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Navigating New Ottawa: The Early Evolving Dynamics of Liberal Government Decision-Making

Capital Perspectives

Every new government quickly develops a "culture of decision-making," reflecting the personalities, priorities and predilections of those who have been elected and the people who advise them.

It will reflect leadership style, relations between politicians and civil servants, the personalities and ambitions of cabinet and the government caucus, the quality and composition of exempt political staff, the dynamics within parliament, and the continuing unfolding of events domestically and globally.

This "culture of decision-making" shapes the manner by which government decisions get made. It will often inform the attitudes and inclinations of those who frame policy options or recommend a course of (political) action. It is the context within which ministers and political staff will engage with their departments and the officials they rely on for expertise and support.

Government relations (GR) is the business of government decisions. GR is about managing exposure to government, identifying and exploiting opportunities, and identifying and mitigating risk and harm. GR is about securing the right government decisions and preventing or reversing wrong ones. Understanding and articulating the culture of federal government decision-making is the cornerstone of any effective GR strategy.

A new way of doing things

The new Liberal Prime Minister's government represents a very definitive break with the culture and operating style of the previous Conservative government. The Conservative approach included a strong and centralized (PMO) decision-making structure and was guided by a defined political strategy, clear objectives, and strong message and medium control. To Conservative supporters, the government was largely accessible, its approach to decision-making predictable, and its positions and overall agenda principled and clear. To Conservative government critics, the decision-making culture was hyper-partisan, placing politics over policy, alienating the federal civil service, lacking in transparency and accountability, and going out of its way to provoke mainstream media.

The new Liberal government has promised a "team" approach that would bring "real change, in what we do and how we do it." Decision-making is to be decentralized, open, transparent and accountable, with ministerial "assessing and reporting," disclosure of MP expenses, and new collaboration and partnerships with provinces, territories, municipalities, indigenous peoples and minority groups. Public servants are to be "respected," the media is to be engaged, parliament is to be reformed and future elections changed.

The new Liberal government also promises to be open and accessible for Canadians - with "open data, open information and open dialogue." Canadians are being told their opinions matter on many if not all of the key decisions facing the federal government. There is a new and pronounced emphasis on public consultation and engagement, that if fully deployed will have a profound impact on the process by which civil servants develop policy advice and guidance, and the government makes decisions. It will significantly change (and increase) the workloads of public servants and political staff shaping government decisions, and the timelines for making these decisions. It will also significantly increase the expectations of a public unused to its new government advisory role. If not implemented, the professed new decision-making culture will risk unmet public expectations, and a return to more traditional, insular and top-down policy and political decision-making.

What this means for you

By any measure, this is a very ambitious plan. And at this early stage, what can be said about the emerging culture of Liberal government decision-making?

Not surprisingly, the aspiration and rhetoric is outpacing promise delivery.

Uncertainty remains about the pace and impacts of the emerging Liberal culture of decision-making. The development and role of the government's new "stakeholder participation" tools are a key factor to monitor and understand. As with most new governments, the influence of departmental advice to ministers will remain dominant as the new government develops more confidence with its agenda and its political decision-making. As always, knowing the government's agenda as articulated in the throne speech, ministerial mandate letters and the 2016 federal budget is essential. Understanding where your (or your client's) interest fits or doesn't fit within the priorities and values of the new Liberal government should inform strategy.

Time will reveal much more about the culture of decision-making in the new Ottawa. Revealing of this emerging culture will be: 1) the state of relations between the civil service, charged with implementing the new and ambitious consultative policy-making, and the politicians (and political staff) they support; 2) the government's management of and response to heightened expectations from the Canadian public that this new "direct-democracy" is real and meaningful; and, 3) whether and if Liberal political partisanship is ever permitted to trump public policy and public sentiment.

Time will tell.