OTTAWA – The Trudeau government may have made history with the biggest deputy minister shuffle in memory. And now the capital’s insiders are reading the tea leaves to discern where’s the power, who to watch and the future of the public service.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau moved or promoted senior bureaucrats into 18 new jobs – the biggest single sweep anyone can remember. It’s the management slate the minority government is counting on to deliver its priorities as it eases out of the pandemic and rebuilds the economy. All start their new jobs this week, on January 10 or 11.

The public service knew a shakeup was coming as 10 deputy ministers retired over the past year, but for whatever reason the government waited for a sweeping shuffle rather than do a few smaller ones as jobs became vacant.

New bosses take over four key departments that employ about one-quarter of the public service. They head the departments that manage all buying, the military, social programs and make all the rules – Paul Thompson at Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), Bill Matthews at National Defence, Jean-François Tremblay at Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) and Graham Flack at Treasury Board Secretariat.

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A newly elected government always shuffles its senior ranks after it appoints a new cabinet, said Donald Savoie, Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton.

But a nagging question is why this one took so long, especially when key jobs like the prime minister’s national security advisor was empty for months.

As one senior bureaucrat who was not authorized to speak publicly said, a bank or another large company wouldn’t change the leadership of so many of its operations at once.

“This was a long time in coming,” said Michel Vermette, a former CEO of the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada. “You have to wonder why they are so slow to fill these positions. Some of these departures have been known for quite some time. What took so long?”

The Liberals were in no rush. They waited two months after the election before calling back Parliament. Mandate letters, the prime minister’s marching orders to cabinet ministers, were issued only on Dec. 16 as the House of Commons adjourned for holidays.

But the public service is also in this unusual period in its history when there is both a clerk and an interim clerk.

The clerk of the Privy Council is Canada’s top bureaucrat and advises the prime minister on deputy minister appointments. Janice Charette, who had previously served as clerk, took over as interim clerk when Clerk Ian Shugart temporarily stepped aside for cancer treatment. That was nearly a year ago.

Charette has full authority as interim clerk, but the recently tabled clerk’s report to the prime minister was signed by Shugart. The shuffle was orchestrated by Charette, and those who know her say they would be surprised if she hasn’t kept Shugart in the loop.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to interim Clerk of the Privy Council Janice Charette during a Cabinet swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, on Oct. 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Some speculate Charette was waiting for Shugart’s return before filling jobs, but two big vacancies couldn’t be left longer any longer – the prime minister’s national security advisor and secretary of Treasury Board. Those two changes triggered it all.

Mel Cappe, a former Privy Council clerk, said, a deputy shuffle is like “a massive jigsaw puzzle with three-dimensions” and once you start, it’s hard to stop because each move triggers another. On top of filling vacancies, the clerk has to put together management teams, pairing deputy ministers and ministers suited to work together.

“The most complicated thing I ever did was deputy minister shuffles, and this shows how complicated it is. There are all the knock-on effects, and then you have to consider the tenure of the deputies, ensure the stability and change you want,” said Cappe.

Jody Thomas, deputy minister at National Defence, was tapped to fill the national security advisor job vacated when Vincent Rigby left in June. The next domino was Bill Matthews, the deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement Canada. He previously served the National Defence senior associate deputy minister and was moved to fill Thomas’s job.

The move also reunites Matthews with Anita Anand, his minister at PSPC who now has the job of fixing the Canadian Armed Forces, which are mired in a sexual misconduct crisis with multiple high-ranking officers facing allegations and moved out of their jobs. The duo was at the centre of the COVID crisis in the race to buy vaccines and personal protective equipment. Both learned the ropes of military procurement.

At Treasury Board, which is the public service’s general manager and employer, the November departure of secretary Peter Wallace, a 40-year career bureaucrat, left a huge gap. It has a massive reform agenda, including the modernization of the public service, the future of work, digital technology and improved service delivery. Graham Flack leaves ESDC to begin that job.

This is Flack’s fifth deputy minister post and reformers have high hopes his experience as co-chair of the deputy ministers task force on public service innovation will give him a jump start on modernizing a risk-averse public service.

Jean-François Tremblay is another one to watch. He’s on the move from Natural Resources to take over Flack’s job at ESDC. He has been on a steady rise since he joined the public service and his posting at the giant department with its multiple ministers marks his sixth deputy minister appointment.

The shakeup also stirred up chatter about who is being groomed for bigger promotions down the road, including contenders to be the next clerk when Charette and Shugart leave.

Flack is among a handful of names that comes up as a future clerk, and some say a stint at Treasury Board is further grooming for the job. Former Privy Council Clerk Wayne Wouters went from ESDC to Treasury Board before he landed the clerk job.  (Charette and Cappe were also deputy ministers at ESDC on their way to the top job.)

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The other big job everyone is watching is at Finance, the most powerful department. The government recruited Canadian businessman Michael Sabia, former CEO of the Caisse de Dépôt et Placement du Québec, as the department’s deputy minister.

A year into the job, how long will he stay? Could the government want him as clerk – and would the 68-year-old businessman with plenty of private sector options want it? Louise Levonian, one of the deputy ministers who retired, was often touted as an insider for that job when she finished her assignment at the International Monetary Fund.

The musical chairs brought a number of changes in international jobs, which some hope signals a new focus on foreign policy and international affairs in the firmament of the senior bureaucracy.

John Hannaford, deputy minister of International Trade, fills Tremblay’s shoes at Natural Resources; David Morrison, the prime minister’s foreign and defence policy advisor, takes over Hannaford’s job, and Dan Costello steps up as the prime minister’s chief whisperer on foreign policy. Stefanie Beck, Canada’s deputy high commissioner for the U.K., goes to Defence as associate deputy minister – keeping a woman in senior ranks there.

The shuffle also reflects the toll of the pandemic. The bureaucracy has been in high gear for nearly two years with much of the staff working from home.  Jacqueline Bogden becomes a new deputy secretary to cabinet for Emergency Preparedness and COVID Recovery.

Executives at all levels are tired, burned out and, if eligible, a fully-indexed pension is hard to resist. Former privy council clerk Michael Wernick said the pandemic is particularly hard on the layers of management caught between the top and front-line workers. There’s much speculation that the government could see an exodus of executives, which will have a knock-on impact on succession planning.

Despite the scale of the shuffle, the changes aren’t dramatic; no eyebrow-raising or wild card appointments. They are capable, mostly career bureaucrats who know how Ottawa works and are groomed as generic managers who can step into any department.

“When you think of it as a portfolio, you have to groom a roster of a couple dozen people and always be looking for the promotable,” said Wernick.

“This is an alignment. The clerk is bringing things into alignment with the way cabinet is set and priorities in the mandate letters.”

Others on the move to watch:

Christopher MacLennan steps up to deputy minister of International Development and becomes the prime minister’s personal representative for the G20 Summit.

Philip Jennings becomes senior advisor to the Privy Council Office. He will be the nominee as the next executive director for Canada, Ireland, nine Caribbean countries, and Belize at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Michael Vandergrift becomes deputy secretary to the cabinet for plans and consultations at Privy Council Office on top of his current job as deputy minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in the Privy Council Office.

Cynthia (Cindy) Termorshuizen is promoted to associate deputy minister of Foreign Affairs.

Daniel Rogers is now the associate chief of the Communications Security Establishment.

Mala Khanna becomes associate deputy minister of Canadian Heritage.

Francis Bilodeau is promoted to associate deputy minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

Paul Samson steps up to associate deputy minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.

This article was produced with support from the Accenture Fellowship on the Future of the Public Service. Read Kathryn May’s previous articles on the future of the public service.

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May a couvert la fonction publique fédérale (le plus grand bassin de main-d’œuvre au pays), la politique et les affaires parlementaires pendant plus de 25 ans pour le Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. et IPolitics. Gagnante d'un prix du Concours canadien de journalisme, elle a aussi mené des recherches sur la fonction publique pour le compte du gouvernement fédéral et d'instituts de recherches.

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