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The Trouble with Tribbles Technical Experts in Cabinet

government Policy

The much-vaunted gender quota of newly-minted Prime Minister Trudeau didn’t result in a barrage of unqualified women being promoted over obviously more experienced male candidates for the sake of parity.  In fact, the appointments look pretty reasonable.  There are some curious choices, but nothing systemic.   Almost as a response to vocal concerns that a quota policy would result in inexperienced lady-ministers being imposed on departments, each minister seems very carefully chosen so as to match their former profession with their new responsibilities.  The well-respected Defence Minister is a former soldier and had, in fact, to be released from the CF reserves in order to serve in Cabinet.  The Science Minister (now a full Cabinet position that is somehow not Innovation, Science, and Economic Development) trained as a geographer and has scientific experience.

Almost as a response to vocal concerns that a quota policy would result in inexperienced lady-ministers being imposed on departments, each minister seems very carefully chosen so as to match their former profession with their new responsibilities.

This is somewhat unusual.  Members of Cabinet oversee their department from their perch as part of the Government of the day, not the broader Canadian state.  As a liberal democracy with a somewhat independent bureaucracy, the Deputy Minister (which is a bureaucratic appointment not held by an MP) oversees the department’s daily workings and the Clerk of the Privy Council supervises the bureaucracy as a whole.  Cabinet members are there to supervise the bureaucracy from a Parliamentary perspective and to manage the Government’s priorities.  As such, it has not been the norm to have Cabinet members be the ministers of their former field.  The exception has been the Attorney General and Minister of Justice,  but the AG serves a dual role as both the head of the Ministry of Justice and the legal adviser of Cabinet.  Thus, the AG is almost invariably a lawyer.

Trudeau’s approach much more closely resembles the tradition in the United States

Our system is built so that ministers don’t need to be experts in the field which they govern.  Policy teams in the department and in the Minister’s personal  office apply their expertise to advising the Minister, leaving them more in charge of questions of judgement than policy minutiae.  It’s worked fairly well.

Trudeau’s approach much more closely resembles the tradition in the United States.  Unlike in Westminster Parliaments, American cabinet secretaries can’t also be members of the legislative branch.  While a Prime Minister must(ish) choose ministers from the ranks of the Government Caucus, the President can pick anyone they please who they believe can be confirmed by the Senate.  Cabinet secretaries are thus typically senior bureaucrats or prominent experts as well as politicians.

At first glance it’s tempting to welcome the appointment of Ministers who intimately know their departments.  This is certainly how it was initially greeted in the media.  Then came the controversies.  Take one – Minister Kirsty Duncan (that Minister of Science previously mentioned) has taken a very vocal stance in favour of a widely discredited treatment for Multiple Sclerosis.  Talking to supporters of “Liberation Therapy” (which surgically widens veins), she encouraged them to keep fighting against the scientific consensus that has relegated Liberation Therapy to the dustbin of failed ideas.

This is not, itself, a problem.  Goodness knows ministers have believed weird things.  Paul Hellyer – Pearson’s Defence Minister and Trudeau I’s Deputy PM – is a vocal believer in UFOs and has pushed for Parliament to open up about Canada’s dealings with little green men.  A consequence of having politicians who are somewhat distant from their departments, though, is that the damage this can do is minimized.  Putting an expert, one who is also a politician and has to ensure a political future, in charge of a department opens the position up to more abuse than we usually expect from holders of high office.  Once in office, an expert minister can use their position to settle scores in the field or to favour their own research priorities.*  Where the ignorance of another minister might leave these decisions to bureaucrats, expert ministers have incentives to interfere with the workings of the department through sheer familiarity.  Even if they have no ill designs, an expert minister is certainly more likely to believe that their field is relatively more important than others and make decisions accordingly.

Conflict and abuse of power is nothing new

Conflict and abuse of power is nothing new, but an expert knows where to direct their inquiries and will come with a policy agenda that’s far more deeply held than any politician’s.  Ultimately, this can increase pressure on the bureaucracy to follow inappropriate instructions.  For a much more articulate expression of this, I’ll link to Adam Goldenberg’s insightful Policy Options article again.

Even if you believe I’m full of malarkey (which is not entirely unknown to happen) and that expert ministers aren’t a liability, there’s still another compelling reason to be cautious about them.  The skills required to be an expert are not the same skills required to govern.  A doctor is an expert at healing and health.  This doesn’t make them an expert in health economics and politics.  They don’t necessarily have an education in the management of scarce resources – in fact, their medical ethics might not look kindly on the kind of cost-benefit analyses which are crucial in a ministerial portfolio.  This principle carries to pretty much any portfolio.  Ideally, ministers would all be skilled experts in management and economics.  Will it happen? No, but that’s the world we live in.

It’s one thing to say that politicians should be functionally literate in the areas they oversee, but it’s another thing altogether to champion the appointment of experts to ministries.  Ultimately what I expect is that we will see many cases of ministerial meddling in a way we haven’t seen before, where the minister takes an even more controlling approach to implementation than we’ve seen in previous Governments.  Somehow, I don’t think that’s what the Trudeau Government envisioned as Real Change.


 

*A solid example of this is the exclusion of former-general Andrew Leslie from Cabinet.  While the media and his campaign team talked him up as a candidate for the Minister of Defence, his relationship with military brass is said to be spotty and thus being an expert in the field would interfere with his ability to do his job.  The eventual pick, Minister Sajjan, is also a former soldier but comes from much further down the ladder and thus he is unlikely to have conflicts or grudges that interfere with his role.

I edited this to add a point I forgot, the one on experts not necessarily having the right skillset to govern.

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