Public servants risk becoming irrelevant?

Former federal Cabinet Minister David Emerson says, “public servants are losing their monopoly on policy advice to government and will soon be considered irrelevant unless they change how they gather, analyze and shape their recommendations,” according to the May 16, 2014 Ottawa Citizen.

Interesting observations from a man who was also a BC Deputy Minister of Finance and Deputy Minister to the Premier.

Emerson, who chaired a 2014 prime minister’s advisory committee on the public service, reportedly said “technology and big data are turning the world of policy-making on its ear.” 

“Government is a little information economy with lots of barriers to the free flow and use of information, so a big challenge for the public service will be how to adapt when the world is now able to access all kinds of quantitative and qualitative information is a split second on hand-held devices.”

“Ministers want information and advice faster and if the public service drags its feet because of outdated methods, tools and attitudes, the government will look elsewhere. And, he reportedly said, there is no end of places to look, ranging from think-tanks, academics and lobbyists, to advocacy groups and even political staffers who have easy access to information on hand-held devices.”



Your Writing = Your Competence

“If officials can’t even get my correspondence and briefing notes right, how can I trust them to manage the Immigration program?”

When I heard a Canadian Minister of Immigration say that to the Deputy Minister, it piqued my curiosity.  What if officials approached the task of writing as a measure of their competence or credibility; how different might their attitudes and products be?

And then, because it’s always political in the public sector, even on a website, I qualify – it was not the current Minister, not even the current government.

I share that exchange when I’m delivering public sector training programs as an example of how senior and elected officials may think about your writing (whether it is reasonable or not).

Briefing Notes versus Memoranda

A graduate student emailed asking if Briefing Notes and Memos can be used interchangeably. The answer is “yes and no”; different organizations have different practices. Here are the Differences between Briefing Notes and Memoranda, in printable pdf format.

BC Question Period on Video

Often all we see are news clips of opposition and government members sparring in daily Question Period. The best way to really understand how Question Period works (and why you are writing Question Period Notes for your Minister) is to watch videocasts of an entire session of daily Question Period.

The Legislative Assembly of the Province of British Columbia provides archived videocasts of proceedings. For example, here’s a link to the out the April 29, 2010 Oral Question Period proceedings in the BC Legislature. It leads with Opposition Leader Carole James’ question on the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) which is answered by the Honourable Colin Hansen, Minister of Finance and Deputy Premier.

Note that Ms. James reads from briefing notes for her original and two supplemental questions. Although the Minister of Finance does not read from notes, you may observe him looking down (perhaps at notes) on the second supplemental. You might also observe, as the camera pulls back into longer views, the briefing materials on the Minister’s desk. Later on, in reponse to the Member from Stikine’s question, the Minister of Finance reads from notes some quotes from the forest sector. The content most likely will have been provided by departmental officials and staff in the Minister’s office.

Draft Memorandum to Cabinet Case Study

When I first read Dr. Douglas Hartle’s case study, I thought it would be a great script for the BBC television series Yes Minister. Then I became a senior official in Ottawa, drafting MCs and attending interdepartmental consultation meetings, often reminiscent of Hartle’s story.

As public servants are sworn by the Oath of Secrecy not to divulge how particular Cabinet decisions were made, Hartle wrote what he described as an attempt to convey, in fictional form, the essence of the MC consultation and decision making process as seen by a former senior bureaucrat. It’s a popular case study in public administration and Canadian politics courses.

The case study begins with the inner thoughts of the senior official who drafted the MC, on his way to a Privy Council meeting. “I looked upon the meeting as anticlimactic and the hours of work spent in getting the words on paper as largely wasted. But pride in affecting a political decision is, as every bureaucrat knows, at least as satisfying as the pride in the acknowledged authorship of an official document…..The draft might be ridiculous. But does not the pride of the professional lie in doing a ridiculous act well?”

It’s an informative as well as entertaining read. The Institute of Public Administration (IPAC) has published it as “Draft Memorandum to Cabinet (2004)” in the Ethics Category of their Case Study Program” (cost is $5). (Note Hartle is mispelled as Hartie on the site). There’s a limited preview at “Google Books“, if you are curious.