Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is introducing the first code of conduct on political staff working for cabinet ministers, aimed at drawing a “line in the sand” between politics and public service neutrality for ministerial aides.
The code is part of the Open and Accountable Government guide, released last week, on the roles, responsibilities and standard of conduct Trudeau expects from his cabinet. The guide is an updated version of one that the Privy Council Office prepared for former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2011.
The line between politics and the public service has been blurring for decades, with experts calling for a code to govern the behaviour of ministerial staffers — the “political warriors” or “kids in short pants” who roam Ottawa’s corridors of power with little accountability.
The code says ministerial aides can’t meddle in the work of the public service, can’t give public servants orders, and that ministers are responsible for their staff’s actions.
The guide also changes the rules on the personal and partisan use of social media.
Ministers’ staff, who are hired under the Public Service Employment Act, are exempt from the hiring rules for public servants. Their job is to provide political advice to ministers while bureaucrats offer non-partisan advice.
Karl Salgo, formerly of the Privy Council Office and now executive director of public governance at the Institute on Governance, said the guide doesn’t break new ground, but is the first attempt to pull together the rules — written and unwritten — in a single code that will be enforced as a condition of employment. Treasury Board, for example, has long had policies on communications and ministers’ offices.
“This is not a change in rules but rather a codification of established principles that has not previously been brought together as comprehensively nor as authoritatively,” he said.
Salgo said the code is now the most “authoritative” statement on the boundaries around the relationship between political aides and public servants, and puts the onus on staffers to know and live by those rules. He argued more structure should improve compliance.
For the public service, the new code is a concrete step towards the Liberals’ election promise to restore and rebuild respect for the public service.
“This is good for the public service because it clarifies the lines of accountability and draws that line in the sand,” said Salgo.
“The guide lays out the parameters, and people can’t claim to be unclear about them because it is a term and condition of employment. This is a good innovation for building a healthy relationship (between ministerial staff and public servants).”
A code of conduct for political staffers was a key recommendation, which the Conservatives never implemented, of the Gomery Inquiry into the sponsorship scandal.
Conservative ministers’ relationship with public servants was an uneasy one.
They often bypassed the deputy ministers’ office, gave public servants orders and were so involved in the running of departments that a recent Public Policy Forum report called political aides a new “political service” that was more influential and less accountable than the public service.
The study also found the number of aides soared to 600 — 10 times more than the 60 political advisors on payroll for the much-larger U.K. government.
With the new code, ministerial staff must act with integrity and honesty, support the minister’s duties, be diligent and loyal to the minister, and work with the public service to support the minister. When working with bureaucrats, they must:
- be aware of the ethical standards, guidelines and codes of conduct that public servants must comply with;
- stay out of departmental operations, including how money should be spent;
- not engage public servants in activity that breaches their ethical and legal obligations as non-partisan public servants;
- not direct or issue orders to public servants;
- not undermine or circumvent the authority of deputy ministers; and
- not suppress or alter advice that public servants prepare for ministers.
The code also calls for a separation between ministers’ social media accounts and those of the government. That’s long been the policy but the Conservatives were repeatedly called out for using the government’s communications machinery to promote partisan interests.
They made public servants refer to the Government of Canada as the Harper Government on all news releases and backgrounders.
In another case, departments were asked to send retweets promoting a family-tax measure not yet passed by Parliament, including a hashtag with the Conservative slogan #StrongFamilies. Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre had public servants work overtime to create promotional videos about child benefits, which featured him.
The government has two types of social media accounts – departmental and thematic accounts — which are targeted at specific topics or audiences. They are used to promote or advertise federal programs but can’t have identifying “party symbols” or partisan content.
The code allows ministers and parliamentary secretaries to have their own social media accounts, but won’t allow government resources to manage or create content for them.
Departments can’t tweet, retweet or link to the personal or political accounts of ministers. Ministers, however, can link or tweet content from Government of Canada websites.