.

  2. Charlie Savage says:

    As an American reporter who has occasionally dealt with Canadian officials, I would argue that there are also significant good-government downsides to this arrangement.

    The very small number of political appointees atop the bureaucracy can also lead to almost absurd levels of centralization, as the political appointees – who may not entirely trust the top staff they inherited and cannot easily replace – demand that every seemingly trivial decision, release of banal information, permission to talk to a reporter about some minor or in the weeds issue, etc be run past them personally. Because of limited human bandwidth, this results in inefficiencies and delays under the best of circumstances.

    This is not to say that the US has the right number of political appointees versus career civil servants. We probably have too many. But I don’t think Canada has got the balance right either.

  3. Rima Regas says:

    You need to look even deeper, Jared.

    Those who have a say in our most fundamental of institutions, education and the press, push for teachings that are incompatible with loyalty to one’s democracy and country. Look at the behavior of the NRA? Look at some people’s fear of tackling the issue of the Second Amendment in the context of a society that is literally killing itself? Look at Citizens United?

    What the rest of the world views as heresy and corruption, we are calling democracy and freedom of speech. What the rest of the world views as the rule of law, we call tyranny.

    Everything is topsy-turvy at the most fundamental of levels: what we know.

  4. jonas says:

    Your description of the Canadian organizational scheme bore a striking resemblance to ‘Yes, Minister.’ I’m not sure if that would represent an improvement upon the US scheme or not. It’s possible that this is a ‘grass is greener’ situation, but crippling intransigence often leads to that feeling.

  5. Jacques René Giguère says:

    This system is currently being slowly dismantled by the current government. Shortcircuiting the Civil Service, naming cronies as political stffer and minder at lower and lower levels of the Civil Service and generally disregarding sound reality-based advice. When I was a political staffer in a provincial government 30 years ago, the political appointees had the same qualifications as the Civil Service and sometimes even came from it and returned to it after a term. Our job was to explain to politicians what was going on. Now, the political staff are wholly unqualified in tecnical matters and all-powerful. Unfortunately,you describe a fast-disappearing system.

  6. Dave says:

    I think this is a good idea. The main problem with talking about this now, however, is that we needed this kind of system back in 2000. The Bush policies shifted the US in to very dangerous right-wing territory, and having a strong middle voice isn’t enough to pull it back from the brink.

    So I’d go for this idea in the long run, if there is a long run…

  7. David C says:

    Term limits also have the effect of strengthening the relative power of career bureaucrats. I need to think more about whether this boosts the center, but I would be very concerned that the natural risk-aversion of careerists would be harmful to good governance.

  8. Rich C says:


    Isn’t the prominent role of the civil service in some ways the least of the contrasts between the US (“Madisonian”) constitutional set-up and the UK/Canadian (“Westminister”) approach? After all, even if the federal administration were set up on the Westminister model, that would have a very limited impact on budgets and appropriations, all of which are decided by Congress, which in turn faces a separate election cycle and process, such that the party running the administration will not necessarily have majorities in both houses. And since the President can’t effectively discipline members of his own party in Congress (which the Canadian party leaders can do by denying promotions to ministerial or shadow cabinet positions), even “unified” government with large majorities is far more fractious than what you see in the Westminister countries. Without overcoming the separation of powers between the administration and the legislature, I don’t think that reducing the number and ranking of political appointees in the administration would do very much to improve public policy.

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      You’re probably right. There’s a chance that under the model I suggest, civil servants in the admin would interact with Congressional staffs in ways that would counteract gridlock, but maybe not.

      So what do you think we should do?

  9. Tove Malloy says:

    Please note, many European systems also rely on high level civil servants to service cabinet ministers and heads of governments, and with the same type of safeguards for the civil servants. However, while they do influence the budget processes, budgets usually get negotiated by party leaders before going to the vote.