Whither Service Canada?

One of the first acts of the new Conservative government was to merge Service Canada into the new department of Human Resources and Social Development. Service Canada, however, is expected to continue to provide the lead in delivering federal programs and services to the public.

In many ways, the move was almost a homecoming for Service Canada. While the model for it was incubated at the Treasury Board, it began to take shape under the Martin government within the old Department of Human Resources and Skills Development (HRSD).

Derek Burney, who oversaw the Conservative transition team, said that combining Service Canada with the other departments was part of the process of streamlining the federal government to make it more accountable, efficient and effective. There would be no major movement of staff and Canadians shouldn’t see any change in service.

Maryantonett Flumian, who had gone from deputy minister at the old HRSD to deputy minister of Service Canada, is now associate deputy minister at the new HRSD. But her job remains the running of Service Canada and finding ways to improve the delivery of federal services to Canadians. Service Canada employees said there has been no discernible change in attitude or morale since the switch.

The biggest question surrounding the realignment may well be whether Service Canada, as part of a major department rather than a stand-alone operation, will be able to remain the main government contact point for Canadians and persuade other departments to let it take over providing their services to Canadians. It could also sharpen debates with other departments over the cost and savings of delivery changes.

Diane Finley from the southern Ontario riding of Haldimand-Norfolk was appointed the HRSD minister and headed out of the first Harper cabinet meeting toting an imposing stack of briefing books under her arm.

Finley, the party’s agriculture critic for the past two years, had a wide range of business experience before entering politics in 2004.

Her forte is considered to be her ability to work hard and to master complicated files. While she was new to the agriculture file when she started as critic, she had mastered it by the time the election was called. Her new job will test that skill.

Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Burney stressed the point that with a smaller cabinet – 27 ministers versus 39 in the Martin government – and a more streamlined cabinet committee structure, the role of parliamentary secretaries will be enhanced.

In many ways, Finley’s parliamentary secretary is a copy of her. Lynne Yelich has generally kept a low profile in Ottawa but is considered hard working and quite bright. It will be some time before it becomes clear what duties Yelich will have, but given the scope of Finley’s portfolio, they are bound to be considerable.

In addition to her department responsibilities, Finley is vice-chair of the cabinet social affairs committee. She will also carry a lot of the political load for the Conservatives’ plan to scrap the previous government’s agreement with the provinces for a major daycare initiative in favour of their own proposal for childcare payments to parents as well as daycare funding.

The formation of Service Canada was a major item in the Martin government’s first budget and it benefited from several political champions, among them Reg Alcock, the former president of the Treasury Board, who wasn’t re-elected. It remains to be seen whether Finley will be as supportive of the role of Service Canada. The Conservatives expected to spend most of the time before Parliament opens in April studying their briefing books and learning the ropes of government, so it could be some time before that situation is clarified.

There may also be questions about Flumian’s future in the federal bureaucracy. While she has invested a lot of time and energy in making the Service Canada concept work, her past may be a problem for those Conservatives who associate her with the costly gun registry. However the government hasn’t yet shown any desire to make major changes in the upper ranks of the bureaucracy and no major purges of officials are expected. 060163

Alex Binkley (alex.binkley@sympatico.ca) is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist.

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