Learning Insights: Behind the Scenes of the Prime Ministers Series

Behind the Scenes of the Prime Ministers Series

Contributor: Canada School of Public Service
Published: February 24, 2020


With a career in public policy spanning over 30 years, and a strong passion for history, Bob Plamondon had a vision. A vision of an event that featured past prime ministers who could inform, educate and inspire today's policy makers and public service leaders to conceive and deliver change.

Having worked with him in the past, Bob reached out to Neil Bouwer, Vice-President of the Innovation and Policy Services Branch at the Canada School of Public Service, in hopes of mapping out his vision. "Quite frankly, I was just hoping for feedback," notes Bob.

Thirty seconds into what Bob referred to as his "pitch," Neil exclaimed, "We're in!"

"The partnership with the University of Ottawa was a natural one," explains Neil. "Bob himself is a historian and a student of prime ministers; he was uniquely placed to bring forward a historical perspective."

With a soft confirmation from the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney and a willing partner in Neil, the event featuring a former prime minister was born. The next few weeks consisted of briefings with key players, including Taki Sarantakis, President of the Canada School of Public Service. His initial reaction to the pitch? "Exuberance." Taki took things a step further by making the event an annual series, which was more than Bob had in mind but demonstrated the value of partnership and enthusiasm for the initiative.

From idea to implementation

The time frame for planning the event was short and the hours put into planning were long. With the support of the Events and Multimedia Services team at the Canada School of Public Service and the University of Ottawa's Professional Development Institute on board, Neil and Bob both knew that they could deliver a real marquee event. What came next was a victory for all parties: by February 2019, the event had already sold out.

Being at the forefront of the planning and delivery of the event, Bob and Neil describe the essence of the Prime Ministers Series this way:

"Foundationally, the Prime Ministers Series explains how to be transformative and to reach back into history to see where it was done really well." – Bob Plamondon
"At its inception, the Prime Ministers Series is about transformative changes, lessons from the past but oriented towards the future." – Neil Bouwer

Lessons learned

When asked to reflect on the experience, Neil cites what he thinks of as the 3 main themes of last year's event: leadership style, teamwork, and stamina.

"[Prime Minister] Mulroney spoke to transformative versus transactional leadership," he explains. "They were transforming and making a generational shift and committed to that in their leadership style.

"Teamwork between the political level, public service, communication professionals, policy professionals and sometimes, with the opposition members was critical for success," he adds. "Finally, stamina and perseverance were key in seeing issues through while sticking to your guns for good public policy." 

For his part, Bob emphasizes the after-effect on event participants, whom he saw as walking away feeling inspired.

"When you get stuck with your day-to-day work, you often don't see the bigger picture." 

"Participants saw how significant changes happened and how messy it was and how much risk was taken," Bob explains. "There was opposition on many fronts and political capital was used to move these issues forward."

Prime Ministers Series 2020

This year, on March 3, 2020, the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien will reflect on his experiences as prime minister and explore 4 nation-building themes. Bob provided a few sneak peeks into the types of discussion that will spark each theme:

  1. From Deficit to Surplus: How different ministers were brought together to bring life to the vision that had been set out by the government when a fiscal crisis was bearing down on Canada.
  2. Brain Drain to Brain Gain: How the Chrétien administration worked to solve the long-standing issue of under-investment in research in education, which was not a political imperative.
  3. National Unity: From the 1995 Referendum to the Clarity Act: The anxiety around the referendum and the enormous risk associated with the Clarity Act and Chretien's decision to "go with his gut."
  4. The Chretien Doctrine and the Decision to Keep Canada out of the Iraq War: A firsthand look at how the decision was made despite enormous pressure from the US and the United Kingdom as well as the Official Opposition and even from within Chrétien's own cabinet. The aftermath was a critical challenge for Canada, especially with regard to the trade file with the United States.

From past to present

As future leaders in the public service enter a period in which new technologies and new issues are at the forefront, Taki Sarantakis says that the way we look at the world today is in large part informed by past decisions.

"It's very important for future leaders to learn from leaders of the past," he adds.

With our constant exposure to new technologies, we are required to think differently about the world. Neil's thought is that innovation is not a new term, but rather one that reflects the times and the resources available.

"There are many things that the Chrétien administration did that might be described as digital or innovative," he asserts.

"Erring on the side of action, listening to users or stakeholders, and taking risk," Neil continues. "The research and development agenda was the digital agenda of its time, there is no doubt about it!"

The Prime Ministers Series is a unique learning opportunity for public servants, academics and the general public alike. Regardless of the year or who is in power, Bob notes, there is one thing that remains a constant.

"If we trace back to the first principles of leadership," he emphasizes, "It is evident that they always stay the same."

"You are always going to have a government, duly elected, working with a professional public service to look at how they can achieve the best results for Canadians."

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