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Deputy Ministers

By Scott Proudfoot, Principal
January 1997

Ever wonder what it would be like to run a large federal government department? 

For someone in the business world, think of the Deputy Minister as the president and CEO of the corporation.  The Minister is the Chairman of the Board and answers to the stockholders, the voters.   His Cabinet colleagues are, in effect, the Directors.  And, as the CEO, the Deputy delivers the goods and runs the company.  Often it is a seven day a week, 14 hours a day job.

While Deputy Ministers have day-to-day operational responsibility for their department, only a small portion of their time is devoted to direct management considerations.

The Deputy Minister is the Minister’s chief policy advisor. This involves committing a disproportionate amount of time briefing the Minister or the Minister’s colleagues in cabinet committees.  A business CEO usually can anticipate that the Chairman of the Board knows something about the business. Deputies have no such guarantee when it comes to Ministers.  Ministers can change frequently.   Some are intensely interested in the business of the department; some are largely indifferent except for a few issues.  Some have good management skills; others have little or no experience.  Irrespective of the Ministers qualities and capabilities — the Deputy’s job is to get along and develop an effective working relationship.

The Deputy Minister’s career prospects are directly linked to ensuring the Minister and the government is not embarrassed.  This involves the Deputy in the micro-management of potential controversial issues. Since, by definition, government is always in the public eye and many developments can be potentially embarrassing, a considerable volume of a Deputy’s time is expended in the management of real or anticipated crises.

The Deputy Minister is required to regularly appear before Parliamentary committees and answer questions from Members of Parliament.  The toughest parliamentary committee is the Public Accounts Committee, where it is the Deputy and not the Minister who appears.

The Deputy must account for the performance of his or her department and the Auditor-General has set up the line of questions.  The Deputy is expected to work collegially with his peers, which means a certain amount of time working on common public service issues with other Deputy Ministers.  Time must be spent on inter-governmental meetings with the provinces.

Because of the public nature of the post, the Deputy is required to meet a good number of people. Many are stakeholders of the department expecting to meet with the Deputy at least once or twice a year.  Some are people too important to ignore.  Some are people whom the Minister does not wish to meet.  Many meetings are ceremonial in nature but unavoidable.  Having met all these external demands, the Deputy must then consider the daily management of the department.  Meetings must be held with departmental officials, budgets must be reviewed, policy initiatives vetted, the progress of major capital projects checked and so on.

Deputy Ministers work extremely hard over 20 or 30 years to advance their careers.  They learn how to “get things done” in a complex, often frustrating, work environment.  They have some luck and they outlast their competitors.

The pay and benefits are adequate but not generous.  Public recognition is limited. Beyond personal drive and ambition, the principal reward for a Deputy Minister is the excitement, interest and personal satisfaction involved in having a key role in the important public policy issues of the day.

In the past, that has been enough to attract some very capable people to the position.  More recently, many good candidates are unwilling to go the distance and bail out early.  Many ambitious, talented young people entering the work force are uninterested in a public service career.

At the beginning, it is government’s problem if it cannot attract the best possible people to join its leadership cadre.   Eventually, it becomes everyone’s problem!

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