The role of the public service in Westminster elections

The Prime Minister of Jamaica has called an election for February 25.  That will set in motion all kinds of activity on the part of candidates and supporters.  Watching my twitter feed since the election call, I have noticed that the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) still in full swing putting out a wide variety of government messages.

I was reminded that Canada’s recent election saw our Public Service governed by a comprehensive and strict protocol designed to ensure electoral fairness and the non-partisan traditions of our public service and governance system.

In brief, immediately from the launch of the election, Canada’s bureaucratic apparatus, and the Ministers overseeing it, were instructed by the Clerk of the Privy Council to abide by what is called the “Caretaker Convention”.  This is a tradition or “convention” that has built up in the context of Westminster democratic governance.

The Convention suggests that during an election campaign the government must refrain from making significant decisions related to policy, spending or appointments.  While routine business can go ahead, largely delivered by the public service, emergency issues, while they can be addressed by the government, are expected to be managed in consultation with opposition parties.  This is because during an election it is not clear that a government enjoys what is called “the confidence of the Parliament”.  This is how the system works.  A party must be able to demonstrate that it has the support of a majority of elected MPs before it can govern.  And the Parliament must convene in order to test this important principle.  A significant and intertwined understanding is that the public service must not be used by a political party to gain an electoral advantage over another.

Canada’s Clerk of the Privy Council sought to codify this principle when she released written guidance circulated to all departments and agencies, and in turn to most of the public service.

There is a lot to absorb in this document and it is worth a read in its entirety.  I have, however, extracted below the portion that is relevant to the public service, and the expectations that both it and Ministers should have during election campaigns.

“…As always, public servants must not be asked to perform political tasks or work normally done by ministerial exempt staff, and departmental facilities and resources cannot be used for partisan purposes. This includes:

  • ministers’ departmental offices, wherever located;
  • regional ministerial offices; and
  • services such as translation, printing, preparation of communications material and telecommunications (e.g. video services and mobile telephones).

Ministers’ and ministers of states’ departmental communications and public affairs units must not be involved in partisan matters. They may provide ministers and ministers of state with existing factual information, but they must not be asked to perform any additional or expanded services. Similarly, some regular departmental operations that continue during an election period, such as media monitoring, may need to be reviewed and adjusted to ensure that they are not inadvertently applied to ministers’ campaign activities. Department-supported websites and social media channels (and any information derived from them) should continue to be used only for official government communications, and government resources should not be used to support personal or partisan social media accounts.

Government or departmental announcements are curtailed during an election period:

Exceptions would be made, for example, in the case of

  • a significant international or domestic event where the failure to have the Prime Minister or minister comment would do damage to Canadian interests or prestige, or announcements relating to the health and safety of Canadians;
  • announcements that must proceed are made in the name of the department;

As always, communications and public announcements that are prepared using government resources must not contain partisan information or identifiers; and

Any department seeking to make an announcement, as approved by the deputy head, would need approval by PCO.

Ministers and ministers of state should be careful in the use and distribution of governmental publications during an election campaign. Such publications can be distributed, but only as would occur under normal circumstances in support of official government business…”

This Caretaker Convention and the Clerk’s document were not without controversy  this time around in Canada.  The Conservative Government, acting, it said, in accordance with the Convention continued to negotiate, and ultimately finalized, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement during the campaign period.  There was active debate as to whether this met the various tests set out in the Clerk’s document.

And in a non-controversial, but somewhat disappointing, context (at least to the former High Commissioner to Jamaica) the Canadian High Commission in Kingston was asked to forgo the opportunity to formally sign, with the Government of Jamaica, a five year old Air Transport Agreement (already being administratively implemented).

Clearly the TPP was more significant, and risked more of the Canadian interest, than the air agreement.  However, the fact that public service managers considered the Caretaker Convention so clear as to prevent a signing of a non-controversial international treaty with Jamaica is proof of the seriousness with which electoral fairness and the appearance of such, is taken in our system.  I am not sure the same can be said for what seems like the ongoing work of the JIS (see screen grab below from this afternoon).




I am not suggesting that the JIS is necessarily engaged in partisan work.  And not knowing their full history, perhaps they are understood to be more part of the political apparatus and process in Jamaica.  However, to the extent that they are using government budgets and resources, it might be appropriate that they examine what it is they are communicating and how they are doing it.

I want to be clear.  I am an interested observer only of the current Jamaican election.  I do not have a “side”, or an interest in being seen to influence, in any way, the political debate.  Further, I am not sure whether Jamaica would have a similar approach or understanding of the Caretaker Convention.  And I am not sure whether instructions, similar to the Canadian ones referred to above, have been issued to the Public Service, now or in the past.  However, when the dust settles maybe it is something to have on the agenda.