NOTICE: Good governance means “nose in, fingers out”

Martin ruben
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I was recently thinking of a conversation I had with my good friend Elinor Caplin, former federal Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and later Minister of National Revenue in the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien. Several years after Caplan left government, I asked him to speak at a conference for public servants on the role of ministers and their relationships with their deputy ministers and departments. In her speech, she summed up this relationship in four words: “Nose in, fingers out”.

Caplan said a minister should ask lots of questions and get lots of information about his department’s operations in order to understand the department’s policies and strategic direction. A minister should also meet with citizens and stakeholders and understand what needs to be done to improve the lives of residents. But decisions and actions to ensure the effective functioning of the department should be left to the deputy minister and his staff.

Caplan also stressed that the Minister should have a good working relationship with the Deputy Minister so that each can effectively carry out their respective roles. Caplan was, and still is, a strong supporter of governments doing the right things.

Remembering the conversation I had with Caplan at this conference, I realized how far Prince Edward Island is from functioning with good governance.

The Government of PEI operates under what is known as the Westminster model, which was first developed and used in England and then adopted in Canada. This model means that the government acts on behalf of the Crown but derives its authority from the people. Canada’s Constitution Act, 1867 establishes the framework for the operation of government in Canada, including the powers that may be exercised by federal and provincial levels of government.

The main characteristic of a good model of government which ensures the good functioning of society is the clear division of roles and responsibilities between elected officials, the executive (the cabinet), the administrative branch (the civil service) and the courts. . This division of responsibilities means that the administration of government can be accountable to the legislative branch, and in the event of disagreement the courts can be invoked to ensure the requisite independence.

It also means that the elected government can be held accountable by the voters. The powers exercised by the cabinet and its individual members should follow the key characteristics of a well-functioning model of government and ensure accountability for each part of the governance framework. In other words, the public needs to understand who is responsible for what, including the decisions that are made.

In Prince Edward Island, our model of government departs from this key requirement of the Westminster model of ensuring good governance, including accountability and transparency in the use of public funds. This is because the ministers from PEI participate in the day-to-day administration of government.

Islanders should know why this way of running our government is not in their best interests.

Through laws and conventions, over time the ministers of PEI. have taken on responsibilities that would be considered highly inappropriate in other jurisdictions that use the Westminster model. For example, under the Health Services Act, the appointment of the CEO of Santé Î.-P.-É. reports to the Minister. This goes against the principle of distributing roles between an elected official and the board of directors of a crown corporation. Many other actions, including the appointment of certain senior officials, also deviate from the principles set out in the Westminster model.

Although it is staffed with many skilled professionals, the government of Prince Edward Island has, over time, evolved into a ‘politicized’ public service instead of what we should have, which is a “professional” public service. A politicized public service makes decisions and acts in the best interests of the minister, who in turn is driven by the ambition to be re-elected. A professional public service makes decisions and undertakes actions that are in the public interest while ensuring the achievement of the political agenda.

Martin Ruben, FCPA, FCGA runs a consultancy firm in Victoria-by-the-Sea and has experience in the public sector and not-for-profit corporate governance. This is the first of a two-part discussion on good governance and how our provincial government works in PEI. Part 2 will be released on December 17 in print and online.

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