A long time coming

The biggest surprise in Maryantonett Flumian’s replacement as head of Service Canada was that it was so long in coming.

From the day the Harper government was sworn into office on Feb. 6, there were reports that she would be among the first top-level bureaucrats to be replaced, especially after Kevin Lynch was named Clerk of the Privy Council and set out to create a more traditional public service.

But it took until mid-August for the government to complete the process of shuffling 40 senior officials and replace Flumian with Helene Gosselin as deputy head of Service Canada and senior associate deputy minister of human resources and social development. Flumian was named a senior advisor to the Privy Council Office, which for senior bureaucrats is the equivalent of being made to sit in the corner for unacceptable behaviour.

Like Flumian, Gosselin joined the government in 1981. But unlike her predecessor at Service Canada, she doesn’t appear to have generated much profile or the trail of gossip that followed Flumian from job to job over the past 15 years.

Conservative backbenchers had knives out for Flumian for her perceived role in the skyrocketing costs of the hated gun registry, where she was chief executive before moving to Service Canada. Their campaign was strengthened by stinging criticism of the registry by Auditor-General Sheila Fraser.

Despite stints in assistant and associate deputy minister posts at Canadian Heritage and Health Canada, and a few months as acting deputy minister of national defence, Gosselin is little known among Ottawa watchers. Among those who are aware of her, she has a reputation as either brainy and friendly or overly impressed with herself. She had two stints in PCO, including one as deputy secretary for intergovernmental affairs in 2002-03, and this seems to have helped cement her reputation as a solid senior manager who will stick to the government’s script.

She takes on Service Canada at a key time. The agency was a creation of the former Liberal government to centralize and improve the delivery of government services. Flumian had an instrumental role in its creation and was a natural choice to head it. The Liberals set it up as a standalone department while the Tories rolled it into HRSD.

Service Canada has taken on the delivery of many federal services and revamped its webpage to ease public access to federal services, even those such as passports and the new Universal Child Care Benefit in which it it has no role. It has 325 offices and 22,000 employees across the country and is looking at other options for reaching out to Canadians.

However its standing with other government departments has always been shaky because they often regard it as an expensive way to distribute their services.

It handles the delivery of pension cheques, social insurance numbers and passports as well as the administration of some programs for 13 other government departments.

Neither Harper nor Human Resources Minister Diane Findlay have offered any detailed public comment on the agency’s future, but the government has said it has no intention of shutting it down. Its role may become clearer when the government unveils its legislative priorities for the rest of 2006 and 2007.

HRSD’s decision to distribute the child benefit through the Canada Revenue Agency rather than Service Canada, as might have been expected, was widely seen as an indication of the government’s dissatisfaction with the agency.

An HRSD spokesman says too much can be read into the decision to go with the CRA.
“It already had the data (through income tax information) on 90 per cent of the beneficiaries of the program, so it just made more sense to use their lists rather than develop new ones.”

Another frequent criticism of Service Canada is a failure to develop closer links with the provinces in the delivery of government programs. While it can cite some positive examples, critics at both the federal and provincial levels think a lot more is possible. Gosselin’s stint in intergovernmental affairs may position her to deal more effectively with other levels of government in delivering services to the public.

Alex Binkley ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa.

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