Professor Mel Cappe: Proud to Be a “Faceless” Bureaucrat

Lisa Blackwell, Fardowsa Hashi and Matthew Higgins

When Professor Cappe was named High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, a colleague provided him with this bit of wisdom: “From now on Mel, people are going to address you as Your Excellency; remember, they’re referring to the Office – it’s not about you.” Such is the nature of public service: even officials upholding the most prestigious and honourable positions inevitably remain ‘faceless’ bureaucrats.

On April 11, 2013, in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, the Public Policy Forum (PPF) brought together over 1,300 individuals from every sector to pay tribute to the thousands of public servants whose efforts are often taken for granted. Five of Canada’s former Clerks of the Privy Council, including the School of Public Policy and Governance’s very own Mel Cappe, were honoured at the PPF’s 26th Annual Testimonial Dinner & Awards.

As the Head of Canada’s Public Service from 1999 to 2002, Mel Cappe provided professional, non-partisan support to the Prime Minister during a challenging era for western democracies. The 9/11 attacks were an unprecedented political and administrative crisis, and strength, decisiveness and steady reassurance were demanded of the highest non-political official in Canada at a time when the risk of escalating confusion and fear was intense. By many accounts, Mel Cappe dealt effectively with the crisis, leading the government’s efforts to divert planes, guard Canadian borders, manage international affairs, share intelligence and pass the Anti-terrorism Act a mere three-and-a-half months after the planes hit the towers.

Professor Cappe’s speech at the PPF dinner was equally effective, and was praised by many in attendance as one of the best of the night. With a sharp narrative built on seven key words, he delivered an eloquent, authoritative, and principled rendering of the challenges and opportunities that public servants face in today’s policy environment. Specifically, he emphasized the need for respect and trust among colleagues, especially between public servants and Ministers; the professionalism, commitment and dedication required from public servants to ensure that the public’s interest is served; and the importance of analysis and evidence in the policy process. Professor Cappe did not shy away from noting that these valuable traits are sometimes lacking in Ministers today.

Often referred to at SPPG as “Mel Cappe of the Capstone Course” (pun intended), it will come as no surprise to his many former students that his speech was an insightful, bold and succinct defense of the policy process and public service. As one of four instructors in the Capstone course, Professor Cappe has never been one to pull punches or withhold constructive criticism when it comes to the rigorous and serious practice of policy development. His advice and lectures have instilled in students the paramount qualities that he believes are necessary for exemplary public service.

Remaining true to his former colleague’s sage advice, Professor Cappe made it clear in his speech that the honour of the evening was ultimately not for him, but for the Office of the Clerk of the Privy Council, and for all of the public servants who faithfully fulfill their duties to the best of their abilities, forgoing recognition or praise to be ‘faceless’ bureaucrats in a country renowned for its public service.

Fardowsa Hashi, Lisa Blackwell and Matthew Higgins are MPP 2013 students at the School of Public Policy and Governance.

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