A discussion on Twitter yesterday morning about how Deputy Ministers get appointed reminded me of my experience working for the provincial government over the years and interacting with Deputies. That discussion was about whether they have to apply and compete for those positions, or if they just get appointed. I don’t know how it works in other provinces or with the Feds, but here’s what I know about how it happens in the Province of Nova Scotia.
First, an explanation of the title “Deputy Minister”. It really is a misnomer in that a Minister is almost always an elected member of the government in power, a member of the House of Assembly (there have been exceptions to that though, as recently as the 1990s here in Nova Scotia), while the Deputy Minister is not. They are best thought of as the CEO of a Department, the top civil servant in charge. While they need to understand the politics at play in their environment, they should still be giving their Minister the best objective advice possible. In other places – New Brunswick comes to mind – Deputies are sometimes ex-politicians or political operatives connected to the party in power. This thankfully usually does not happen in Nova Scotia. There have been a few, and at least one of them remains a Deputy in Nova Scotia today, but thankfully that is the exception rather than the rule.
There is sometimes an important exception to this, which would be the Deputy to the Premier, the “Deputy of Deputies” as they are sometimes called. That is the most powerful bureaucrat in any government, and issues direction to the other Deputies as to what the Premier needs them to do. It is a very demanding job that has great power, great responsibility, and great risk of blowing up in one’s face. You can well imagine the balancing act that this job needs, and the number of balls in the air at any given time. Because the person is in the Premier’s inner circle and is a confidante for getting things done, it sometimes happens that the person is active in the party structure. It needs to be a person the Premier can trust, and is not a job that is ever posted for competition as far as I can remember. Sometimes the Premier will appoint an existing Deputy into that position, but sometimes it will be someone from within the party or simply someone he trusts and likes. This person is often but not always also the Deputy for the Executive Council Office, the “machinery of government” spot where Cabinet decisions get recorded and made official, among other things.
In recent times it has become more common, if still not usually the case, to see departmental Deputy positions get posted for applicants. That really should not be a surprise – a lot of CEO jobs get competed for too – but that certainly wasn’t always how it worked. I remember back in the John Buchanan era having a casual conversation one day at some sort of office reception with a group of co-workers, when our Minister sat down and joined us just to shoot the breeze, a fairly rare thing. One thing led to another and eventually the subject of Deputy appointments came up. Our Minister described it in these terms: after Cabinet one day, the Premier asked the Cabinet to stay behind after staff left, and he used a whiteboard to list the names of Departments where he wanted to change Deputies. He then polled the room as to who might be good candidates. Names were written on the board, opinions were exchanged, and eventually people were slotted into the spots available like some sort of fantasy draft. As a fairly young and quite green member of the civil service, this boggled my mind. I could just picture it, the backroom boys making deals and kings.
But assuming the names offered were known players in the senior civil service, this might not be as crazy as it sounds in retrospect. I know from having witnessed many competitions for senior positions over the years that even the most structured and well-meaning recruitment process to pick the best candidate is still a crapshoot at these levels. Not everyone is cut out to be a Deputy or a CEO. I know that many times over the years my co-workers and I would talk about why the hell anyone would even want to be a Deputy in the first place. The pay back in the ’80s and ’90s was lousy for the level of responsibility, you had limited ability to actually change anything, you had a rotating series of politicians to try and satisfy, and your life was a series of meetings, demands, and complaints. It wasn’t like you could suddenly become a star. The system prevented that. I can think of a few occasions over the years where outside candidates who went through a selection process were brought in, guns blazing, and flamed out in short order, often because they didn’t understand politics or how government worked. Others immediately proved themselves lackluster at best and either settled into a career of shuffling around, or were eventually eased out. That taught me more about the shortcomings of H.R. recruitment practices than the people themselves.
Part of the reason that outside candidates sometimes struggled as a Deputy is that running a government department is nothing at all like running a private company. You could have all sorts of great ideas, do all the right analysis, make all the right moves, and be shut down with a simple “no” after months of work simply because it was not palatable politically. Trust me, having worked in government I know how that is. But a lot of people in the top chair would not put up with being shot down like that. It would cause some of them to start looking for a new job, while others would toss their grand plans aside and try to get along as best they could. Meanwhile, a person who had been around the civil service for years and rose through the ranks would understand it, even if they didn’t like it, and just continue on.
The other thing that sometimes caused Deputies who were parachuted into a Department from outside government to fail was that the organism itself – the Department – rejected the transplant. If there was a senior staffer who was widely seen as the heir-apparent who ended up getting bypassed, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there might be some resentment from them and their colleagues towards the new arrival. This could even filter down into lower-level staff, with the expected and unfortunate consequences to morale and performance. This was made even worse if the new Deputy was not someone with obvious credentials but instead an outside person selected because of connections or profile, which is something that happens occasionally. Any flaws will be exposed by the senior staff, and any mistakes will be made known. Should the new Deputy attempt to initiate something that was ambitious, the response was often one of nodding in agreement while whispering under one’s breath, “they’ll learn”, and not doing anything to keep them from falling on their face. I saw this in the ’90s with at least one of the Deputies brought in by the Savage government, and again later on in the Tory governments of the early to mid 2000s. Not a nice thing, but it happens.
This leads to the other thing I learned about the Deputy ranks in my time within government – the way to do well and get ahead is to never rock the boat very much. You can play around the edges, but the system is very resistant to change. It is well-nigh impossible to do any sort of meaningful change to improve efficiency or streamline how things work. If legislation needs to be changed to make that happen, that is a very lengthy process with no guarantee of success. If people need to be moved out, either due to poor performance or restructuring, good luck to you with that. While it occasionally happens, that almost always was in the early days of a new government when they thought they were in charge of such things. The reality is that union members working in government never go away unless they want to, they just change locations. Even non-unionized management staff have a system that protects them to at least some (albeit lesser) extent. The result is that big changes take so long to happen that most Deputies have learned it is usually best to not even try. In most cases they will be shuffled to their next assignment before anything happens anyway, so why bother? Just don’t do anything stupid, don’t get a bad reputation, keep your head down, and go along to get along for the most part.
One example of this that never ceases to amaze me is something I worked on in my days at Finance in the late 1990s. We were asked to look at how government managed their equipment fleet – trucks, cars, heavy equipment and the like. While Transportation and Public Works had most of that responsibility, it turned out that other departments had fleet management operations too. We did a lot of work with the staff at TPW (who were great) and realized that there was considerable savings to be had if it was all centralized under one agency, either in a Department, a standalone government operating agency, or privatized. But however you chose to do it, it made zero sense to have a bunch of Departments doing it themselves. What even made less sense was having two fleet garages damn near side by side (separated only by a fence) in St. Peter’s, one belonging to TPW and one belonging to Natural Resources, doing much the same work. I mean, that was a no-brainer. When we presented our conclusions to the Deputies, there was a lot of nodding, everyone agreed it made sense to amalgamate, but in the end nothing ever changed. As of 2012, the date of the most recent Google Streetview images I can find, the status of things in St. Peter’s remains the same. From the Deputies point of view, it would be a lot of trouble dealing with all the displaced workers and facilities, and not only would they would get no reward for their efforts but likely just a lot of grief instead. So why bother?
In the end, that’s why most Deputies come from within the ranks of the senior civil service. Someone working at that level knows all of this, knows how government works and doesn’t work, knows what their department does well and what it doesn’t, and knows what to focus on and what to stay away from. If they aspire to become a Deputy someday, that is known as well, thanks to their annual performance review with the current Deputy when they got to the part that talked about career development. If there is agreement on that being a possibility, the existing Deputy will plant a seed with the right colleagues around the Deputy table and the Minister may well do the same at Cabinet (especially if the person is known to and liked by Cabinet members) after the potential candidate visits to present on something. It is just a lot easier to appoint someone from within the system, even if they may not be the perfect person for the job. All that being said, it is not a guarantee by any means either. I can think of one case where someone who was pretty much a certain future Deputy made a very dumb move, which ultimately ended their career in government. Some had it snatched away when an outsider was brought in and never got another chance. Others might have all the qualities required for the job, but for whatever reason never got the call.
To sum up, the reality is that most departments have senior management in place with one or more likely Deputies already being groomed for the spot, so when the opportunity happens, it is just easier for the sake of effectiveness, expediency, and morale to appoint from within. You tend to see government look outside more often when a department is newly created from parts of others, or if there is a perception that the place needs a good shakeup. It is true that an outsider is often the most likely person for the job when you are looking for big changes to an organization. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that the cure for what ails the Department will always take, given the amount of resistance to change inherent in the government system.