The Civil Service

Can it adapt?

By Graham Thomson

For the swearing-in of the new NDP government last May 24, provincial Chief Justice Catherine Fraser performed the ceremony on the steps of the Alberta Legislature. Beside her was a grandfatherly looking gentleman in a dark suit. His crossed legs exposed the briefest glimpse of personality—argyle socks, albeit black and white. As each minister was sworn in, he stood, shook their hand and then sat to sign the Executive Council Roll Book. He clapped a couple of times but not enthusiastically. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands when the crowd went wild.

This man was Richard Dicerni, the head of Alberta’s civil service.

A cynical observer might have assumed Dicerni’s lack of enthusiasm was a sign of friction with the new government. “The question did cross my mind as I sat there,” Dicerni admitted to me later. But it wasn’t animosity, he explained, just awkwardness. “My bureaucratic instinct was to be prudent, not wanting to convey any sense of partisanship.”

Provincially and federally, the civil service is bound by tradition—and by law—to be dutiful to the government. The Supreme Court has ruled that “federal public servants should be loyal to their employer, the Governor of Canada. The loyalty is owed to the Government of Canada, not the political party in power at any one time.”

Alberta’s code of conduct contains that expectation: “The people of Alberta have a right to a public service which is conducted with impartiality and integrity.” Political parties come and go, but the non-partisan civil service, with its institutional memory and experienced staff, remains in place to work for whatever party happens to be in power.

In our province, however, parties come but don’t often go. Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives stuck around for almost 44 consecutive years—a record for any government in Canada. After last May’s election, many observers feared that the NDP would inherit a civil service not only tainted by PC ideology but hostile to the new government.

For years, PC premiers routinely politicized all levels of the government, appointing, for example, party constituency association presidents and former candidates to public bodies such as agencies and commissions. Klein’s abuse of the Public Affairs Bureau was a classic example of government interference in the civil service, a blatant effort to turn the civil service into servants of PC ideology.

Peter Lougheed had formed the Public Affairs Bureau in the 1970s to better coordinate government communications. Klein had the bureau report to his office alone. The most politicized department in Alberta’s government, it was given the nickname “The Ministry of Truth.” In his book King Ralph, Don Martin wrote: “Although never acknowledged officially, Ministry of Truth staff were also known to provide the government with such helpful services as clogging the phone lines of talk shows with pro-Tory opinions and blitzing media polls with votes supporting Klein’s actions.”

In the mid-1990s, Ralph Klein used low oil prices and high public debt to “re-engineer” government. He slashed core programs, cut government salaries and chopped 10,000 civil service jobs. In the fall of 1993, the Edmonton Journal described the situation as follows: “Reluctant civil servants say they’re afraid to speak in defence of well-run, efficient programs—or suggest better ones—because they’re afraid Tory partisans within the department will label them as critics of the government.”

In 2009, during an economic downturn, Ed Stelmach also took aim at public servants. “Salaries for civil service managers will be frozen for two years,” he announced, “and we will be asking the entire public sector to share in this effort.” Alison Redford had barely sworn in her cabinet in 2011 when she purged nine deputy ministers. Relations between Redford and the civil service hit bottom in 2013 when she attempted to unilaterally freeze the wages of 22,000 members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE). By then the civil service was in turmoil.

Many observers feared that the NDP government would inherit a civil service tainted by PC ideology.

A report in the summer of 2014 from Alberta’s auditor general, Merwan Saher, showed that several MLAs had taken government flights to PC party events, including a Grande Prairie leader’s dinner, a PC board meeting in Red Deer and a PC golf tournament in Lethbridge. The report raised questions about whether staff who book MLAs’ flights could differentiate party interest from public interest.

When Jim Prentice became PC leader and premier that September, he discovered that the senior civil service was demoralized. Staff problems, he said, were reflected in a “shockingly high” turnover rate. He established a Premier’s Advisory Committee on the public service.

In an interview with the Edmonton Journal, Prentice said “I was surprised when I stepped in as premier the extent to which [the civil service] needed repair work.” He spoke of just how shell-shocked senior bureaucrats had become from dealing with what Saher famously called “the aura of power” around the premier’s office.

“People had been cowed,” said Prentice. “I have something called a weekend-reading binder. …I was receiving five or six hundred pages of basically information and no advice. People were fearful of providing advice.” In the words of one senior bureaucrat, civil servants had “turned turtle,” afraid to stick their necks out for fear of having them chopped off.

The person put in charge of Prentice’s advisory committee was Richard Dicerni, 66, a respected career civil servant whom Prentice had coaxed out of retirement in Ontario. He became Alberta’s top civil servant: the deputy minister to executive council.

“I don’t want this to be miscast as a committee to cut the civil service and chop up the civil service,” Prentice told reporters. “It’s an agenda that involves retaining and attracting bright young talent into the civil service, improving the morale of the civil service, and reducing the churn and the turnover in the civil service.”

Prentice’s olive branch began to wither with the precipitous drop in the price of oil. A $7-billion “hole” in provincial revenues prompted him to take aim at public sector workers. In speeches leading up to the election, Prentice said Alberta’s civil servants were “among the highest paid public-sector professionals in Canada.” He claimed their wage hikes of $2.6-billion over three years would strain the treasury. To come up with that figure he lumped together every public sector worker, including teachers, nurses and prison guards, not just the 27,000 Albertans in the civil service—the core group of senior officials, managers and staff working in ministerial departments.

When Prentice called an early election, only one of the main parties promised to protect public-sector jobs: the NDP. When Prentice lost the election, his plans for the civil service, good and bad, were derailed.

David Zussman, author of Off and Running: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Government Transitions in Canada, writes: “Without a doubt, a party that comes to office after being in opposition for many years will bring some degree of skepticism about the loyalty, or more accurately the neutrality, of the public service. Politicians often bring a ‘them/us’ mentality into government, where the public service is perceived as being particularly loyal to the outgoing government.”

Klein “re-engineered” government by cutting 10,000 civil service jobs and politicizing the public service.

After the election and before the new government was sworn in, the media briefly thought they had something that supported the idea of civil servants doing favours for their old bosses. Word leaked about a mass shredding of confidential emails and memos, a charge that implicated not only political staff but also non-partisan civil servants.

Though Notley was not yet sworn in as premier, she asked the head of the public service to stop all shredding, which he did. Alberta’s public interest commissioner, Peter Hourihan, and privacy commissioner, Jill Clayton, held a joint news conference to announce an investigation into specific allegations of illegal shredding at Alberta Environment. “We received an anonymous complaint,” said Hourihan.

While the investigation continued, the government allowed shredding to resume in other departments after determining that the activity was mere housekeeping, the disposal of files deemed redundant or merely personal. Those fishing for signs of the civil service covering up the sins of the PCs or trying to hamper the NDP had come up empty.

The question of whether Notley would want her top civil servant to be a man recently hired by her PC predecessor was answered within a week of her election. Not only did she keep Dicerni, she trumpeted the decision in a news release: “I’ve been very impressed by the professionalism of the Alberta public service, and by their dedication and commitment to making this change of government work smoothly,” she said. “Dicerni has a distinguished record of public service under Liberal, Conservative and NDP governments. He will provide our public service with the non-partisan, professional leadership our province needs.”

Notley was also aware that Dicerni was one of Alberta’s few senior civil servants with experience of transitions of power. Dicerni had been a deputy minister in Bob Rae’s NDP government in Ontario when it was replaced by Mike Harris’s Conservatives. Dicerni survived a purge of deputy ministers and worked not only for Harris but for eventual Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty. Later, as deputy minister at Industry Canada, Dicerni met Jim Prentice.

Notley’s first impression of Dicerni came late in the 2015 election. “He and one of his deputies reached out to our campaign a few days before the election itself to say, ‘Let’s talk about transition,’” Notley said in an interview with Alberta Views. Dicerni was displaying a keen understanding of the role of an impartial civil service by making a courtesy call to let Notley know the bureaucracy was there to help.

Dicerni also had senior civil servants study the NDP platform to look for issues facing the potential new government. They spotted a pothole: Notley was promising more money for education after Prentice had announced cuts in the provincial budget on March 26. Alberta’s school boards trying to prepare end-of-May budgets were caught in the tug-of-war. After the election, Notley took Dicerni’s advice and extended the deadline for school board budgets by a month, allowing her time to put new school funding in place.

Like any civil servant, Dicerni’s job is to give advice and help the government turn policy into practice but also to keep a low profile while doing so. Behind the scenes, Dicerni had the confidence of most everyone. “He’s been very helpful,” said Notley. “He’s worked under a lot of different parties in government. So he can bring different perspectives to it. But he is also very experienced in running the public service. That was a good choice on Prentice’s part, and we’re very pleased to have his wisdom at our disposal.” Notley said Dicerni can stay as long as he likes.

But Dicerni is unlikely to stay long. His family, including four grandchildren, live in Ontario. It is only a matter of time until he will need to be replaced.

Shortly after being sworn in as premier, Rachel Notley called an emergency meeting of top civil servants. She wanted advice. Notley and her ministers had officially been on the job for two days, and forest fires were burning out of control near Cold Lake, forcing energy companies to shut down almost 10 per cent of Alberta’s oil sands production. One of those attending the meeting was the newly minted Municipal Affairs and Service Alberta minister, Deron Bilous.

“We pulled together deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers in the ministries responsible… to talk about what needed to be done and how we would communicate with the public,” said Bilous. “Halfway through the meeting one of the public servants came over to ask if they were in trouble or if someone had done something wrong.”

When they were called to the meeting, the civil servants thought they were going to be fired. The questions caught Bilous off guard. “I was surprised to learn that this sharing of ideas hadn’t been the practice leading up to this,” he says. “It was explained to them that we just wanted to hear their thoughts and advice.” After all, that is the job of the civil service under our Westminster model of governance.

When Bilous visited staff in Service Alberta, he says, “I was amazed to hear that this was the first time they had been visited by a minister.” He claims to have met “many expressing enthusiasm and excitement to work with our new government.”

Premier Notley does not seem interested in anything like a purge of the civil service. She appears to share Deron Bilous’s view that the majority of public servants are excited and refreshed by the new government. Bilous also said he thinks the civil service “breathed a sigh of relief” when the NDP won. “People were getting tired of the Conservatives.”

That view was given its first test when Notley reversed Prentice’s cuts to health and education and cancelled PC plans to close the Calgary Young Offender Centre. A former PC cabinet minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that some in the civil service weren’t happy with the changes but made them quickly and smoothly. Neither did they grumble in public.

The reluctance of civil servants to gripe in public is one of the difficulties facing news media investigating the NDP government’s relationship with the civil service. Though public servants are encouraged to give what Dicerni calls “fearless advice,” they do it behind closed doors.

My interviews with senior officials in both the political and bureaucratic sides of government consistently showed no signs of a problematic loyalty to the previous ruling party. Instead of encountering hostile, ideologically tainted bureaucrats, I was hearing about civil servants who were “excited” about helping with the transition of power.

According to a mid-level manager with a decade of experience in the public service, the new government is treating bureaucrats much better than the old government did. “It’s early days,” she said. “I’m an optimist. There’s an excitement building. We might be on the cusp of being able to make some real, systemic change.” Another anonymous source within the civil service gave a different reason for not worrying about PC-hired senior civil servants running an NDP government. He suggested that many are sympathetic to the new regime. “The civil service is not filled with NDP members, but they voted for change.”

Bilous was amazed to hear a civil servant say this was “the first time they had been visited by a minister.”

Guy Smith, president of the AUPE, told me the new government understands and appreciates his members much more than the PCs ever did. It helps that four of the new NDP MLAs are AUPE members. “They’re much quicker to understand and appreciate the issues we’re bringing to them,” said Smith. “They know us as an organization; we know them as individuals somewhat. There’s already a common ground of understanding of each other’s issues, [though] not necessarily total agreement.”

Smith believes the NDP government doesn’t want to reopen the issue of public sector pension reform, something Redford tried to do before Hancock took over as premier and reversed direction. Smith helped lead the public-sector backlash against Redford’s proposal, and that has coloured his impression of some senior civil servants, who he said seemed to relish putting the screws to union members. Smith thinks there might still be changes among senior mandarins once the government has had time to discover which ones aren’t adjusting well.

Deron Bilous has signalled he will not put up with civil servants breaking the rules. Last August he called a news conference about three government managers possibly having rigged the awarding of public contracts. Bilous blamed a “culture of entitlement” that grew out of four decades of PC rule. A Public Interest Commissioner investigation in late August concluded the managers had committed “gross mismanagement of public funds.”

Smith is hopeful the system of governing Alberta will change. Even though he says he won’t go easy on the government during new rounds of contract talks, he is more confident than ever that his members will be treated with respect.

Alberta’s Official Opposition, the Wildrose, is worried that not all the changes will be for the better. They point to John Heaney, a Victoria lawyer with deep connections to a previous BC NDP government, whom Notley named to her transition team in May. In June she appointed him associate deputy minister of policy and planning. After having told critics that his job was temporary, she announced in August that Heaney would be staying on in a newly created job: Deputy Minister of Policy Coordination in Executive Council.

This puts Heaney in a powerful position near the top of the civil service, in the same office as Richard Dicerni. Since Dicerni is not staying on indefinitely, the opposition has speculated about Heaney’s future. Might he replace Dicerni?

“There’s no question this is the direct politicization of the senior civil service by the premier’s office,” said Wildrose leader Brian Jean. “Appointing a partisan NDP strategist to a deputy minister position is outrageous.”

Jean, however, sees a different kind of danger in the new NDP government’s relationship with the civil service. In Jean’s interpretation, there is no partisan Conservative civil service sabotaging the government, nor is there an NDP government transforming the civil service to do its bidding. Instead, Jean fears an inexperienced NDP government is allowing an activist civil service to take control: “This government, because of its inexperience and tiny cabinet, and lack of planning or any senior staff, is almost completely dependent on the senior bureaucracy to provide advice.”

Jean points to last September, when an all-party committee voted for a 7.25 per cent salary raise for independent officers of the legislature (the auditor general, the chief electoral officer and so on). NDP officials said their party’s MLAs, who supported the increase and formed the committee’s majority, had been following the advice of senior bureaucrats who told them the hikes were fair and routine. After a public outcry, the NDP members reversed course and trimmed the hike.

Is the civil service tail wagging the government dog? Will the civil service kowtow to this government, as critics say it did under previous, PC governments? Notley believes neither will happen. She said she’s watching the civil service closely: “We’re going to let them do their job and be public servants. And we’re going to maintain the stability that that implies. Then we’ll evaluate [the civil service] on the basis of the quality of the work.”

The province’s new NDP government has promised to be more open, accountable and democratic—a pledge that holds as much promise for the civil service as it does for other Albertans. When Dicerni was asked how, after 44 years of PC governments, the civil service could earn the trust of a new government, he gave this answer: “One builds trust by helping ministers problem-solve, by giving good quality advice, by speaking truth to power, by providing solid management to a department. Over time, trust is built; it is accumulated. Once that fundamental element is established, there is the potential for a productive and solid partnership.”

Graham Thomson is a long-time reporter with the Edmonton Journal, specializing in covering the provincial government.


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