The Politicization of the Public Service – Warning from a Former Clerk of the Privy Council

The resignation of Chief Statistician Munir Sheik has far-reaching political consequences, and may be the game-changer in this ongoing census saga.
But it is the extreme conclusion of a far more serious and consequential development – the politicization of the public service.
Read Alex Himelfarb on the topic, a former Clerk of the Privy Council (Canada’s top public servant) and career bureaucrat serving both Conservative and LIberal governments over 30 years.


  • I think we have lived a bit of a myth in Canada for many years – thinking that somehow the civil service is not “politicized”.

    Speaking as a front line public service worker for many years, it is my experience that many people in the bureaucracy are “political” – exactly as one would expect. They tend to support the status quo, have a privileged status in society and be fairly conservative. It is true that they are often not overtly “political” in terms of party orientation but so what? Their support of the hegemonic political, economic and social system (neo-liberalism) under the guise of “non-partisanship” is in many ways much more insidious as it permits them to create, support and implement policies under the pretense of “professionalism” for what is really a political project (like any other).

    Worse, the civil service is an interest group like any other – an interest group that is intent on maintaining the system more or less in tact. The democracy deficit, global warming, the growing inequality gap etc… does not matter to them. They only react – as in the case of Stats Can – when politicians directly “meddle” in their work. Although it is, or should be, the job of politicians to make policy.

    I suppose the question is: “what is the alternative?” (As I always ask people who are quick to criticize.) Perhaps having a professional, non-political civil service is the best of all possible worlds – in theory – and perhaps in reality no such thing exists.

  • I too am sceptical of the notion of a Spock like civil service but I do think that civil servants should be like soldiers: fight the wars they are told to fight by their political masters and let their political masters take the heat. What the cons did was force stats can to fight the war they were told to fight and then tried say that the war was supported by –even recommended–by the general. That is why Sheik resigned as he should have.

    The conservatives are the ruling and they have the right to exercise power if that includes undermining what little information gathering capacity the state has so be it. Either the polls will show them tanking and they will reverse the decision or they will face the electorate in the next election. It is the job of opposition parties and engaged citizens to make the case against the government…not civil servants.

    The idea that civil servants should refuse to follow direction from their elected officials (if within the law) is a reprehensible vision of democracy based on a certain technocratic vision of order and policy formation which is fundamentally anti-democratic and which flirts with fascism.

    Imagine if by some fluke the NDP were to get elected. Do we want neoclassicaly trained economists in finance to be dictating policy and subverting the governing party when their economic plan does not follow the holy writ?

  • I believe this touches on many facets of why Munir resigned. We set goals for civil servant behaviour and we can try as we might to enforce and regulate the behaviour. However. much like everything else in our world, it takes an inner belief within the individual that is feed by the culture encapsulating them to act in accordance to expectations- values, ethics and what have you.

    A the highest level- Harper attacked these core values. A leader of substantive substance within Munir space, would realize the capitulation of the entire system that keeps Statscan atop the rest of the pack was at stake and hence the outcome.

    So as I have been preaching through this ordeal, this whole exercise by Harper has been an attack on Statscan. Why is the question? Why indeed- is it his part of his core belief that the status quo is needs fixing to take Statscan down another road that independence and neutrality are not a goal. If that is the case than, just like what has occurred, all the users of the data should and have to a point come out questioning his vision of a non-partisan statistical functionality of Statcan. So indeed it is a difficult balance, but having somebody throwing bowling balls into the workings of such delicacy is truly not acceptable within the Canadian political landscape, and I thin we are witnessing the birth of that wide spread backlash against Harper.

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