Seen and Heard: Michael Horgan – Knowing the Balance between Getting Too in the Weeds and Being Too General


Vass Bednar

On Friday, December 7th, Deputy Minister of Finance Canada Michael Horgan joined MPP candidates at the School of Public Policy & Governance as part of the Leadership in Public Policy Series. This series is specifically designed to expose students to exemplars of leadership in public policy as part of their training as policy-makers.

Horgan focused his reflections on what leadership is and how one shows leadership in fiscal policy. He emphasized that the Federal public service is large and complex; it is the largest employer in Canada and has the biggest budget.

One of the leadership challenges that Horgan highlighted is the intensity of modern media scrutiny. This adds to a very difficult policymaking environment and that circumstances are often changing. In relation to the parliamentary budget process, he noted that this combative environment forces public servants to cultivate resilience and toughness, because it is “not always easy to serve the Government of Canada and the people of Canada at the same time.”

Horgan emphasized that the Federal public service has multiple objectives, which are unclear and changing at times. In reflecting on the array of qualities for public sector leadership, he emphasized three characteristics of public sector leaders that he admires: intelligence, working hard, and knowing the balance between getting too in the weeds and being too general.

He emphasized that a key quality is the ability to take decisions, and shared how frustrating it is (professionally) when people waffle and temporize on policy decisions. As a public servant, Horgan is looking for leaders who take responsibility. Public sector leaders need integrity and the courage and ability to think about the right course of action; and even though this can be intimidating at the highest ranks it takes a certain force of character.

Horgan also emphasized collegiality and inter-personal skills. Given that the world is so complex, he cautioned MPP candidates that it is rare to have issues that you can deal with in isolation – most issues balance interests and relationships. In the senior ranks in the public service there is a premium on collegiality and working together for this reason and suggested that MPP candidates keep cultivating these skills as they work through problems and debate with each other in classes.

During the dialogue with the audience, Horgan entertained a variety of questions from MPP candidates, alumni, and visitors to SPPG. One student asked him what he took from working at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, where he was Deputy Minister from 2003-2006. Horgan reflected that he realized how much he did not know about Canada and that through his service he got a real education in Canadian history and society that was transformative to him.

Another MPP candidate asked about metrics in public policy, acknowledging that mission-focused metrics loom large in his study of New Public Management and wondered whether they are really a focal point in reality. Horgan conceded that government is so big that the importance of skills can vary based on the job and that though expectations and expertise do vary, metrics remain an important reference for all policymakers.

A recent graduate of the MPP program sought insight on Canada’s efforts to establish a National Securities Regulator and the associated intergovernmental negotiations. Horgan explained that having 13 securities regulators allows for a lot of confusion and translated to a lack of unified representation internationally at the federal level. Finance Canada has started working with provinces to move forward on National Securities Regulator with in a federal model.

Facetiously, SPPG Professor Mel Cappe asked Horgan for insight on the budget in the New Year. Horgan reviewed the great economic uncertainty that colours current policy-making and outlines how Europe’s woes have knock-off effects for Canadians. Based on other research, he elaborated that growth is expected to be modest in the US and that Canada is closely following the debt challenges (fiscal cliff) in the US. He also explained that global economic growth is expected to be moderate, that a collapse in commodity prices has been observed, and that revenues have declined.

Another question had to do with public engagement around the making and marketing of the Federal budget. Citing the CIVIX work on the Ontario Student Budget Consultation, an MPP graduate commented that “budget making” seems like real insider’s baseball and asked how and whether we can engage Canadians more effectively in the resultant “Canon.” Horgan was skeptic on public comprehension of the budget and shared his observation that people tend to focus on small portions of the budget that are of personal interest, and that it is the Government’s job to give simple messaging on budgets.

Vass Bednar (@VassB) is a graduate of the MPP program (2010) and currently works at the School of Public Policy & Governance as the Manager of Engagement and EA to the Director. She is a 2012-2013 Action Canada Fellow who wants to make public policy more fun

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