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Thursday, 8 January 2015

Do Clerks' reports have an impact?

by Peter Ryan

In 2012, Patrice Dutil and I examined the first sixteen Clerk of the Privy Council reports in two ways, first by summarizing their main themes, and second, by subjecting the reports to automated digital humanities textual analyses. Our aim was to discern the emphases of the reports and to demonstrate how the Clerk of the Privy Council had used its power of narrative as a leadership tool.

Three things to know about the Clerk of the Privy Council:

  1. As deputy minister to the prime minister, the clerk is the first advisor to the government on both policy substance and implementation. Their annual report to the prime minister was mandated in 1990 as a part of the Public Service Employment Act.
  2. The clerk is the chief executive of the Privy Council Office, the most powerful central agency of government.
  3. The clerk is also the Secretary to Cabinet and charged with ensuring that the consensus of Cabinet is captured and conveyed to the administration that reports to her or him. For indeed, as “Head of the Public Service,” the clerk also commands the public service.

Three myths about the Clerk of the Privy Council and their annual reports:

Myth #1: The Annual Report of the Clerk of the Privy Council is an effective communications device that shows leadership.

Reality: This research demonstrated that the reports were highly repetitious, poor in rhetoric, and not likely to be engaging. The reports did have different priorities and emphases that changed slowly over time, but were often not clearly differentiated by each leader. Overall, the reports presented a clear lack of creativity in terms of their vocabulary, which was demonstrated empirically through the automated textual analysis. We concluded that the clerk’s bureaucratic writing has its own genre unto itself.  

Myth #2: The Annual Report of the Clerk of the Privy Council can be used as an indicator of what the priorities of the public service are.

Reality: If changes were occurring in the federal public service from 1991 to 2007, then one would be ill advised to turn to the first sixteen Clerk of the Privy Council Annual Reports to find them. The priorities for each report and clerk were difficult to discern using both a close reading and the automated methods. The research demonstrated that government has its own slower pace of change as compared to the private sector.  The Clerk of the Privy Council Annual Reports were demonstrated to be decontextualized from current events, missing important discussions on women’s issues, Aboriginal peoples, people with disabilities, child care, health care, and even major international players like Africa, Asia, China, and India. The detachment is perhaps the most visible in that Canada’s biggest partners, the United States and the United Kingdom, were only each mentioned twice in the first sixteen reports under six different clerks.

Myth #3: The Annual Report of the Clerk of the Privy Council has fulfilled its mandate.

Reality: The report has not fulfilled its mandate in the sample examined, especially compared with similar reports coming out of comparable agencies in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Overall, our hope with this research project was to better understand how this key document of public administration is developed and used, and then offer some challenges to its present design in terms of helping to guide what the document could become. Indeed, some changes have been noted in the reports under Wayne Wouters, and future research could compare the changes made to understand how the Harper majority may be changing the federal public administration.

Dr. Peter Ryan: Peter Ryan is an instructor for the Bachelor of Communication Studies program and an instructional designer in the eLearning Office at MacEwan University, in Edmonton, Alberta.

Dr. Patrice Dutil: Patrice Dutil is a professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, in Toronto, Ontario.

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