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Parliamentary Bookshelf: ReviewsParliamentary Bookshelf: Reviews
David M. Brock

Off and Running: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Government Transitions in Canada, David Zussman, University of Toronto Press, 2013, 299 p.

This autumn, 338 writs of election were issued and Canada’s national political parties competed to form our next federal government. Author David Zussman advises major federal parties to commission a transition team 18 months in advance of an election, so preparations should have been well underway for some time. If you are a public servant whose work may be affected by a government transition, I advise that you start preparing by reading this book.

Perhaps no one is better placed than Zussman to have written what has already become the definitive work on government transitions in Canada. Zussman, who twice led federal transition teams, is Jarislowsky Chair at the University of Ottawa and a former president of the Public Policy Forum. In short, his networks are strong, his intelligence is deep, and his experience is unparalleled. This book reflects well on all three attributes.

More fundamentally, this book reminds us how government transitions fit into the broader machinery of Canadian government: when writs of election are issued, legislatures are dissolved, but governments continue to serve at the pleasure of the Crown until such time, perhaps, as a new group of representatives command the confidence of the people’s assembly and are appointed to govern. When that happens, a transition takes place.

Peaceful government transitions are fundamental to democracy. In less stable democracies, electoral losers may not consent to hand over power or heads of state may prove unwilling to confer power upon a new governing authority. In the most extreme of cases, the pitfalls of transition can be violence or civil war. In Canada, the more likely pitfalls include negative media coverage, disgruntled party members, a disoriented public service, and insufficient policy implementation.

Zussman emphasizes the importance of sequencing and timing in transition planning by structuring his book into four election-related phases: pre-writ, campaign period, post-election, and consolidation. Although the lessons derived from each of these periods are too numerous to summarize, I will offer a prime example. Zussman writes that “…it is unwise to monopolize the post-election period of a newly appointed minister. It is important to remember that there are many experts and others outside the portfolio who may be helpful in providing a new minister with important information” (123).

The breadth of the author’s knowledge enables him to offer wisdom on a wide range of subjects, including the length of briefing notes, the influence of spouses, appropriate media exposure, cabinet-making, and leadership dynamics. In that sense, the practical advice proffered by Zussman is invaluable. Moreover, the wise insights that line this book are not just emanating from Zussman himself, but also from interview subjects such as Richard Dicerni, Jim Mitchell, and Mel Cappe – all who served as distinguished senior federal public servants.

It is this unparalleled level of access and honesty that makes this book a timely and also timeless work. Zussman is a trusted source in part because of his bona fides in federal departments as well as the partisan trenches; his insights are revelatory and illuminating. The best vignettes are excerpted into boxed text, but this only serves to enhance the flow of the narrative. Consider a story told by Ian Brodie, former Chief of Staff to Stephen Harper: “Everyone on staff called him ‘Stephen’ before and during the election. Then, the day after the election, I insisted everybody call him ‘Mr. Harper.’ Once he was sworn in, everyone, including myself, called him Prime Minister….His head would jolt back because it was contrary to our everyday process of calling him Stephen. People didn’t seem to appreciate the magnitude of the change that was taking place. For us, the world was changing big time” (133). The political nature of such remarks makes them no less valuable for bureaucrats. Employees of the permanent public service may have the same job, or at least the same level of responsibility, in the weeks before and after a general election; however, they would do well to realize just how dramatically life may have just changed for a new minister, his or her family and close friends.

When done well, very few people are involved in transitions. One person who is central to the transition process and understands fully the magnitude of the act is the head of the public service. Zussman is careful to emphasize the importance of establishing and building trust between new ministers and deputy heads. Initial perceptions of trust between the government and the public service will emanate from one single event: the first meeting between the clerk and the prime minister-designate. “This is the moment,” writes Zussman, “when the notions of fearless advice and the independence of the public service are most severely tested” (141). As if the point needs underscoring, “[Nicolas] D’Ombrain advises that clerks should be pensionable” (142).

The only other major sources on government transitions in Canada are an edition of collected essays from 1993 and a more recent award-winning book on Ontario politics. Although the focus of Zussman’s book is federal, much will resonate with those involved in transitions in larger provinces. Legislative libraries in all Canadian jurisdictions should stock multiple copies of Off and Running.

David M. Brock
Special Assistant to the Secretary to Cabinet,
Government Transition, with the Government of the Northwest Territories

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Vol 38 no 3

Last Updated: 2020-09-14