Our ministers must watch for the tail wagging the dog

On the occasion of yet another shuffling of the decks in the upper echelons of the Yukon government bureaucracy it was time this past weekend to watch some old episodes of the 1980s British television series Yes Minister on YouTube.

On the occasion of yet another shuffling of the decks in the upper echelons of the Yukon government bureaucracy it was time this past weekend to watch some old episodes of the 1980s British television series Yes Minister on YouTube.

The show provided an excellent (albeit incredibly dry) satirical insight into a world most of us never get to see. It focused on the complex relationship between senior bureaucrats and the elected ministers chosen by the government leader to oversee a particular portfolio.

The reality of our system of government is that ministers very often come to their position with little understanding of many of the issues facing a government department or its day-to-day operations. Some have had little involvement with any sort of public administrations in the past.

Senior bureaucrats play an indispensable role in making sure ministers don’t blow it and run the whole thing into the ground.

But a tension arises because it is not always clear as to who is leading whom.

The minister is ultimately in charge but the deputy minister has the advantage of having more in-depth knowledge of what is going on, as well as a more direct relationship with the rest of the hierarchy within the department. And since deputy ministers serve at the pleasure of the prime minister or premier, the minister doesn’t have the power to unilaterally axe his or her deputy.

The power struggle between the two provided much of the comedy for Yes Minister during its run.

Sir Humphrey Appleby, a “permanent secretary” within the British government (a position equivalent to a deputy minister) goes to great lengths on the show to ensure that the tail wagged the dog and that the minister didn’t ruin the heavily bureaucratic ways of the British government in which Sir Humphrey thrived.

As Sir Humphrey says, “When a minister actually starts to run his department things aren’t going well… Don’t you realize what would happen if we allowed the minister to the run the department? Well in the first place there would be chaos naturally, and in the second, which is much more serious, there would be innovations. Changes…. Public debate. Outside scrutiny. Is that what you want?”

Jim Hacker – the minister who begins the show with his party having recently ascended to government from the ranks of the Opposition – is determined to shake things up and change how government is done. Hacker quickly learns the various roadblocks that Sir Humphrey and the bureaucracy can throw up to thwart his ambitions. When Sir Humphrey isn’t withholding pertinent information from the minister he’s burying it in reams of documents that Hacker can’t possibly be expected to sort through.

A little closer to home and here in the less humorous real world (it is just a TV show after all) news last week was that two territorial deputy ministers are no longer in their positions. The former deputy ministers of Health and Social Services and Economic Development are now out. No explanation was provided.

The opposition did what it always does and opposed. Opposition Leader Elizabeth Hanson expressed her “concern” about the rate of replacement of deputy ministers in the territory, and stating “that doesn’t help with continuity or stability.”

It is fair to note that the amount of changes recently has been higher than usual with a number of shuffles and replacements. In total 11 departments now have a different deputy minister than they did at the beginning of 2015.

However, in fairness to the premier, five deputies have quit or retired during that time. Most of the rest of the changes have involved lateral movement between departments with deputies being moved to replace other deputies. Only the Executive Council Office has been affected twice, which was necessitated by Catherine Read’s retirement only a few months after being moved to that department. In only three instances do we have unexplained partings of company.

Hanson also notes the potential cost to taxpayers. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) axing senior management is an expensive proposition. Since you can’t just fire someone from their job without a darn good reason or a whole whack of money, it is fair to assume that these recent changes have cost the taxpayer quite a lot.

Depending on how long the deputy minister has been on the job their severance will likely exceed a year’s pay. According to the deputy minister’s pay grid their annual salaries range from between $170,297 and $227,821. I’ll leave the speculative math to readers.

But I think having the deputy ministers who are a good fit and can work with their ministers is part of the cost of doing business.

Deputy ministers are probably even more important in the Yukon than anywhere else. At the federal level a prime minister with a majority government has a pool of at least 170 people elected from a population of more than 30 million citizens from which to pick a few dozen cabinet ministers. The current Yukon cabinet of nine was chosen from 12 MLAs in the governing party who, in turn, were elected from a population of 34,000.

With all due respect to our territorial politicians, they are drawn from a significantly smaller talent pool than most governments that command such a large budget. Moreover, our territorial ministers don’t come equipped with a cadre of political staff to assist them in navigating their complex portfolios.

We’ll probably never know why the latest shift took place, but given the importance of deputy ministers to the business of government, I’m inclined to give the premier the benefit of the doubt. It is important to democracy that the politicians have senior bureaucrats they can count on.

We certainly don’t want Sir Humphrey Appleby running the show.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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