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A new style for the public service

A new style for the public service

The appointment of Wayne Wouters, MA’77, as Clerk of the Privy Council, Canada’s all-powerful top Civil Service job, is both an echo of how things used to be in Ottawa and a harbinger of what lies ahead.
[photo fo Stephen Harper with Wayne Wouters]Clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters reports directly to Prime Minister Harper, and so the two men confer regulary. Photo by Deb Ransom, PMO.

Wayne Wouters’ investiture as Clerk of the Privy Council, head of the civil service, and Secretary to the Cabinet of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (on Canada Day 2009), sent many messages to those who watch or live within the federal government system.

Among the messages: there’s a new style of doing the public’s business at the command centre in Ottawa; consensus builders can replace command-and-control martinets; thoughtful pragmatists can survive in the political cauldron; hard work, experience, and loyalty pay off; and, there’s a place for hockey-playing jocks at the very pinnacle of the Canadian Government.In addition to the usual trappings of power in Wouters’ expansive office overlooking Parliament Hill there is a green-and-white Saskatchewan Roughriders helmet. As a teenager in the village of Edam, about 60 km northwest of North Battleford, he used to hitchhike the 250 km into Regina to watch the Roughriders play.

To the uninitiated, the title “clerk” of the Privy Council may not sound like much, but that nomenclature is an echo of our British Westminster antecedents.

For Queen’s, Wouters’ appointment is a reminder of the University’s long tradition of producing leaders and intellectual heft for the federal and provincial public service, a reputation that dates to even before the halcyon days of William Mackintosh, MA’16, LLD’67, and John Deutsch, BCom’35, LLD’74, who both were giants in the public service in Ottawa who both became Principal of Queen’s (1951-61 and 1968-74, respectively).

Not only is Wouters, 58, a Queen’s alumnus, he’s also eager to reconnect the senior public service to universities in general, and to Queen’s in particular.

To the uninitiated, the title “clerk” of the Privy Council may not sound like much, but that nomenclature is an echo of our British Westminster antecedents. In theoretical terms, the Privy Council is the advisory body to the Queen. In practical terms, it is the cabinet and the executive arm of government, and all major ­appointments or regulations are made by Orders in Council.

Wouters (pronounced “Waters”) is the senior non-elected official in the Privy Council and, in effect, he is deputy minister to the prime minister, responsible for providing both policy and administrative support and advice. He is also responsible for implementing all decisions of Cabinet.

A derivative of his position makes the Clerk the Cabinet Secretary, and so he oversees the machinery that sets Cabinet agendas, analyzes proposals from various departments, monitors legislative drafting, and provides recommendations about what the government should and should not do.

The Clerk’s position at the apex of the non-political government structure also makes him de facto head of the Civil Service (overseeing 250,000 federal employees) and an advisor on all senior Civil Service appointments.

The unwritten part of Wouters’s job, however, is how he becomes the bridge – and sometimes the shock absorber – between the civil service side of government and the political side. Although he reports directly to the Prime Minister, the Clerk also has to deal with the Prime Minister’s political office and his political advisors. As David Mitchell, head of the Public ­Policy Forum (and former Vice-Principal of Advancement at Queen’s) notes, “The Clerk of the Privy Council has to deal on a very intimate basis with the Prime ­Minister’s Office, and the skills and diplomacy, the tact, and the acumen required add an extraordinary dimension to that position.

”One of the most notable changes since Wouters took over the job last summer is the relative calm and connectivity he has brought to the Langevin Block, which houses both the PCO and the PMO.

Although decisions at the top of government always have a political element, Wouters sees his job as funneling up to the Prime Minister the best non-partisan advice the Civil Service can provide, understanding, of course, the political framework within which it will be received.

“We’re always giving options as to what we think is the most effective way of delivering on public policy,” he says. “The political advisors will also give their advice, and so the Prime Minister will get these two sets of advice. On that basis, he can make a decision.

”So how did a farm boy from a Dutch immigrant family in rural Saskatchewan get to this rarified aerie? For a start, 32 years in the Civil Service (at both the provincial and federal levels) doing a wide ­variety of jobs, an appetite for hard work, and a people-oriented personality. Then, too, there was also a little bit of being in the right place at the right time.

Wouters originally did a commerce degree at the University of Saskatchewan, but then decided the private-sector business world “was not for me,” as he puts it.

Although his background and training are in economics, Wouters’ assignments have often been people-oriented

However, he enjoyed economics and decided to pursue graduate studies in it at Queen’s before returning to lecture at the University of Saskatchewan. From there, an interest in public service led him into the bureaucracy of the Saskatchewan provincial government, then led by New Democratic Party Premier Allan Blakeney.

Wouters eventually became director of the energy policy branch of the Department of Mineral Resources and identified himself with the Saskatchewan zeitgeist about government having a pro-active role in the betterment of society, a zeitgeist that produced the late Tommy Douglas, medicare, and so on.

Although Wouters saw himself as being non-partisan, when the Conservatives led by Grant Devine won power in 1982, they summarily fired the top several echelons of provincial public servants on the basis that they had been appointed by the NDP. Wouters was among them.

“He was forever changed by his experience in Saskatchewan, which makes him very human,” according to Maryantonett Flumian, who worked closely with him in several portfolios and now heads the ­Ottawa-based Institute on Governance. “He talks about it often as the lens through which he sees how things work on a personal dimension.

”As a result, Wouters joined another tradition, a migration to Ottawa of many of Saskatchewan’s best and brightest, such as the late Tommy Shoyama, deputy minister of finance in the Trudeau era. Wouters landed at the Department of Energy Mines and Resources, where he eventually linked up with two other Queen’s graduates, George Anderson, Arts’67, and Rob Fonberg, MA’79, to undertake some of the most exciting energy deals of the era. ­Together they negotiated, among others, the federal participation in the Hibernia offshore oil development off Newfoundland and the Lloydminster heavy oil upgrader that straddled Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The Queen’s trio had crossed paths at the Department of Finance and ended up together again during Wouters’ first stint in the Privy Council Office, when he was deputy secretary responsible for priorities and planning. Just to underline Queen’s role as a supplier of talent to the federal Public Service, all three men eventually reached the top of the federal mandarinate as deputy ministers.

Having been his boss and worked with him in three different departments, George Anderson knows Wouters well. “He wasn’t one of those obvious guys like Kevin (Lynch) [Wouters’ predecessor] who you would say was always destined for the top,” says Anderson. However, he adds that whereas Lynch “was always on top of things and wouldn’t hesitate to give his views, Wayne starts with ‘What do you think?’ He’s very good at letting things emerge and then shaping them.”

Wouters’ strengths, according to Anderson: “In addition to a good policy mind, he’s got a very good ‘bedside manner,’ he doesn’t come across as threatening, a wonderful sense of humour – he laughs very readily, and he gives the sense he’s there to serve … what he’ll do is lower the temperature, lower the stress level between the PCO and the Public Service generally, and the political side.”

Unlike some other top civil servants in Ottawa, Wouters emphasizes work-personal-life balance. “He’s a deputy minister who plays hockey on a regular basis,” notes Flumian, “and that brings him into contact with a whole lot of people outside the system.”

At the same time, Wouters isn’t adverse to unwinding by having a drink with colleagues at the end of the work week.

“There is an issue about the balance between oversight and creativity,” says Wouters. “I think we sometimes overreact and put rules and regulations in place just to ensure [something] will never happen again

Although his background and training are in economics, Wouters’ assignments have often been people-oriented – such as the support programs for Newfoundland fishermen whose livelihood was devastated by the closure of the cod fishery. Later, he became deputy minister of Fisheries and Oceans, which he recalls as one of the most rewarding of his career.

He was there when the Supreme Court ruled on aboriginal rights to the fishery, which resulted in a nasty confrontation between aboriginal and Acadian lobster fisherman in northern New Brunswick. After months of tense negotiation, mediation and reconciliation (plus a bunch of federal dollars), Wouters received a picture showing the Canadian, Acadian, and local Mi’kmaq First Nations’ flags flying beside one another on the Burnt Church wharf, the epicentre of the conflict, in relative harmony. Proud of the successful resolution of that situation, he noted that “what often are the most challenging times can end up being the most satisfying when you work your way through them.”

He then became deputy minister of Human Resources Development, the mega department responsible for designing and administering the bulk of the federal government’s social programs – from Old Age pensions to unemployment assistance.

His last job before becoming clerk was Secretary of the Treasury Board, which administers government personnel policies. It was here that Wouters got a taste of one of the big challenges of his new job: the large-scale renewal of the senior Civil Service, owing to an impending demographic tsunami. Baby boomers are reaching retirement age with a vengeance, with 9,700 qualifying this year, many of them in the senior cadre. Indeed, half of all the current executives in the Public Service will be able to retire by 2012. Recruiting their replacements has already begun in earnest.

After years of cutbacks and downsizing, the federal government has begun recruiting on university campuses again, and Wouters is determined to rebuild policy units within government that have been allowed to wither. “It’s good news that we’re back on campuses again. That will help reconnect the Public Service to the universities. I think we also have to reconnect at the academic end. We lost connections with many universities because we stopped asking them for their advice."

Restraint measures in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s March budget will force Wouters to slow the pace of rebuilding, however. It will mean leaving some of the positions being vacated by retiring senior bureaucrats empty as a cash saving, deficit reduction measure.

Wouters' challenge goes far beyond covering off vacancies or functions. He recognizes he has to come to grips with the serious morale, competency, and policy challenges that were highlighted in the recent survey undertaken by the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s School of Policy Studies.

That study probed the attitudes of Queen’s alumni and former students who are now working in the federal bureaucracy. Over half said they had not received guidance from senior management about how to achieve the objectives of their departments, while fewer than 50 per cent said their senior managers cared about their employees. And there is a broader attitudinal problem.

When the political spotlight focused on the controversies surrounding sponsorship payments and job-creation grants, it generated demands for more oversight and accountability and helped produce a change of government from Liberal to Conservative. But the resulting audits, accountability and approval regimens have led to a risk adverse and overly cautious atmosphere within the Civil Service that tends to stifle new initiatives or slow implementation of policies like the post-recession stimulus program.

“There is an issue about the balance between oversight and creativity,” says Wouters. “I think we sometimes overreact and put rules and regulations in place just to ensure [something] will never happen again.

”Wouters acknowledges that he has a big job ahead of him, including the need to regain control of the public purse after the deficit-boosting spending spree undertaken to prod the country out of recession. And for help he’s looking to some of that fresh young talent that’s joining the federal Civil Service. It’s a safe bet that at least some of them will be fellow Queen’s grads. 

See Counting the Cost of Parliament, for a related spotlight on Canada's first Parliamentatry Budget Office, Kevin Page, MA'82.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-2 cover]