Oiling the Machinery of Government: A Primer

Lots of friends in or concerned about Alberta have been inquiring of me in the last week how a transition of government works.

Having observed many, and living, sweating and coffee-Ing my way through a transition from a Progressive Conservative (PC) to a New Democratic Party (NDP) government in Nova Scotia in June 2009, here are some indicative crib notes for the uninitiated.


During the election itself (“Calm before the storm” phase):

  • Political parties with a realistic prospect of forming a government fashion the membership of a transition team, who will endeavor to develop (often quite detailed) plans of how the ‘skin graft’ of the new political leadership will be effected onto the body corporate of the public service (think of this as the M&A integration team);
  • Civil servants do not shut down government and decamp to Florida, as some may conjecture, suspect or fear. They work to analyze platforms of the major, competitive parties, in addition to continuing the work of administering programs and fashioning policy under the laws of the day;
  • The head of the civil service will generally contact a senior member of the leader’s staff (usually the Chief of Staff) of any party that realistically *may* form the incoming government (any party, that is, who is not the incumbent government). This is usually done officially the day before Election Day. This can be a perfunctory call, but usually includes assurances that preparations have been made, briefing binders readied and includes a discussion of how best to make contact following the election, should that party win the election; and,
  • The head of the civil service usually sketches-out recommended changes to the form and functions of government departments/ministries, and outlines retirement plans/timelines of Deputy Ministers, including plans for shuffles and senior leadership changes.


After Election Day (“The sizing each other up” & “Getting down to business”, phases):

  • Once the result is clear, and a concession speech from the incumbent has been given — the civil service move into overdrive. The day after the election, they will ensure transition office space is made available for the incoming government — should the newbies desire to make use of it — although some incoming governments will choose the expediency and comfort of remaining in their caucus offices to conduct the transition from there;
  • The incoming premier (“Premier-Designate”) will officially name a transition team (generally composed of people who will not become staff within the government, at least not initially), to advise her on the major decisions she faces before the end of the fortnight:
    1. structure of her office, and staff appointments therein;
    2. structure of her Executive Council (more commonly called the “Cabinet”, and distinct from all the other MLAs not in the Cabinet but who are government caucus members, aka. Backbenchers). This will include many considerations – the size of cabinet; the actual portfolios to be held and therefore the number, name and remit of the departments/ministries; the vetting and background checks on potential members of the cabinet, often without their knowledge;
    3. the structure of the offices of the members of Cabinet, key hirings in those offices (political staff, MLAs acting as “Associate Ministers” or like-functions, and civil service support);
    4. direct/daily liaison with the civil service on priority matters of the incoming government, and things that require decisions or the exercise of ministerial/executive authority, under the provincial laws/statutes;
    5. recommendations on staffing of senior civil service positions. The head of the public service will inevitably have done their homework, and be making recommendations to the Premier-Designate through the transition team (Deputy Heads/Deputy Ministers are actually appointed under the authority of the Premier, and report to the Premier, even though they serve a Minister). But there will also be a potential need to part with senior civil servants for symbolic and policy reasons (although as others have pointed out, wholesale change is a non-starter for a host of good reasons);
    6. the administration of the mythical “truth serum” to those same civil servants, who will almost invariably deliver a less rosy picture of the provincial finances and general state of housekeeping of many matters of state than had been previously communicated to the public. When this happens within the first 48-72 hours it can be a deeply sobering and positively vexing occurrence (think of this as a major, major post-closing headache that will shape the future direction of the enterprise);
    7. planning the swearing-in ceremony of the new government, including the tone, symbolism, and vision for the future inherent therein;
    8. drafting of the mandate letters for signature of the Premier-Designate (aka. Marching orders) that will guide the incoming Members of Cabinet in the discharge of their duties, and implementation of election commitments (note: these are generally not public documents, although NB Premier Brian Gallant made a show of publicly releasing same last Fall following his election).
  • Boxes full of briefing binders prepared by the civil service will be brought to the transition offices. They will include “briefing notes” (BN’s in government parlance), on issues from the very mundane (think “implementation of revised Public Sector Accounting Board standards”) to the very critical (think H1N1-like matters)
  • Well organized briefing binders will — from the perspective of the civil/public service, at least — outline the mission critical issues facing the incoming Minister/government within that portfolio. These can fall into a number of categories, such as:
    1. the proverbial bags of poo sitting on your doorstep that were just lit on fire;

    2. the policy “punts” that are about to come back into play, stat;

    3. the implications of things that the outgoing government promised or committed to but were not: (a) budgeted for, (b) consulted upon, (c) well thought out, and, (d) worth the paper the speech that delivered them was written on.

  • If not outlined within these binders, then separately analyzed and presented to the transition committee will be the election platform (and related commitments/promises/priorities) of the incoming government, within the historical/recent policy context of said department. This will be an iterative conversation, that will often start with “…so, you committed to do this/these things. We think they will cost xxxx and have this very-long-list of implications. So now, we’d like to ask you these gazillion clarifying questions about what you really, actually meant by this commitment.” (Think of this as legal and accounting ganging-up, supported by internal audit, risk management and the quality assurance departments, to clarify a directive of the board or executive team).

And this is really, only, just-the-beginning (before people even get sworn in to office).

All of this frenzy of activity can literally take place in less time than it takes Gangnam Style to go from a small-time hit to that really-annoying-song-that-is-on-the-radio-all-the-time-and-making-grown-people-with-no-rhythm-do-weird-things-with-their-hips-and-also-those-lasso-arm-swingy-things.

Or, put another way, in less time that it might take your stock price to go from a 52-week low-to-high or vice-versa.

In most of the rest of Canada, this can happen anywhere from every 3.5 years, to at least every 16 or so (the Manitoba NDP have been winning majority governments since 1999).

In Alberta, not so much.


The best piece of advice I received — from a former PC staffer — in 2009 was that I should be prepared “…for it to take 3.5-5 months for you to find your sea-legs”.


My self-assurance and ego notwithstanding — my buddy, as it turns out, was right.

One morning as I made my way to the Premier’s office, long about September 2009, I had a comforting realization that I “knew who to call”. That is to say, most of us had by that point come to an understanding of who we needed to call/email/ask about what, and when.

On-the-job training never stops — it never does in the evolving world of province/state-craft — but the equilibrium of becoming acclimated to the environment, the policy framework and the apparatus of which you are now abiding the folks with their hands on the levers, gets reached somewhere around that point in time.

Does that mean nothing can get done in the first few months of a new government (especially one displacing a 44 year-old regime)? Of course not. Smart people find effective ways to get things done every day.

Not “meeting disaster half-way” is the order of the day. Don’t force a question too early, only to find you get an answer you don’t want, and an outcome no one likes.