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Graham Flack, a senior federal public servant who held jobs at the centre of crises ranging from the threat of Quebec secession, 9/11, the 2008 global financial meltdown and the pandemic, is leaving the public service after a last stop running Treasury Board.

Flack announced his plan to retire as Treasury Board secretary to fellow deputy ministers and Treasury Board employees Tuesday, leaving a huge hole in the senior ranks that will have to be filled quickly. The resignation comes only days after Trudeau government moved or promoted 10 senior bureaucrats in a deputy minister shuffle.

Flack is leaving the public service after nearly three decades serving 31 ministers – half of them as their deputy minister.

Treasury Board is the employer of public servants and the government’s general manager. The board secretary is one of the top public service jobs. The board writes and oversees the nitty gritty rules and policies for managing employees and expenditures and approves spending. The sweeping post is responsible for the comptroller general, the chief information officer and the chief human resources officer.

Flack took over the job two years ago as the government eased out of the pandemic. He was at the centre of hot-button issues: the explosive growth of the public service, implementing the government’s return-to-office order and the first nation-wide strike in years. Then, came restraint and stick handling a spending review looking for $15.4 billion in savings. With a looming budget, public servants are bracing for further cost reductions.

A lawyer and Rhodes scholar, Flack was flagged as a rising star to watch from the start. As he climbed the ranks, he was often touted among contenders for the top job as clerk.

Canada’s chief statistician Anil Arora said the departure of a deputy minister of Flack’s “caliber is a big loss” for the public service.

Flack was the deputy minister at Employment and Social Development Canada when the pandemic hit. He led the department in creating and delivering the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) in less than two weeks, followed by half a dozen other pandemic benefits such as those for students and people with disabilities.

“He was the right guy in the right place at the right time, I would say, and we are all better off as a result,” said Arora. “Rolling out programs, literally overnight, and doing it in a way in the service of Canadians, I think he deserves a lot of kudos.”

The modernization of IT systems, the shift to digital technology, improving service delivery, spending restraint and the future of work with AI are big issues on Treasury Board’s plate.

The CIO position is vacant with last month’s departure of Catherine Luelo, which is another job many say the government can’t afford to sit idle for long. Luelo was recently made a senior official at Privy Council Office to advise clerk John Hannaford on technology on digital transformation, technology and managing tech talent.

Treasury Board was Flack’s fifth deputy minister posting. Speculation has already begun on who knows the-ins-and-outs of government as well to step into the job. Some say Bill Matthews, deputy minister at Defence fits the bill. He has experience at Treasury Board, including as comptroller general, but moving him leaves a big hole in Defence, which faces its own challenges these days.

Another is Erin O’Gorman, the former associate secretary at Treasury Board before she became the president of Canada Border Services Agency in July 2022.

The government could go outside the public service like it did when it recruited Peter Wallace, Toronto’s former city manager and top bureaucrat in the Ontario public service. An outside pick is unusual, but the Liberals have brought in outsiders for senior posts over the years.

Flack’s departure also raises questions of how many other deputy ministers of similar experience could leave before the election, which will be in 2025 at the latest.

Some may not want the work of managing the transition for a new government, which polls have indicated could be Conservative government. If more leave, the public service could be in a position of having few, if any, deputies advising on the transition who were around when the Liberals were elected in 2015.

Flack joined government as a summer student in 1987, launching a career that saw him working on some of the country’s biggest crises.

He worked as a clerk at the Supreme Court in 1993 before jumping to the Privy Council Office to work on the referendum campaign on Quebec independence.

He had written a thesis at Harvard University on the idea of doing a reference case to the Supreme Court on the right of secession, priming him for later work on the secession reference case over whether Quebec could decide on its own to secede from Canada. He later worked on the Clarity Act.

After 9/11 he became director of operations and led work on Canada-US Smart Border Declaration, as well as Canada’s first national security policy.

He went on to executive jobs at Natural Resources and Finance where he worked on the G7 and G20 response to the 2008 financial crisis. He moved to Public Safety as associate deputy minister and then acting deputy. He went on to become deputy minister of Canadian Heritage and ESDC.

In his farewell letter, Flack made fleeting references to some of the issues dogging the public service these days, from a risk-averse culture to the importance of a strong relationship between bureaucrats and their ministers. That relationship is strained and many worry their advice isn’t being sought or heard.

“Empowered ministers are the cornerstone of our Westminster system and I am grateful for their openness to the fearless advice I provided,” Flack wrote.

He said the “jobs are tough and the operating environment has become increasingly complex” which “at times can be very lonely” and he thanked his colleagues for their “fellowship and leadership.”

“I’ve seen how dynamic we can be in a crisis and how critical it is that we harness that innovative potential in our daily work. I believe that one of the most important roles a leader can play is supporting risk-taking in an organization,” he wrote.

An anglophone, Flack, who worked in both languages, wrote bilingualism is core to Canada’s identity and “can only be realized in the public service when anglophones regularly lead in French.”

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May is the Accenture Fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years writing about the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. The winner of a National Newspaper Award, she has also researched and written about public service issues for the federal government and research institutes. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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